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Whatever Happened to Whitewater?

In a television interview four years ago, the late Ann Devroy, who covered the White House for The Washington Post, had this revealing insight into the mind of the modern reporter:

Whitewater is a classic example of a story that you start pulling strings on and trying to unravel bits and pieces of it to see what’s there. You can’t know what’s there until you cover it. And it’s one of the things about what the press does that people sometimes misunderstand. They believe that in covering something, you’re suggesting there is something big there at the end of what you’re covering, and in fact, you’re just reporting.

Just because we spend six years and write hundreds of thousands of words about convoluted financial transactions in Arkansas and then put them on the front page day after day doesn’t mean we think there’s something actually wrong. On the contrary, four-thousand-word investigative stories frequently mean only that a team of reporters has been at work on a preconceived notion for a couple of months, and the fruits of their labors, meaningful or not, must be inflicted on the readers. Often, but not always, there is a weaseling paragraph: “While there is no evidence of actual wrongdoing, the sequence of events uncovered by our investigative team raises the appearance of possible conflicts of interest.” Or, “offers a rare glimpse into the dark underside of…” Or, “raises disturbing questions about the appearance of possible improprieties.”

In translation: the reporters came up with dots of information, but without a narrative line to connect them, and they hope that their “appearances of possible conflicts,” “rare glimpses,” and “disturbing questions” will make more sense to other people than they do to them. Investigative reporters run the risk of becoming confidence men, forever promising to their editors that a payoff for their time and investment is just around the corner. And only the boldest editor is willing to junk a three- or four-month project that has come tantalizingly close to its goal. At best, investigative reporters do useful work and expose misdeeds in high places. At worst, as in the charge that the CIA introduced crack cocaine to Los Angeles neighborhoods or the CNN-Time fiasco over the alleged use of sarin gas to kill US defectors in Vietnam, they fall in love with a theory, twist facts and even quotations to fit it, and suppress all contrary evidence. And in the middle, you get the kind of reporting Ms. Devroy described, a work in progress that, just by its length and detail, implies that it is worth reading even though it actually proves nothing at all.

The Whitewater scandal, insofar as it relates to President and Mrs. Clinton, has been, as Devroy said, an example of the latter. The first accounts appeared to charge that Clinton, as governor of Arkansas, pressured state regulators not to close down a failing bank run by his business partner, James McDougal. Then it was suggested, among other things, that the Clintons had somehow diverted a federal investigation into the bank’s $60 million failure; that Clinton had coaxed McDougal into hiring Hillary Clinton to do legal work; that Clinton pressured a crooked judge to make an illegal loan to Mrs. Susan McDougal; that James McDougal funneled money to Mrs. Clinton; that she concealed her billing records and colluded with McDougal in a stock-floating scheme; that their friend, Vince Foster, may have been murdered; and, finally, that Clinton and his cronies covered up all their misdeeds by paying hush money to their longtime friend, Webster Hubbell.

None of this has proven true. In six years of investigations by reporters, House and Senate committees, bank regulators, outside consultants, and two successive independent prosecutors, there has been no credible charge of any wrongdoing by the Clintons. McDougal’s bank was chartered by the federal government; the state of Arkansas tried to close it down but could not. Every one of the other charges has been answered, insofar as they are clear enough to be answerable. Yet, except for the official verdict that Foster indeed committed suicide, there has been no public exoneration, either. For every question that is answered, a new allegation is made. Kenneth Starr has now shut down his Little Rock, Arkansas, grand jury, which heard virtually all of the Whitewater evidence, and brought no charges against the Clintons, and is concentrating instead on Monica Lewinsky’s taped boasts that she had some kind of sexual relationship with the President and on the possibility that she was asked to lie about it.

Whitewater itself is dead, but it has always been a travesty of a scandal investigation, a cargo-cult version of Watergate. Reporters, congressional investigators, political operatives, and independent counsels, remembering the bonanza that Watergate brought to their counterparts in the 1970s, have squatted like those hopeful New Guinea tribesmen at the end of their miniature runways, waiting for the gods to send them C-47s full of guns and Coca-Cola. Surely if we go through the same magic motions, the same dimly remembered, half-understood mumbo jumbo, the gods will deliver again. Every so often, we chant the words that worked so well in the past: hush money, cover-up, executive privilege. Why doesn’t it work?

For those too young to remember, Watergate involved a burglary of Democratic offices by a security force that had been set up within President Richard Nixon’s White House. When the burglars were caught, Nixon discussed paying them hush money and tried to use the CIA to block an FBI investigation. A Nixon aide, John Dean, explained the attempted cover-up. An FBI official, L. Patrick Gray, testified that Nixon had personally known of it. And a former White House official, Alexander Butterfield, disclosed the existence of secret tapes that provided conclusive evidence.

From start to finish-the 1972 burglary to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974-Watergate lasted just over two years. Whitewater, by contrast, ultimately depends on the unsupported and contradictory ramblings of James McDougal and, more recently, David Hale, the judge who says Clinton urged him to lend $300,000 to Susan McDougal. There is no documentary evidence to support any charge of wrongdoing by the Clintons, and no credible witness has come forward to make an accusation that even a Clinton enemy would dare bring into a court of law. This six-year nightmare for the Clintons all comes back to James McDougal.

According to several of the jurors at his second trial, McDougal was headed for acquittal when Starr prosecuted him for fraud in 1996. Then, with victory in sight, McDougal made the mistake of taking the stand in his own defense. The jurors saw and heard him-heard the evasions, the contradictory responses, the wily denials—and found him guilty. The judge sent him to prison, where he died this year. McDougal’s autobiography, Arkansas Mischief, written with Curtis Wilkie, has precisely the same effect as his courtroom testimony. When seen from afar, or described by others, McDougal seems a harmless, colorful Southern wheeler-dealer in his Panama hat and ice-cream suits, spouting quotations from Winston Churchill and the classics. But when portrayed in his own words, he is a self-serving, self-pitying conniver who preyed on others and yet sees himself as a victim.

In 1978, he invited the young Clintons-Bill was thirty-one and headed for a spectacular if low-paying political career in Arkansas-to join him in what he described as a sure-thing real estate venture involving wilderness lots in Northern Arkansas. It lost money, entangled the Clintons in years of controversy, and, in the end, not only blighted Clinton’s presidency but started a series of investigations that have cost the Clintons several million dollars in legal bills. Yet, in his book, McDougal is hurt that the Clintons were not grateful to their old friend. Even though he was receiving Social Security disability payments as a manic-depressive, he is angry that the Clintons did not give him a government job. He regards himself as one more poor, innocent Arkansan wrecked by the Clinton tornado as it swept to success, and believes he is entitled to revenge for his mistreatment. This is enough to make one gag. What is worse is the wide assortment of presumably intelligent people, from Starr to the journalists whom McDougal used in his vendetta, who took his word and followed his leads to nowhere.

According to McDougal’s book and Hubbell’s Friends in High Places, Arkansas-the land in which Bill Clinton grew up-is inhabited by people named Frog Henson, Mutt Goad, and Finus Shellnut (who may survive in memory as the answer to the trivia question “Name the man who was both Webster Hubbell’s brother-in-law and Gennifer Flowers’s boyfriend”). Arkansas was for more than a century a one-party state, which meant that political differences were largely personal rather than ideological. Penetrating these hatreds, often carried through generations, is next to impossible. The rich, power-brokering Stephens clan-investors Jack and Witt Stephens, known by the acronym JAWS-supported or opposed politicians based on their own quirky grudges. They didn’t like Clinton, but they disliked one of his opponents, Sheffield Nelson, even more. They hated former Governor Jim Guy Tucker because Tucker had once beaten Ray Thornton, who was blood kin to them. Arkansas’s Democratic Senator John McClellan at one point told McDougal to try to defeat a candidate for attorney general on the grounds that McClellan had once lent the man a book and couldn’t get it back for four years.

Lobbyists walked freely through legislative meetings, buying votes. “We ate breakfast in the coffee shop,” McDougal writes of one legislative session, “and a Cotton Belt railroad lobbyist with the euphonious name of Charles Coalburner walked through the room every morning, passing each table and picking up checks.” This was not unique to Arkansas. McDougal writes that Senator McClellan rarely paid for anything in Washington: “Members of Congress made it a point to walk around without money. When a bill came for dinner or drinks, the politicians didn’t even bother to fumble for their empty billfold; an obliging lobbyist was always there to pick up the check.” Similarly, politicians were steered to sure-thing investments, so they would not have to worry about making a pile even as they served the public interest. Even Senator J. William Fulbright, who employed McDougal as an aide, took a piece of his real estate schemes.

McDougal saw himself as the financial protector of the Clintons-and no doubt hoped to gain accordingly. But in the high-interest days of the late 1970s and early 1980s, their joint Whitewater investment was doomed. It never made any money, and McDougal handled-or mishandled-all of the paperwork. He even neglected to tell Clinton that he had sold all of the lots. At one point, he accuses Clinton of suggesting that Whitewater lots be used as collateral for a loan to Susan McDougal, and then says: “I remember thinking: But, Bill, all the lots at Whitewater have been sold. Then I remembered that he was never on top of the situation there.”

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