Arkansas demons ride again: Rupert Cornwell probes the latest flurry of rumours surrounding the Clintons and assesses the damage

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The Independent Online
THIS WAS going to be a happy Christmas at the White House, a festive season indeed when Bill and Hillary Clinton hosted a glittering round of parties, and took contented stock of a first year of undeniable achievement. And so it was - until last weekend.

Now, in the space of three nightmarish days, the season's good spirits have been ruined. Suddenly, old demons from distant Arkansas have risen from the grave. Temporarily at least, the most powerful office on earth seems helpless and adrift in a foul-smelling tide of scandal. Abruptly, the talk in Washington and far beyond is not of economic recovery and a presidency resurgent, but of possible financial impropriety, a tragic summer suicide, and - once more - Bill Clinton's sex life.

First, the bare facts of the imbroglio. On Sunday two state troopers from Arkansas, former members of the Governor's security detail, went on television to allege, in graphic detail, how they helped him conduct a string of hectic extra-marital affairs of which the last, it is claimed, continued until the very moment Mr Clinton left for Washington. Simultaneously, fresh revelations have emerged of the Clintons' tangled dealings in the Eighties with Madison Guaranty, a failed Little Rock savings and loan bank whose president was a close friend of the Clintons.

Finally there is the unresolved mystery of Vince Foster, the White House deputy legal counsel and even closer friend of both Bill and Hillary, who shot himself in a Washington park on 20 July. Shortly afterwards, it now emerges, a top aide of Mr Clinton removed from Mr Foster's office documents relating to the those business dealings with the savings and loan. A personal diary of Mr Foster's was also removed, and has not been made over to investigators. Amid unsubstantiated rumour that Mr Foster was involved with Mrs Clinton, all three events have blurred into a single, spreading stain on the private life of the most public man in the world.

Real or imagined, Bill Clinton's philandering was part of Little Rock folklore for years. But only during the New Hampshire primary, just as he emerged as clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, did the dam break. Gennifer Flowers's allegations that she had had a 12-year affair with the then Governor led to the Clintons' riveting appearance on the CBS programme 60 Minutes in January 1992, when he acknowledged 'wrongdoing', and having caused pain in his marriage. It was a huge gamble, but one that paid off.

'I think most Americans who are watching tonight will know what I'm saying, they'll get it,' said Mr Clinton. They did, and as his ultimate triumph showed, they forgave him for it as well.

But that interview conveyed two other messages. First, as today's clamour only underlines, the semi- admission of misbehaviour would lend an inevitable veneer of credibility to subsequent similar rumours, not least those that swept Washington this summer of marital turmoil inside the White House. Nor, incidentally, for all her outrage, did Mrs Clinton specifically deny the essence of the troopers' allegations when she spoke to reporters on Tuesday.

Second, and arguably more important, was the subtext of Mr Clinton's contrition: 'Yes, I've been naughty, but that's all over now.' If the Arkansas troopers' lurid revelations are to be believed, it wasn't over by a long chalk.

The bulk of the incidents they recount - involving a selection of partners ranging from a state government aide and a local reporter to an Arkansas store clerk, and complete with graphic descriptions of hasty car-seat sex, alleged nocturnal escapades and violent rows with his wife on his return - predate the 60 Minutes confession. Others do not.

According to the troopers, President-elect Clinton used them to smuggle female 'relatives' and 'staff advisers' into the Governor's mansion in Little Rock for pre- dawn trysts while his wife slept upstairs, during the transition period after he was elected on 3 November 1992. They claim furthermore that Mr Clinton was carrying on an affair with one woman until the very eve of his inauguration on 20 January this year.

There is strong reason to be circumspect. Apart from Gennifer Flowers, now peddling her autobiography to New York publishers, no woman has come forward to corroborate the charges. Even David Brock, the writer for the conservative and rabidly anti-Clinton American Spectator magazine who broke the story, concedes that the troopers have scores to settle with the President.

The affair has been orchestrated by a Little Rock lawyer called Cliff Jackson, once Clinton's classmate at Oxford but now his sworn foe. Jackson, let it not be forgotten either, was a prime mover behind the draft-dodging stories that dogged the Governor throughout the campaign. Now, as ever, small towns and small states produce a venomously personal brand of politics.

Media treatment this time has been eerily similar to that about the Flowers affair. Then it was a supermarket tabloid, the Star, that went public. This time a more serious but none the less small circulation magazine of opinion, led the assault. On both occasions, CNN swiftly followed, and the networks and heavyweight papers decided they had no choice but to join in. The Los Angeles Times, which worked on the story at the same time as Mr Brock, at first declined to publish, but a day later devoted a page and a half to the tawdry saga. The damage was done.

Most Americans, including probably most of the journalists who have to write about it, loathe the story. A state Governor or candidate is one thing; that the subject should be the President of the United States, the very symbol of the nation, is quite another. For Mr Clinton, there is a bitter extra irony. What emerges from the accusations is a compulsive, reckless womaniser. This young, tireless and photogenic President so dearly aspires to the mantle of John Kennedy. This, though, is one parallel with JFK that Bill Clinton could do without.

Otherwise all was going so well. After a rocky start, the promise of Clinton seemed on the road to fulfilment. The early foreign policy fumbles had given way to a string of dazzling domestic successes. A five-year deficit-cutting package was approved by Congress, as were the first serious gun control measures here in 25 years. A blueprint for health reform has been prepared. Nafta and Gatt are in the bag. Best of all, the economy is surging ahead. His poll rating, 58 per cent, is the highest since March. The Presidency, everyone thought, had at last found its feet. Will everything now be undone by a baroque tale of extra-marital sex and bedroom rows, possible financial impropriety and White House cover- ups that Hollywood scriptwriters would scarcely dare to invent?

A White House aide is outwardly sanguine: 'We've been through worse train wrecks before, and I think this one is going to disappear under the Christmas tree.' But even Mr Clinton's battle-hardened damage control experts must have their doubts. Assuming no paramour tells all, and there is no substantiation of the troopers' claims that Mr Clinton offered them jobs to buy their silence, the sex aspects of the affair may be wished into oblivion. But the Madison Guaranty affair, the Vince Foster suicide, and the diary and documents missing from his office recording the Clinton's business dealings offer overlapping leads too tantalising to ignore.

Was it true, as Mr Brock and his Little Rock informants say was common knowledge in Little Rock, that a betrayed Mrs Clinton had her own affair with Mr Foster? The evidence so far suggests that the then Governor Clinton may have softpedalled on the collapsing S & L because it had helped to pay off debts stemming from his Arkansas political campaigns in the Eighties. Was the ill-fated White Water real estate venture, set up by Madison's president and in which the Clintons had a substantial interest, a camouflage for such operations? Just typical Arkansas old-boy-network politics - or did those documents in Vince Foster's office, which the White House claims are covered by client-attorney privilege, contain some secret too terrible to reveal?

And this is America, where money talks louder than the worthiest of intentions, and where few cover-ups endure. The Justice Department is now looking into the Foster suicide and wants to see the files on the Clintons' land dealings. For more than a month, federal investigators have been in Little Rock, probing Madison's records. And huge financial offers have a way of unlocking tongues. The anti-Clinton press will keep up the pressure.

Most fundamental is the problem of proving a negative. Even if truly incriminating evidence does not emerge, those suppressed doubts about Bill Clinton have resurfaced. He may be clever, tirelessly bubbling with ideas, possessed of a vision of where his country, even the world, should go. But Americans who see him daily on television, not to mention the Nato leaders who meet him next month, cannot but wonder: is this the leader of a superpower - or the old Slick Willie of Arkansas fame, never quite able to tell the truth?

Andrew Marr's column will appear tomorrow.

(Photographs omitted)