Plain folk get Clinton squirming

'HAVE Hillary Invest My dollars 1,000,' said an unkind banner held by a protester in Topeka, Kansas this week as President Bill Clinton arrived to hold a town-hall meeting with people from the heartland of America.

It was exactly what the White House did not want to see. The purpose of Mr Clinton's tour of North Carolina, Kansas and Minnesota this week was to show it is only Washington insiders who revel in the Whitewater affair. In Topeka people should be interested in health care and not in Hillary Clinton's brief dabble in cattle futures in 1978 which turned dollars 1,000 into dollars 100,000 in under 12 months.

Polls show that Americans think the media are too obsessed by Whitewater and the Clintons' business dealings in Arkansas. But that does not mean they are not interested. In Charlotte, North Carolina, on Tuesday Mr Clinton got a nasty shock when, a few minutes into a meeting about crime and health, a local woman said his credibility had been undermined by Whitewater. 'How can you earn back our trust?' she asked.

Other questioners took up the theme and Mr Clinton was not at his best. During the presidential election campaign he outpointed his opponents in this sort of forum, sympathising with the problems of ordinary Americans.

In Charlotte he suddenly volunteered that Mrs Clinton got out of the commodities market in 1979 because of a margin call - putting up more money at the request of a broker to cover losses.

Mr Clinton said that analysts who criticised her 'must have never gotten a margin call in the commodities market because she did; and she was about to have a baby and got out of it'. For once he had mistaken his audience. The horrors of a margin call were not the most pressing problem facing the plain folks of Charlotte.

Two days later in Kansas the White House ensured Mr Clinton did not face another such embarrassment. Questions were confined to health care. The first was from Claire Shaffer, who asked why Washington ignored real public concerns like health care.

A smiling Mr Clinton said: 'I didn't write that question for her, honestly.' But it emerged Mrs Shaffer had first posed her query in a letter to Mrs Clinton. Knowing Mrs Shaffer was in the Kansas audience, an administration staff member had suggested her question be taken.

'We did not plant questions nor did we seed the audience,' the White House said later. But they had come close to it. Mr Clinton had also reinforced the impression that, whatever happened in Arkansas when he was governor, he is shifty about the details. Nobody can disprove Mrs Clinton's account of her sudden windfall in 1979 but there is much derision about the official story that she made it simply through ingenuity and good fortune. One cartoon shows a woman keeling over in shock as her husband, throwing open the door of their humble apartment, shouts: 'Cattle futures is where it's at] I just put all our savings in cattle futures]'