The tarring of Clinton: The presidential couple cannot escape America's runaway sleaze machine. Rupert Cornwell in Washington reports

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The Independent Online
ONE SMALL uncertainty arises from the otherwise derisory 'open letter' sent last week to Bill Clinton by Cliff Jackson, his nemesis from the redneck lands of distant Arkansas. Is its author merely a hypocrite, or is he a crackpot to boot? Jackson, a successful Little Rock lawyer who has conducted an intermittent vendetta against Clinton for 20 years or more, begs the President's forgiveness for 'inflicting such public pain upon you and yours' with the allegations he has so assiduously promoted of lurid sexual indiscretions by Clinton while governor of Arkansas. But Jackson stands by the charges. They had been aired in the hope of bringing 'the best possible future for you and our country'. This snakebite of a new year greeting is signed, 'Your Friend (still).'

Some friend. By encouraging former members of Clinton's personal security detail to recount their stories to American newspapers and television, Jackson has caused his old Oxford classmate some of the worst grief of his presidency, at the very moment when everything seemed to be coming together. To Clinton's additional distress, the tales of reckless womanising have coincided with separate suggestions of improper dealings with a failed Arkansas savings bank, in which Hillary Clinton is also involved.

The two affairs must be treated separately. They overlap only if you buy into a third, utterly unsubstantiated allegation - that a spurned Mrs Clinton had conducted her own affair in Little Rock with Vince Foster. An old family friend of the Clintons, Foster followed them to Washington and became the White House deputy counsel. Last July he killed himself. In his office, it now emerges, were kept documents relating to a real estate venture called Whitewater, once jointly owned by the Clintons and James McDougal, president of the savings bank and another close acquaintance. Foster's personal diary has been kept from investigators.

Thus far, however, the only unchallenged link between the sex allegations and the money allegations is a common provenance; the hothouse politics of a small Southern state where everybody knows everybody and where cosy friendships, rancid enmities and old-fashioned gossip thrive in equal profusion.

For an editor, both affairs pose the same three questions. Are the allegations true? Do they matter? And do they really deserve the space they have been accorded by the media? The answers to each may prove fascinatingly different.

FIRST, the sex charges. The story - that Clinton, as governor of Arkansas, had his security staff smuggle women into his official mansion and drive him to assignations with women elsewhere - was broken by David Brock of the American Spectator, with a little help from Cliff Jackson. After many years of rumour in Little Rock, and after the intrusion of Gennifer Flowers into the 1992 election campaign, only the most trusting will insist that these tales from the guardroom are a pack of lies from beginning to end. Brock himself may be a smarmy and unedifying figure who wraps titillation in a bogus mantle of national security interests - when he fielded questions on a cable TV show 10 days ago, four out of five callers were openly hostile. And not surprisingly. Quite apart from the dubious character of the accusers and many of their assertions, their target after all is no longer a governor from hillbillyland, but the head of state.

A lawyer only one-tenth as adept as Jackson could make courtroom mincemeat of much of the case. Serious doubts now surround the credibility of Larry Patterson and Roger Perry, the two state troopers who have gone on the record. Some of their claims are patently ridiculous: nocturnal cavortings whose very logistics defy common sense, language, by Mrs Clinton, that would shame a fishwife, uttered in the troopers' presence; and her husband's alleged remark that he'd 'never met a tax increase he didn't like' (about as plausible as John Smith letting slip to a casual acquaintance an undying devotion to the works of Marx and Lenin).

But neither Clinton spouse has denied the substance of Brock's 11,000-word wallow in the swamp. Even Mrs Clinton went no further than to call the accusations 'outrageous and horrible', peddled for financial and political gain.

Her normally articulate husband's 'rebuttal' was even feebler: 'I have nothing else to say . . . We . . . we did, if, the, I, I, the stories are just as they have been said,' he stumbled and stuttered in an interview just before Christmas, before at last declaring, 'They're outrageous and they're not so.' Put that together with candidate Clinton's confession of 'wrongdoing' on the CBS programme 60 Minutes in January 1992, at the height of the Flowers affair, and that he had 'caused pain in his marriage' - and ordinary Americans are drawing their own conclusions.

But does all this matter? When they voted for Clinton last year, knowing what they did about the Flowers affair, those same Americans said, in effect, that it did not matter. Now that Clinton is in the White House, however, and now that he has admitted contacting other former members of his governor's security detail, a deeply uncomfortable press has been offered a more high-minded point of entry into the story than mere charges of multiple adultery: did Clinton use public officials (ie, public money) to further his private amorous adventures? And has there been an attempt at a cover-up? To date these remain utterly unproven. On a more basic level, history's evidence is that sexual profligacy has not the slightest bearing on a politician's capacity to govern.

And so to the third question, to publish or not to publish? The answer speaks volumes about the standards of contemporary American journalism, indeed of American society at large. It takes two to fornicate. Brock spent months in Little Rock, but he could not publish the name of even one of the half-dozen women said to have been involved.

The American Spectator, a conservative journal of opinion with a circulation of only 200,000, played exactly the same role as did the tabloid New York Star in carrying the steamy revelations of Gennifer Flowers two years ago. Now as then, CNN picked up the grimy torch; in January 1992, it carried the Flowers press conference ('Did the governor wear a condom?') live. This time it ran interviews with the security men, Patterson and Perry. The 'hammer of national TV' which Cliff Jackson sought to bring down on his 'friend' had been wielded. The story was in the open and the dam of prudishness was demolished.

The Los Angeles Times, one of the most respected US newspapers, had conducted its own investigation in parallel with Brock but had decided not to run the story. Within 24 hours of CNN, it reversed that decision and printed its own 3,000- word account, basically a sanitised version of what appeared in the American Spectator. The Washington Post followed, as did two of the three main broadcast networks. By Christmas, despite admissions by the troopers they had cheated on their own wives and lied to an insurance company over a car accident, the slime was oozing all over the media. Even the New York Times gave the story front-page prominence when Hillary Clinton expressed her outrage; of leading US newspapers, only the Wall Street Journal has shunned the story, devoting its considerable firepower to the Clintons' business dealings with McDougal.

The media soul-searching is now in full swing. The prevailing view, predictably, is that once the American Spectator had gone public, its claims, albeit unproven, were legitimate news (the era of free rides in the White House ended with that earlier sexual athlete John Kennedy). But a substantial minority disagrees. Anthony Lewis, resident conscience of the New York Times, has accused his profession of 'facing and mostly flunking a test of its resistance to the cheap and scurrilous'. If Clinton's morality is the issue, the yardstick should be his policy on genocide in Bosnia, not the 'irrelevance' of his marital fidelity.

Most striking, perhaps, has been the reaction of Pat Buchanan, conservative commentator and former Republican presidential candidate, ideologically as far from Clinton as can be imagined. In a column last week, Buchanan wrote of the 'degradation of politics', how the episode engendered 'contempt for all politicians and the press, and diminishes public regard for the system itself'. Whatever else, the American Spectator had produced the most 'ruinous article ever written about an American President', after which no one could ever think of the Clintons in quite the same light.

And thus to the real lesson of the troopers' tales, the unquantifiable damage they have done to perceptions of Bill Clinton. For some it will be a reminder of the 'Slick Willie' of old. For others, it will mean a smirk every time this Chief Executive talks of welfare reform and family values.

But who truly cares? Underlying everything is America's ambivalent attitude to sex, that mixture of puritanism and prurience shared with Britain, but which reduces most other countries to uncomprehending mirth. Right now prurience is winning hands down. Ingrained competitiveness, instant communications, tabloid talk shows, not least Court TV, with its live coverage of such titillating fare as the William Kennedy Smith rape trial - all have lowered the bar of intrusion into the private lives of the famous. No matter that reputations are recklessly and unjustifiably smeared, the ratings game is what counts.

Among the worst offenders is CNN. Five weeks before the cable network had regaled viewers with the Perry and Patterson reminiscences, it had run a long interview with one Steven Cook, who graphically described how he had been sexually abused some time between 1975 and 1977 by Joseph Bernardin, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago. His sensational claims were the basis of a dollars 10m ( pounds 6.6m) civil lawsuit, in which Cook maintains he forgot about the alleged incident for 15 years or more. Of corroboration there was none, nor any of the circumstantial evidence which gives some credence to the tales of the Arkansas troopers. The publicity accorded Cook forced the Cardinal to deny all at a press conference whose squalor was redeemed only by his own preternatural serenity. Thus do Michael Jackson, Bill Clinton, and a leader of America's Catholics blend into a single surreal sleaze show.

COMPARED to the 'Fornigate' tales of the Little Rock troopers, the convoluted story of the Clintons' involvement with James McDougal and his Madison Guaranty S & L is a blast of fresh air. First, a summary of the facts.

In 1978 the Clintons and the McDougals jointly set up a venture called Whitewater, to develop real estate in rural northern Arkansas. Its accounts were later handled through Madison Guaranty, which McDougal bought in 1979. The Clintons say they were passive partners in Whitewater and ultimately lost dollars 69,000 on their shareholding, before they resold it to Mr McDougal for a token dollars 1,000. Other documents, however, show that Hillary Clinton, a partner in the powerful Rose law firm of Little Rock, once sought power of attorney for Whitewater.

Madison, meanwhile, like any number of S & Ls (the US equivalent of building societies) in the riproaring Reagan years, was booming. It lent money to prominent Arkansas political figures, extended large loans to its own directors, and funnelled money into Whitewater. In 1985, McDougal organised a fund-raising event to pay off dollars 50,000 of debts from the 1984 Clinton campaign for governor, which the campaign owed personally to Clinton. A few months later, a state financial regulator appointed by Clinton approved a capital restructuring plan for Madison, whose attorney was Hillary Clinton. But the S & L, like many another, was by now in dire trouble. It collapsed in 1989, costing the US taxpayer up to dollars 60m.

Such are the bare bones of what could be a vintage case of Arkansas cronyism. Whitewater did surface briefly during the presidential campaign. But in comparison with the competing rumpus over Clinton's 1969 avoidance of the Vietnam draft (which Jackson was instrumental in pushing, and to which his feud may be dated), it was far too complicated to follow. Then last autumn, interest rekindled. In November, Justice Department lawyers were sent to Little Rock to try and establish what happened.

In mid-December the White House dropped a bombshell: files on Whitewater, it acknowledged after much stonewalling, had been removed from Vince Foster's office shortly after his suicide. A link, and an apparently suspicious one, now existed between the S & L affair and the mysterious death of the Clintons' friend and adviser. Two days before Christmas, to quell talk of a cover-up, Clinton said he was making over all 'relevant' material to the Justice Department. Unsatisfied Republicans, however, are pressing for a full congressional investigation into the affair, even the appointment of a Watergate-style special prosecutor. The House Banking Committee's top Republican, James Leach, yesterday said Mr Clinton could ultimately face criminal charges. 'In terms of the worst, I think that the President faces some civil remedies that could be quite serious,' he said in an interview on CNN. 'He could potentially face criminal charges. My own personal belief is that it would be an error to go that far.'

There matters now stand. The essential suspicions are twofold. Did Clinton use his powers as governor to prop up a bankrupt savings bank in return for campaign contributions and other financial favours, and was Whitewater in part a front for such operations?

And so back to those three questions for editors - the truth of the suspicions, the extent to which they matter, and how they should be covered. The answers which suggest themselves are the exact opposite of those concerning the sex allegations. No, most certainly, financial impropriety has not been proven. But the story does matter; 'wrongdoing' would involve abuse of office, directly relevant to Clinton's conduct of power now.

The third question - how this should be covered - is, of course, trickier. Financial stories do not lend themselves to television; even for an expert readership they are tough going. But, however imperfectly, the Whitewater-Madison affair has entered the public consciousness. It crops up on radio talk shows, in questions such as: 'He says he wants to get the money out of politics and clean up Washington, but isn't he just the same as the rest of them?' At this point, doubts over the Clintons' business dealings intersect with Pat Buchanan's worries about the sex allegations - that they too will simply fuel ordinary America's growing mistrust of government, politicians and all their works. And whatever else, revelations will surely continue.

The fuss over Governor Bill Clinton valuing used underpants at dollars 2 a pair for tax deduction purposes was a one-day wonder. Battle-hardened White House damage control experts are working flat out to rebuild the flood-walls around 'Fornigate'. Given the misgivings of the press and assuming no paramour tells all, its waters will soon recede - indeed, already are - leaving a layer of 'character' sludge that may never entirely be washed off. But over Madison and Whitewater, reporters have no inhibitions. The media are digging, federal investigators are probing, Congress is pawing the ground.

Amid the clamour, however, one rule still holds good. Now as ever, an American president is a symbol of his age. Ronald Reagan epitomised the greed and complacency of the Eighties, George Bush their exhausted aftermath. With a bewildering mixture of the highbrow and distinctly lowbrow, Bill Clinton is a mirror of today's America.

Here, the sleaze machines run ever faster. They took more than 10 years to catch up with Clinton's idol, JFK. With Bill Clinton, rightly or wrongly, the process has taken 10 months.

(Photographs omitted)