Clinton braced for new resignation blow

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The Independent Online
JUST two days after Mike Espy, the Agriculture Secretary, was forced to resign, the Clinton White House fears that another Cabinet member may leave because of alleged ethical lapses, this time Henry Cisneros, the highly esteemed Housing Secretary.

Last night officials were insisting that for the time being, at least, Mr Cisneros's job was not in danger. According to a presidential spokesman, he had been a 'remarkable' Housing Secretary and he still enjoyed the confidence of Mr Clinton.

Behind the scenes, however, the foreboding was tangible at what could be another jarring blow for the President and the Democratic Party, a month before mid-term elections in which they already face the prospect of big losses.

Unlike Mr Espy, who has been accused of accepting improper gifts and other favours from companies under the jurisdiction of his department, Mr Cisneros is in trouble over his private life, essentially because in 1993 he lied to FBI officials, vetting his nomination, over payments he had made to a former mistress.

Originally Mr Cisneros, a former mayor of San Antonio, told investigators he had stopped paying money to Linda Medlar. Last month, however, he acknowledged paying her dollars 50,000 ( pounds 32,000) since being named Housing Secretary, an admission prompted by an action brought by Ms Medlar, claiming dollars 256,000 in damages for breach of contract.

Like other jilted paramours, Ms Medlar released tapes of conversations with Mr Cisneros in which he criticises Mr Clinton for his appearance, indecision and chronic lack of punctuality. These personal qualities were troublesome for those who worked with him, Mr Cisneros apparently said.

The crisis has spawned some gallows humour at the White House: 'In this administration we will only dump one cabinet member a week,' is a joke doing the rounds. In truth, a Cisneros resignation (which his lawyers deny is under discussion) would be a disaster for President Clinton on at last two fronts.

Just as Mr Espy, the first black man to be sent to Congress from Mississippi and the first cabinet member from the state, was considered among the best and brightest of his generation of African-Americans, so Mr Cisneros epitomises the younger breed of Hispanic politicians who are making an impact in the South and beyond. Both men are important symbols of the 'diversity' on which Mr Clinton sets such store in his administration.

The loss of both men on ethical grounds would also make a mockery of President Clinton's vow to lead the cleanest administration in US history.

If he is forced out, Mr Cisneros would be the seventh high official to depart under a cloud of impropriety in 20 months, five in circumstances connected to the Whitewater affair, where a special counsel is probing the possible misbehaviour of the Clintons themselves in their Arkansas days.

Questions would inevitably arise too about a broader generational laxity of standards in political life. Controversy has not surrounded the old guard, such as Lloyd Bentsen, the Treasury Secretary, and Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, (tipped to be on the way out also, but for reasons of competence, not of honesty).

The men in the eye of the storm now are 'baby-boomers', just like the Clintons. Mr Espy and Mr Cisneros are in their 40s. So too was Roger Altman, former deputy Treasury Secretary, who came to grief this summer for allegedly misleading Congress over the Whitewater affair.