Clintons flailing in Whitewater flood: First Lady drops out of sight as allegations of document-shredding and obstruction of justice turn a scandal into a crisis

INNOCENT or guilty, Bill Clinton is staring at catastrophe. The torrent that has become the Whitewater affair has swept him into the most perilous phase of his presidency. Before any charges against him and his wife, Hillary, have been proven, he is flailing as his public standing and political momentum show signs of slipping away.

Only the super-charged atmosphere of Washington could generate a tempest of such intensity. It has happened before, when Watergate toppled Richard Nixon and the Iran-Contra imbroglio almost did the same to Ronald Reagan. Journalists seem to write or think about little else. And lofty opprobrium, not untainted by hypocrisy and partisan vindictiveness, is piled daily upon the First Couple.

To be sure, the Whitewater story has become juicier. For months it was a scandal whose main components were obscure, but possibly unethical, business dealings entered into by the Clintons in Arkansas while Bill was state governor. Suddenly it has become a cover-up - the talk is of document-shredding and obstruction of justice - and comparisons with Watergate proliferate. Throw in the mysterious death last July of the White House deputy legal counsel, Vincent Foster, and the mix becomes heady indeed.

The job of determining what fire lies behind the smoke rests with Robert Fiske, the special prosecutor appointed by the President in January. It is now a twin-track inquiry.

From his new offices in Little Rock, he must unravel the history of the Whitewater Development Corporation, a real estate scheme in which the Clintons were equal partners with an old friend, James McDougal, who also owned Madison Guaranty, a small building society. At issue is whether Madison, which failed in 1989, illegally channeled funds into Whitewater and the Clinton campaign funds. The second avenue has led Mr Fiske to Washington - to investigate the suspected cover-up.

It was Mr Fiske who opened the floodgates 10 days ago by issuing subpoenas to 10 administration aides, six from the White House, demanding that they testify to a grand jury. Three did so on Thursday.

Through them, Fiske hopes to get to the bottom of at least three meetings, either improper or illegal, that are alleged to have taken place last autumn and early this year between Clinton aides and federal officials engaged in a criminal investigation of Madison Guaranty. Most serious would be evidence that the aides, perhaps even with the Clintons' knowledge, were seeking to impede those inquiries.

Suspicions of conspiracy have been hardened by such revelations as the testimony of a temporary worker at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, where the First Lady and Mr Foster were partners, saying that as recently as January he was told to shred documents that bore Mr Foster's initials. Mrs Clinton is also reported to have delivered several boxes of documents to Rose last summer, for the purpose of shredding.

Protesting his innocence, the President has scrambled to reverse the impression of a cover-up, ordering his staff to unearth all and any documents that may be relevant. For two days no rubbish was allowed to be taken away from the White House. At the Treasury Department, Secretary Lloyd Bentsen was forced to rent a warehouse to store all the papers and other detritus that may contain evidence.

Last weekend, the President attempted to defuse matters by forcing the resignation of his legal counsel, Bernard Nussbaum, who was at all three of the meetings under investigation, and replacing him with Lloyd Cutler, former counsel to Jimmy Carter and the embodiment of gravitas.

The charitable explanation of the White House's earlier conduct is that it was born out of the hubris and navete of a youthful presidential team, as well as consummate incompetence of Mr Nussbaum. But not everyone is convinced.

Robert Bork, acting attorney general to Richard Nixon during the Watergate crisis, expressed the doubts of many: 'If it is true, as Mr Clinton and his defenders insist, that they have attempted no concealment of evidence, it is also the case that they have certainly given a virtuoso imitation of a cover-up. One could easily mistake it for the genuine article.'

The President may also have a Hillary problem. As well as the shredding allegations, she is known to have resisted surrendering records on Whitewater to the end. She was also opposed to the appointment of Mr Fiske. This may have been an over-lawyerly mind taking control. But if she has been the most reluctant to open up, it could be because she has the most to hide. Predictably debate has reopened about the role Mrs Clinton has held as probably the second most powerful person in the land.

The First Lady, moreover, is still giving the impression of defiance. Unlike the President, who answered questions at two press conferences last week, she cancelled most of her public engagements and made no statements. All that we have are excerpts from an upcoming interview with Elle magazine, in which she dismisses the scandal as 'a well-financed, well-organised attempt to undermine my husband and, by extension, myself . . . I know nothing bad happened.'

On Capitol Hill, the Republicans are wallowing in the Clintons' difficulties. Their pleasure is made all the more intense by memories of how Democrats led the assaults against presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush. They are demanding congressional hearings to run at the same time as the Fiske investigation. Democrats have resisted so far, but some hearings seem inevitable.

It makes no difference that the White House's principal persecutor, Senator Alfonse D'Amato of New York, was rebuked by the Senate ethics committee two years ago for allowing his brother to use his office for private business dealings.

For all their agitation, the Republicans have been wary of evoking the ultimate sanction: impeachment. This is probably wise, despite all the frenzied speculation. On Thursday the latest rumour, that Mr Foster did not kill himself in the Virginia park where he was found but in a secret apartment, actually depressed markets on Wall Street. Yet it remains entirely possible that nothing very incriminating will be uncovered.

It is clear that, while public awareness of Whitewater is growing, outside Washington there is a distinct weariness with the affair. And while the President's approval rating has slipped slightly in most polls to 50 per cent, the inclination seems to be to give him the benefit of the doubt. Only 16 per cent in an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey thought him guilty of wrongdoing.

Until Mr Fiske's inquiries are over - his lease on the Little Rock office runs for 18 months - the real import of Whitewater is likely to remain a mystery. It is possible that the Clintons will be exonerated. It is also possible that it will bring down the presidency. But something in between, messy and inconclusive, seems more likely.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
sportVan Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Life and Style
Martha Stewart wrote an opinion column for Time magazine this week titled “Why I Love My Drone”
lifeLifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot... to take photos of her farm
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices