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

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.

(Graphic omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Account Manager - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing, ambitious, en...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future
Berlusconi's world of sleaze: The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM

Berlusconi's world of sleaze

The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM
Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

Films and theme parks are just the beginning. Disney believes its control of the now decades-old franchise can bring in merchandise and marketing millions for years to come
Could the golden age of the gaming arcade ever be revived in the era of the Xbox?

Could gaming arcades be revived?

The days when coin-ops were the only way to play the latest video games are gone. But a small band of enthusiasts are keeping the button-pushing dream alive
Edinburgh Fringe 2015: The 'tampon tax' has inspired a new wave of female comedians to reclaim period jokes

Heard the one about menstruation?

Yes, if you have been at the Fringe, where period pieces are taking centre stage