Clintons' credit is good long-term bet

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The Independent Online
RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

Mercifully, Bill Clinton has never been too concerned about money. Whitewater and the squalid Paula Jones sexual harassment suit are not only political and personal embarrassments for America's 42nd President. They are also, on paper at least, bankrupting him.

Do the sums, like Money magazine has done in its latest issue, and they are grim. When they came to office the Clintons had declared net assets of $679,000 (now in a blind trust). The couple do not own a proper home. Mr Clinton's salary as Arkansas Governor was only $35,000 (pounds 23,000) and in fact the main family breadwinner was Hillary Clinton, thanks to her partnership in the Rose law firm of Little Rock - and of course that mysterious pounds 100,000 windfall on the cattle futures market in 1978 and 1979.

Now the First Family is embroiled on two legal fronts, for which the bill is currently estimated at $2m, and climbing. The Clintons are not allowed to tap campaign or party funds. A legal defence fund was set up in 1994 to collect contributions. But it may not advertise or otherwise solicit for money, and it has thus far gathered only $800,000.

Nor does a president's salary greatly help. Mr Clinton earns $200,000 ($130,000 after taxes) a year, while his wife receives nothing for being First Lady. She cannot work as a lawyer, while royalties from her new book on children, It Takes a Village, are going to charity. The job perks, of course, are huge - Ronald Reagan once described the White House as "an eight-star hotel" - but no one becomes rich there. If the Clintons' creditors called in their debts today, the President would be in queer street. On Thursday, he admitted that, on paper, he was heading for bankruptcy.

In fact, his financial predicament is nowhere near as bad as it looks. If the First Family were a listed company, a broker's advice to his client almost certainly would be: short-term prospects dicey, but in the long- term a pretty sure bet.

Take the legal bills. As is common in such cases, the firms representing the Clintons in Whitewater and Mr Clinton in the sexual harassment case are not insisting on immediate settlement of their fees, running at $350 to $400 an hour for lead attorneys. That removes any risk of sudden bankruptcy.

Assuming neither the President nor the First Lady is indicted (and the special Whitewater prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, has indicated that on current evidence that is unlikely), the Clintons' legal costs for Whitewater should be reimbursed by the government - in other words the taxpayer.

And whatever happens, life after the White House, starting in 1997 or 2001, should be remunerative. Mrs Clinton, once voted one of America's 100 best lawyers, will be able to resume a lucrative legal career. As for her husband, his memoirs will be worth millions. Another fortune awaits on the lecture circuit, where speakers such as Colin Powell earn $50,000 a time. Even if he wins a second term, he will be only 54 when he leaves office.

The real squeeze is on the smaller fry caught up in the Whitewater net, often merely out of loyalty to their masters. The President spoke of them at his press conference this week, "the innocent people who don't have particularly high salaries and don't have the net worth that we brought here, who had to hire lawyers and pay legal fees too".

These individuals, too, should be reimbursed assuming they are not indicted. But that will not make good the strain and worry of a legal and public ordeal for which they are not responsible. Their salaries rarely exceed $100,000 for even the most senior aides. And who will buy their memoirs ?

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