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Whitewater show still searching for a star

The current Senate hearings on Whitewater, anything but a showstopper thus far, promise better entertainment this week as the focus switches to the role Hillary Clinton might have played in preventing a complete investigation of the papers of Vince Foster, the White House's deputy counsel, immediately after he committed suicide in July 1993.

The First Lady has not been called as a witness by the Banking Committee - its Republican majority knows such a step could kindle accusations of a witch-hunt, even lese-majeste, which could see the politically charged hearings rebound against them. But enough strands link Mrs Clinton with the events of two years ago to provide tantalising glimpses into the workings of Bill Clinton's White House, at a moment fraught with tension and tragedy.

For one thing, a second, five-hour long round of questioning of first the President and then Mrs Clinton this weekend by special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, suggests that the First Couple are still part of the inquiry into dealings surrounding their original investment in the Whitewater real estate venture and the failed Madison Guaranty savings and loan bank.

A close friend of the Clintons and a fellow partner of the Rose Law firm in Little Rock, with Mrs Clinton, Foster handled some of their most delicate legal affairs when he moved to Washington, including Whitewater. Among documents said to have been withheld by White House aides from police and Justice Department investigators were files on the Whitewater. The White House claimed they were innocuous. Earlier this month it released what it said were the missing papers - some referring to Foster's fears of possible irregularities in Whitewater tax returns which might affect the Clintons. The material is less than explosive, but its existence is enough to fuel Republican charges that obstruction of a search of Foster's office was part of a cover-up ordered by the Clintons.

As if to support that thesis, Stephen Neuwirth, a White House lawyer, has told Committee staff that he had heard (third-hand) that Mrs Clinton wanted to keep police away from Foster's papers. A far more direct link, however, is the charge by a Secret Service agent at the White House that he saw Margaret Williams, Mrs Clinton's chief-of-staff, remove documents from the office after his death. Mrs Williams has passed a lie detector test supporting her version of events, but both she and the agent are due to testify this week. And that confrontation in turn could finally supply what many commentators point out the current episode of Capitol Hill's Whitewater show still lacks: a star.

Watergate had John Dean, Iran-Contra had Oliver North. But the best Whitewater One in summer 1994 could provide was Josh Steiner, the Treasury Secretary's chief-of-staff, who kept some mildly embarrassing private diaries. This time around, the bad guy role seems foreordained for Bernard Nussbaum, the combative New York lawyer and former White House counsel, who according to a host of accounts led efforts to keep the Foster papers out of investigators' hands.

But even though he was an ally of Mrs Clinton, no one expects him to provide a "smoking gun" proving skullduggery by the First Couple. Rather, if former National Security adviser John Poindexter's performance in Iran- Contra is any yardstick, he will concede he made mistakes, but insist he alone was responsible for them.

Meanwhile, a country congenitally addicted to conspiracy theories seems unable to let Mr Foster rest in peace. Once a clear majority of Americans believed he took his own life. According to a new survey, that has dropped to 35 per cent; 20 per cent think he was murdered, while 45 per cent are "not sure".