Clintons pay price for dragging their feet: The President and First Lady believed that because they were innocent they could ignore Whitewater, Patrick Cockburn writes in Washington. They were wrong

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The Independent Online
ENORMOUS BAGS of rubbish are heaping up at the White House because aides fear to throw them away in case they are accused of destroying evidence in the Whitewater affair. President Bill Clinton himself had an air of genuine bewilderment this week as he spoke of the political damage caused by 'a real estate investment I made almost 16 years ago now that lost money and spluttered to a not-successful conclusion'.

As Mr Clinton keeps on repeating 'there is no credible charge that I violated any law, even way back in the Dark Ages - or years ago when this happened'. Perhaps this explains why he and Hillary Clinton have continually miscalculated the impact of Whitewater. Believing they were innocent of wrong-doing they thought the whole affair would go away if they dragged their feet for long enough.

At first their delaying tactics worked. When their financial dealing and business connections were first publicised in the New York Times in the spring of 1992 Mr Clinton commissioned his own review of what had happened at Whitewater. It was enough to dispose of the issue until after he had won the presidential election but, in the longer term, their evasions made it look as if they had something to hide.

The Clintons probably felt vulnerable because there is no doubt that their political and business connections in Arkansas involved conflict of interest. An explanation is that this is the way a small town like Little Rock works. In Arkansas politics and business are inextricably interwoven, but this is hardly a defence Mr Clinton can use now he is in the White House.

Neither of the Clintons appears to have been very astute about business. Otherwise they would not have got involved with somebody as zany as James McDougal in 1978. A sign of this is that the Whitewater Development Company was in fact Mr McDougal's second attempt to make money out of the White River in northern Arkansas. The first was in 1964 when he developed a scheme to sell freshwater mussels from the river to Japan, where he believed they might be in demand in the artificial pearl business.

The political price Mr Clinton is now paying is all the heavier because he was so successful in 1992 in ducking charges about Gennifer Flowers and draft evasion, which Republicans believed would be fatal. He did so but at a cost to his credibility. The nickname 'Slick Willie', coined by Paul Greenburg, an Arkansas columnist, began to stick. It would have done more damage in the election if George Bush had been better able to defend himself from the charge of lying about Iran-Contra.

The Clintons' strategy of dragging out the investigation of Whitewater and Madison Guaranty might have worked if it had not been for the suicide last July of Vince Foster, the White House counsel and former law partner of Hillary Clinton in the Rose Law Firm. Political suicides are not common in Washington. It dramatised the affair, attracted renewed media interest and convinced an increasing number of Republicans that here they could draw real political blood from the Clintons.

At first the attacks came from the media on the right, such as the editorial columns of the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times. But in the last months of 1993 they were joined by sections of the media, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, normally sympathetic to the administration. Although it was difficult to prove that the Clintons had done anything illegal with Mr McDougal, it was easy enough to show they had more to do with him than they said.

Past evasions came back to haunt them. Why, for instance, if the Clintons really lost dollars 69,000 (pounds 46,000) in Whitewater had they not taken this as a tax loss? In fact there was a good explanation, but not one very creditable to them. In 1990 Mr Clinton was running for the governorship of Arkansas again and Mr McDougal was standing trial for fraud. The Clintons planned to publish their tax returns in the election. They may not have wanted to draw attention to any links with Mr McDougal, who was eventually acquitted, even if they had to pay more taxes.

By the end of last year the Republicans were increasingly frustrated by their inability to do real damage to Mr Clinton despite his early setbacks. 'He seems to be able to catch bullets in his teeth,' said one observer. The public rapidly forgot the Somalia disaster, and he was successfully stealing Republican clothes on crime and welfare - two of their key issues. There was every incentive for the Republicans to go for Bill and Hillary Clinton over Whitewater.

Their success came partly as the result of an organisational weakness in the Clinton White House. The Clintons do not have a chief of staff of authority like James Baker during the first years of President Ronald Reagan. Instead they brought Thomas McLarty, a successful Arkansas businessman and old friend, with them to Washington. The lack of an experienced co-ordinator of policy seems quite intentional since that is a role Mr Clinton likes to fill himself.

Every president has aides like Bernard Nussbaum, the dismissed White House counsel, over-zealously proving their loyalty by fighting off the outside world. A competent chief of staff would have realised that delaying tactics had become counterproductive because media and congressional interest was too great. He would also have seen that the greatest danger to Mr Clinton in a city that remembers Watergate was any interference with the agencies investigating Whitewater.

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