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Fact and fable put First Lady Hillary on edge

TWO or three Sundays ago, the New York Times magazine ran a coyly entitled 'Cautionary Fable', set in the not-very-distant future of summer 1994. At a press conference on the White House lawn, Bill Clinton was announcing 'the most painful decision of my life', the removal of his wife from her official duties as First Lady. Like many fables, this one has the uncomfortable edge of truth.

These are wretched times for Hillary Rodham Clinton. Five short months ago, grown-up senators gawked like starstruck schoolboys as she presented her plan for health care reform on Capitol Hill. Her popularity outstripped her husband's, her prestige was at its zenith. Today the health care plan, at least as she conceived it, is all but dead, while its prime author is ever more ensnared in the mess called Whitewater. Once the 'Hillary factor' was being touted as Bill Clinton's secret weapon. Is it now a political liability?

In part, Mrs Clinton's troubles are standard operating procedure in Washington, where the only thing faster than the making of a reputation is its unmaking. Not that she ever lacked critics: from Day One her liberal track record has made her an easy target for America's 20th-century tribunes, the right- wing radio talkshow hosts. But it is her judgement, not her politics, which is now under fire.

The health care struggle only began in earnest this week in the Senate and House Committees which will decide its fate. Even if the goal of a completed bill before the summer recess can be met, months of wrangling lie ahead. Already, though, it is clear that only one of the six committees most closely involved backs the complicated Clinton scheme.

In the meantime four or five other plans are doing the rounds on Capitol Hill, each of which will provide elements of whatever legislation, if any, emerges. The simple fact is that the grand design on which Hillary Clinton laboured has not a hope of passage in its present form.

According to a new poll, for the first time more people - 48 per cent to 44 per cent - disapprove than approve of the plan, despite White House efforts to promote it, including coast-to-coast crusading by the President and First Lady. The regional 'health alliances', those vast insurance-purchasing bodies at the core of the scheme, are all but doomed. So, probably, are spending caps. If universal coverage is attained, the cost will be astronomical. Beyond a massive increase in the federal bureaucracy, a growing army of critics wonders, what precisely was achieved by the First Lady's task force which for 10 months mobilised half a government?

More damaging to Hillary Clinton's reputation is the Whitewater imbroglio. Months of steady if confusing revelations have made one thing clear: that she is far more deeply involved than her husband. In many respects Whitewater has turned into an investigation of Little Rock's Rose law firm where Mrs Clinton, Associate Attorney-General Webster Hubbell, and the late Vince Foster were partners before moving to Washington.

The conflicts of interest were all hers; between being the Governor's wife and then representing the owner of a company in which the Clintons invested - only for Rose to change sides at a later stage of the game. Indubitably, too, disclosures show she was the financial organiser of the Clinton household.

So much might have passed unnoticed, had not the First Lady forgotten a cardinal rule of Washington, that trouble comes not with an offence but with the cover-up. In Whitewater, the White House has lurched from botch to blunder - thanks, the available evidence suggests, to Hillary Clinton.

Her opposition is known to have delayed the appointment of a special counsel into 'Whitewatergate' long after it had become inevitable. The majority of those directly involved in the handling of Whitewater, like White House chief counsel Bernard Nussbaum, are 'Hillary's people'. The consequences ripple outward like a rank tide: an aura of suspicion over the Justice Department, where Mr Hubbell is the third-ranking official; delays in an overhaul of banking regulation because of Republican demands for a congressional probe into Whitewater; a small but steady erosion of Mr Clinton's own credibility. The 'Cautionary Fable,' in short, has a decent foundation of fact.

(Photograph omitted)