Media dig deep and pile the woe on hapless Clinton

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary have had to dispatch cheques totalling dollars 14,615 (pounds 10,000) in back-taxes and interest to cover what the White House called an oversight. The First Family's under-payment of their 1980 taxes is the latest instalment in what is rapidly turning into a soap opera incorporating three intertwined stories: Whitewater, the President's alleged sexual impropriety and now the tax fiasco. The press is lapping it up.

'If everybody kinda hangs tough, they're just not going to do anything,' Mr Clinton told his former girlfriend, Gennifer Flowers, on 23 September 1991 in a telephone call she secretly taped. Urging her to deny their affair, he advised her that if the press 'ever hit you with it, just say no and go on. There's nothing they can do'.

Months later, Mr Clinton found he had overestimated Ms Flowers' loyalty. Selling her story for a reputed dollars 150,000 to a New York tabloid, the Star, she came close to sinking his candidacy. He was only rescued by the support of his wife, the unwillingness of part of the media to see him go, and his own combativeness. But the allegations have never stopped.

Mr Clinton's denial of the original Flowers allegations was qualified enough to convince the media that the substance of what she said was true. Republicans have never quite dropped the idea that his exposure as philanderer would cripple his political effectiveness.

Journalists trawling Little Rock for ex-girlfriends or old political enemies with tales to tell were not disappointed. Sally Perdue and Paula Jones both told stories of seduction, consummated or attempted, by the governor. Former state troopers Roger Perry and Larry Patterson told the extreme-right American Spectator of ferrying Mr Clinton to trysts. L D 'Doug' Brown, part of his security detail from 1983 to 1985, this week told the same publication about propositioning 100 girls on behalf of Mr Clinton.

Some of the allegations are evidently true. In the Seventies, Arkansas was a strait-laced place. But at the time Mr Clinton was first elected as governor in 1978, attitudes were already becoming more tolerant. At the same time Mr Clinton has reason to feel surprised and aggrieved at the relentless interest in his ex-girlfriends. No other president has had to sustain this kind of scrutiny.

Mr Clinton's own staff has no doubt about what fuels stories about his girlfriends and other tales from Arkansas of the Eighties. James Carville, his chief strategist in the presidential campaign, said last week 'there's a bunch of people' on the far right 'who just don't accept what the American people did in 1992'.

Mr Carville produced his own flow-chart to show how stories of Arkansas scandals wind their way into the mainstream American press. Usually they come from two sources: old Clinton employees, such as the troopers Mr Perry, Mr Patterson and Doug Brown, or alleged lovers, such as Ms Flowers and Ms Perdue.

Stories of sexual and financial wrongdoing are then amplified and given a boost by politicians such as Congressman Bob Dornan, a former fighter pilot from Orange County in California who in 1992 suggested that Mr Clinton had visited the Soviet Union as a student with the help of the KGB. Others rooting around in the Clintons' past include Floyd Brown, a right-wing activist who helped George Bush into the White House in 1988 by highlighting - in what Democrats saw as an appeal to racists - the release on parole of the black rapist Willie Horton by the Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis.

The substance of Mr Carville's attack carries weight but Mr Clinton's tactic of denying everything until somebody can prove otherwise has not helped him. The unmasking of every untruth provides a fresh news-peg for the media.

Allegations by former girlfriends are not going to sink Mr Clinton. Even the payment in unpaid tax to the Internal Revenue does not seem to be doing him much damage. Republicans are worried about being seen as orchestrating a witch-hunt. But the denials are chipping away at Mr Clinton's credibility.

'If everyone's on record denying it, you got no problems,' Mr Clinton told Ms Flowers in the tape, which she sold to Penthouse. The past two years have shown, however, that denials are not enough.