Clinton to testify by video link

RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

Whitewater may indeed prove the "dry hole" or "bunch of bull" that Bill Clinton insists it is. But with the President now committed to give evidence in a fraud case related to the controversy, partisan politics alone guarantees he will continue to be dogged by the affair through the 1996 election season.

"Our political enemies won't let it go away," Mike McCurry, the White House spokesman, said yesterday, commenting on the likely reverberations of Mr Clinton's forthcoming testimony in the trial of James and Susan McDougal, partners of Bill and Hillary Clinton in the failed Whitewater land venture, due to begin on 4 March.

One consolation is that, despite the wishes of at least one McDougal attorney, Mr Clinton almost certainly won't be there in person. He will participate live in a satellite link-up from the White House, or in a videotaped appearance, similar to those by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, two previous sitting presidents involved in criminal cases unconnected with their actions in the White House.

But mere physical distance from the Little Rock courthouse cannot spare Mr Clinton embarrassment. More than two years of investigation by two special prosecutors may have failed to unearth proof of any wrongdoing by either Clinton. But yet again, the spotlight will play on the insalubrious business company they kept during Mr Clinton's 12 years as Governor of Arkansas - of which the McDougal trial is a perfect illustration.

Its centrepiece is a federally backed $300,000 (pounds 200,000) loan allegedly obtained improperly in 1986 by Susan McDougal and channelled, says the prosecution, into Whitewater and the Madison Guaranty Bank owned by her husband. She says it was an honest mistake. But David Hale, the banker who approved the loan, says he was pressured into doing so by the then Governor Clinton.

All along, this has been the most serious single Whitewater allegation against the President. In court it will thus be his word against that of Mr Hale (already convicted but not sentenced on two Whitewater-related charges). If he does appear by satellite, Mr Clinton faces the further discomfort of public cross-examination by the redoubtable Kenneth Starr, the current Whitewater special prosecutor.

Probably the confrontation will resolve nothing - it may even exonerate Mr Clinton. But ordinary voters will again be reminded of the "character" issue which has haunted him since the 1992 campaign. The enduring message of the polls is that while Americans believe Republicans are playing politics in their pursuit of a scandal which may not exist, they also believe that neither Clinton has yet told the full truth.

Thus the affair grinds on, in at least three separate directions. One is in Little Rock, where the McDougals' trial may be followed by others involving smaller Whitewater fry. Simultaneously, the federal grand jury which heard Hillary Clinton on 26 January continues its probe into a possible obstruction of justice over subpoenaed documents, believed to have been kept by Vince Foster, the White House deputy counsel who committed suicide in July 1993.

Finally there are the Whitewater hearings chaired by Senator Alfonse D'Amato, in White House eyes "political enemy" number one, and who just happens to be a campaign chairman of Bob Dole, Republican Presidential candidate and despite his present troubles, still his party's likeliest nominee to face Mr Clinton this autumn. Yesterday Mr D'Amato was back at work on Capitol Hill, attempting to undermine an earlier Treasury Department report into the 1989 Madison collapse which cleared the Clintons of any wrongdoing. But his immediate task is to secure an extension of the committee's term, beyond the current cut-off date of 29 February. The Democrats have threatened a filibuster. But with Mr Clinton favoured to beat any Republican nominee in 1996, his opponents will not surrender the Whitewater stick without a bitter fight.

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