By Howard Kurtz
Her distrust of the news media dates to her husband's days as governor of Arkansas, deepened during the 1992 presidential campaign and was exacerbated by the Whitewater scandal, which first erupted during the campaign and continues to exasperate the administration six years later.
The degree to which she can be preoccupied by the press is revealed by an episode in early 1996, when the first lady tried to strike back against what she saw as unfair coverage.
According to key participants in the 1996 episode, the first lady ordered White House lawyers to prepare a report criticizing the work of Susan Schmidt, the lead Whitewater reporter for The Washington Post. Hillary Clinton wanted the report released by the White House as a public document, but after heated debate other officials managed to keep it confidential.
With a fierceness that would puzzle outsiders, many of the same people are still arguing over long-ago news reports, even as independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation has branched out into sex and perjury allegations against the president.
One key player in this brief drama has since switched sides. The first lady asked for the report following suggestions to the White House by Sidney Blumenthal, then a writer for the New Yorker magazine, participants say. He is now an assistant to President Clinton whose duties include monitoring media coverage.
After the report was compiled by White House attorneys at public expense, it was killed by White House press secretary Michael McCurry and Mark Fabiani, then a White House special counsel.
The issue came to a head at a staff meeting in the first lady's conference room in the Old Executive Office Building. "This is the dumbest idea I've ever heard in my life," McCurry said, according to participants. "I make these decisions. This is not happening." All copies of the report were collected, and a recent search by White House officials failed to turn one up.
"They had put together some material that analyzed the coverage, but it was really about the tone of the coverage," McCurry said yesterday. "It was hard to find specific factual errors. My general view is that if you've got a problem with a newspaper and a case you can document, you assemble it and take it to the editor. To declare holy war on someone publicly usually doesn't work very well."
Blumenthal did not dispute that he made the suggestions to Fabiani but said it was "absolutely false" that he had suggested to Hillary Clinton that she seek such a report. He said his conversations with her were private.
Fabiani, in an interview shortly after he left the White House in 1996, said he opposed the plan because "it would have been counterproductive. My job was to protect the interests of the president and first lady by providing my best advice, and I felt strongly that such a frontal attack on the press would have emboldened Whitewater hawks in the media and undermined reporters who believed Whitewater was overblown."
Jane Sherburne, another former White House lawyer, recalled the frustrations of dealing with Whitewater. "You sit around and you pull your hair out and say, what can we do about this?" But the report found only "subtle" problems in coverage, she said yesterday, and Hillary Clinton didn't "have any interest in a strategy that backfires. That was not something she continued to push."
White House spokesman Jim Kennedy said yesterday that "there was a general consensus in the White House that the record needed to be corrected on Whitewater reporting," including by The Post. "Along with many others, the first lady was supportive of the counsel's office in their efforts."
The four-year Whitewater probe by Starr remains a sore subject at the White House. David E. Kendall, the president's personal attorney, recently urged Clinton associates to cooperate with a magazine article that the administration hopes will criticize coverage of the scandal, according to people familiar with the situation.
The first lady has described the Arkansas land dealings known as Whitewater as "the never-ending fictional conspiracy" that "reminds me of some people's obsession with UFOs and the Hale-Bopp comet."
Hillary Clinton and other White House officials have repeatedly expressed their displeasure with Schmidt, who reported in 1993 that federal banking regulators had referred their inquiry into Madison Guaranty, the savings and loan at the heart of the Whitewater case, for criminal prosecution. That investigation led to the appointment of an independent counsel. Schmidt also co-authored the Jan. 21 Post report that Starr had expanded his probe to include allegations involving Monica S. Lewinsky.
Five current and former White House officials who reviewed the report on Schmidt at the time said in recent interviews that it failed to offer compelling evidence that her coverage was less fair than that of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal. The report compared the placement of Whitewater stories and the headlines -- neither of which is decided by reporters -- along with an examination of alleged errors and the placement of comments by administration officials. The officials said the analysis found more of Schmidt's reports getting front-page display but otherwise did not discern much difference among the newspapers.
Leonard Downie Jr., The Post's executive editor, said yesterday that Schmidt, "through extremely hard reporting work," was "able to find things out that I felt were significant for our readers to know." He said Whitewater is important because of the Clintons' ties to a failed savings and loan and that the story dragged on because of "unresponsiveness" by the White House. "It never ended because we never got the truth fully," Downie said.
But raw feelings remain. In an unsolicited call yesterday, James Carville, a close friend of the Clintons, said: "I don't have to order up any study on Sue Schmidt to know her reporting is biased."
The episode began in the first months of 1996 when Blumenthal, a onetime Post reporter then writing for the New Yorker, called Fabiani and suggested it was time "to go after The Post" on its Whitewater coverage. "You ought to prepare a document outlining the difference between The Post and other papers," Blumenthal said, according to a source familiar with the matter.
At a meeting in the White House residence soon afterward, the first lady, who spoke periodically with Blumenthal, asked aides to write a report on Schmidt's coverage. The idea was not only to publish the report but to formally present it to Downie.
Fabiani argued at the meeting that the effort would backfire if they singled out one reporter for criticism, participants say. But the project moved forward.
During the same meeting, participants say, the first lady talked about the lack of media attention for a recently issued report by a law firm that had been hired by federal regulators to examine Whitewater. The law firm said there was no available evidence of wrongdoing by the Clintons. The first lady said the White House should publish the report as a book. Fabiani found a publisher in Chicago, but the idea soon faded.
A White House lawyer, meanwhile, drafted the report on Schmidt and sent it to Fabiani and Christopher Lehane, then an attorney in the counsel's office and now a spokesman for Vice President Gore. A cover memo was prepared for Fabiani's and McCurry's signatures. Soon afterward, McCurry pulled the plug on the effort.
Administration colleagues jokingly call Blumenthal "G.K.," or grassy knoll, for his fondness for conspiracy theories. He is one of the strongest proponents in the White House of attacking Starr over what the administration views as illegal leaks in the Lewinsky case.
Kendall also has been outspoken in his criticism of the leaks, and earlier this week asked for an official investigation. In recent months, Kendall has been helping author David Brock research an article on Starr's Whitewater probe for Esquire magazine. Kendall has asked Fabiani, among others, to cooperate with Brock in the belief that he will produce a piece sympathetic to the White House.
Kendall gave Brock a confidential 1995 letter he wrote to the editor of the New York Times, complaining about a dispute he had with Jeff Gerth, the Times reporter who broke the original Whitewater story in 1992. The Times dismissed the complaint as groundless.
This sudden fondness for Brock is ironic. In December 1993, he wrote an article for the American Spectator quoting several Arkansas state troopers as saying that Clinton had used them to arrange liaisons with women. That article, which mentioned Paula Jones by her first name, led to Jones's sexual harassment lawsuit against the president.
But Kendall told associates that Brock, who has harshly criticized his onetime allies in the conservative movement, has undergone a "metamorphosis." Kendall did not respond to a telephone message yesterday.
Brock said he first discussed the potential Whitewater article with an Esquire editor last August, before talking to anyone in the administration. In his 1996 biography of Hillary Clinton, he argued that the president, not his wife, bore responsibility for Whitewater.
"I've already advanced a much different view of the Whitewater scandal than what's been reported in the mainstream press," Brock said. "I can't be put up to anything. I'm always going to come to my own conclusions."
Howard Kurtz is the author of "Spin Cycle," a forthcoming book on the Clinton White House, on which this article is partially based.
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