Hillary faces Whitewater hearing ordeal

Lost files: First Lady to appear before grand jury
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Mercifully for the dignity of the presidency, Hillary Clinton will be able to use a tunnel from an underground garage when she enters the District of Columbia's federal courthouse for her appointment with the Whitewater grand jury on Friday, thus escaping a media horde that might stretch from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other.

But that is probably the only consolation to be drawn by the White House from an embarrassment never visited before upon a First Lady. Mrs Clinton, as her defenders tirelessly argue, may have committed no crime. But her summons alone has been a public relations disaster for a White House girding up for the President's State of the Union address last night, which for all practical purposes was the first salvo in his 1996 battle for re- election.

The minds of his audience of senators, congressmen and notables from every walk of life were less preoccupied with lofty presidential observations on taxes, a balanced budget, Bosnia or other burning topics than the political predicament brought about by his wife.

Four years after the details of a minor property venture first began to interest the American press, the Republican party and the judiciary, Mrs Clinton is more inextricably enmeshed in Whitewater's coils than ever. The woman who was a huge campaign asset for her husband in 1992 has become the most divisive First Lady in modern history - and a potential millstone in the election.

Even before news of the subpoena issued by the independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, emerged on Monday evening, her disapproval ratings stood above 50 per cent in opinion polls.

Of itself her appearance before the grand jury (an investigative as well as accusatory body which determines what if any charges should be brought in a case) proves nothing. Neither she nor the President has been indicted of any wrongdoing in the tangle of 1980s business dealings in Arkansas collectively known as Whitewater, nor has she received a "target letter" from the special prosecutor that would indicate she is a suspect.

In many respects, the affair is straight out of Pirandello - a cast of players in search of a crime or, as a Washington Post newspaper columnist wrote yesterday, "a roomful of shady characters but no corpse," where conspiracy theories are 10 a penny but facts are rare as gold dust. But the mere allegations of misdeeds by the First Lady suffice to revive the "character question" which has dogged her husband ever since he took office.

Grand jury proceedings are secret, but the issue at the heart of the Friday hearings is clear: whether the White House, in the person of Mrs Clinton, her personal aides or any other functionary, conspired to obstruct justice over a sheaf of documents subpoenaed and sought in vain for two years, which then turned up in a private room in the private quarters in the East Wing of the White House.

The 116 pages detail work done by Mrs Clinton as a partner in the Rose law firm in Little Rock on behalf of Madison Guaranty, the savings bank which collapsed in 1989 and which was owned by the Clintons' former partner in the original Whitewater property venture.

The whereabouts of the documents since 1992, when they were found to be missing from the Rose files, have been a mystery. They are covered with annotations by Vince Foster, Mrs Clinton's former Rose colleague, and close friend who moved to Washington with the Clintons in 1993 to become deputy White House counsel. That July Mr Foster committed suicide. The Republican-led committee on Capitol Hill investigating Whitewater insinuates that the papers were improperly taken from Mr Foster's office by staff of Mrs Clinton.

Then on 4 January they reappeared - lying on a table in the book room of the residence. In testimony last week, the aide who happened upon them, Mrs Clinton's director of personal correspondence, Carolyn Huber, said she thought they had been left there with the deliberate purpose of being found. Ms Huber has already testified before the grand jury. Now it is Mrs Clinton's turn, along with an executive assistant, her private lawyer, and Gary Walters, the head White House usher.

But the closer the examination, the more numerous the questions. Why should the documents have turned up at all? If they are as innocuous as Mrs Clinton insists why did they vanish in the first place? And what was Vince Foster's involvement?

More than 20 years ago, Alexander Haig attributed the erasure of 18 minutes of Oval Office tapes sought by the Watergate investigators to "sinister forces". In the case of the re-found files, the same unearthly powers are apparently at work.