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The Hearings End Much as They Began

By David Maraniss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 19 1996; Page A01

They were on stage even longer than their ancestral icons – country Sam Ervin and his colorful cast from the Watergate hearings – but now, finally, their show is over. The Senate Whitewater committee closed down yesterday after a 13-month run. Chairman Al D'Amato and his cacophonous crew had quizzed and quarrelled and drawn connect-the-dots scenarios and sometimes bored the living daylights out of everybody at 60 sessions, consuming 300 hours, taking 10,729 pages of testimony and 35,000 pages of depositions from 245 people.

And they ended much as they began: The Republicans, in their final report, accused the Clinton White House of stonewalling and obfuscating; and the Democrats, in a minority rebuttal, claimed that the president and first lady had been victimized by a modern-day witch hunt. Along with records set for length and breadth, if not depth, the Whitewater hearings utterly obliterated any notion of congressional objectivity.

No one broke party ranks this time. There was no Howard H. Baker Jr. asking someone of his own party what did he know and when did he know it. Democratic senators covered their president in a protective embrace, serving almost as defense attorneys, while Republican senators behaved like zealous prosecutors, searching for the hidden meaning of every telephone log and witness-stand lapse into forgetfulness.

Nor were there any witnesses comparable to John Dean, spilling the beans on White House higher-ups. Perhaps the closest anyone came to that – and it was not all that close – was when the former deputy attorney general sharply criticized the way White House officials held investigators at bay in the days after deputy counsel Vincent Foster's suicide. Philip B. Heymann asked whether the White House was "hiding something" and warned that they were making "a terrible mistake." Another rare against-the-grain moment came when a junior attorney at the Rose Law Firm surprisingly contradicted Hillary Rodham Clinton's account of how she came to represent James B. McDougal and his savings and loan. Troublesome, but not exactly the stuff of Dean's dramatic if monochromatic "there's a cancer on the presidency" utterance.

The Watergate drama in a sense has become a ghostly curse for every congressional investigation that has followed. Watergate lexicon is automatically passed along to the next set of circumstances, no matter how different, usually beginning with the "gate" suffix and ending with the search for a "smoking gun" – all leading to a sense that nothing has been accomplished unless the hearings result in a dramatic White House shake-up. Both sides find it hard to resist the Watergate temptation. D'Amato, excited one day by a potentially provocative memo from Clinton's attorney, declared that the smoking gun might be at hand; when it proved less than lethal, the White House dismissed it as not a smoking gun but a "squirt gun."

It was left to Michael Chertoff, D'Amato's alter ego and committee counsel, to try to disabuse everyone of smoking gun expectations. A former prosecutor and trial lawyer from New Jersey, Chertoff had spent his career piecing together circumstantial cases. He would try to get inside the minds of defendants to determine motivations and then fit them into a logical chronology.

The long hearings and equally long final majority report are quintessential Chertoff products. In both cases he sought to establish motivations for the Clintons and the people around them, and then to show a pattern of how they withheld information and documents or claimed to forget things in a coordinated effort at damage control. Democrats said it was cynical and venomous of Chertoff to apply a sinister motive to every act. Complaining loudest was minority counsel Richard Ben-Veniste, who in a former career had prosecuted President Richard M. Nixon's men for Watergate-related crimes.

The partisan bickering tended to diminish the fact that the Whitewater hearings indeed disclosed curious patterns of behavior by the Clintons and the people around them, and put them out for public consideration. If not for the hearings, these patterns would have gone undetected or at least unknown to anyone but Kenneth W. Starr and his assistants in the independent counsel's office, who have been conducting a separate investigation on a more secretive track.

One pattern the Whitewater committee highlighted was the release of documents long after they were requested. The Rose billing records showing Hillary Clinton's work for Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, Bruce Lindsey's notes on a 1993 meeting in which he and other White House aides discussed Whitewater with Clinton's private attorney and notes taken by Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes, former communications director Mark Gearan and aide Michael Waldman on Whitewater meetings of the White House inner circle – all these documents seemed to be discovered and turned over to the committee months or years after they were sought.

Chertoff and the Republican senators found similar patterns in Hillary Clinton's apparent reluctance to disclose the full nature of her actions as Madison's lawyer in the mid-1980s, and in her behavior, and that of her confidants, following the 1993 suicide of Foster, her longtime friend and former law partner.

By obtaining and publicizing logs showing a rapid-fire series of telephone calls between Hillary Clinton, her chief of staff, Margaret Williams, her close friend and legal consultant, Susan Thomases, and White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum, the Republicans raised the question of whether the first lady was trying to prevent investigators from combing through Foster's office in search of evidence.

In their final report, the Republicans concluded that was precisely what the first lady and her cohorts had tried to do. Democrats accused Chertoff of trying "to hammer evidence – no matter how ill-fitting – into the precast mold of its conclusions."

Slowly but surely as the year of hearings progressed, it became apparent that Hillary Clinton, the unelected first lady, was becoming the Republicans' central target, not her husband the president.

Bill Clinton at times seemed like nothing more than a bit player in the drama. Why? The Democrats concluded that it was because the Republicans could not get much on him.

"Having failed to tarnish the president, the majority has turned its attention to Mrs. Clinton," the Democrats concluded in their minority report yesterday.

"The venom with which the majority focuses its attack on Hillary Rodham Clinton is surprising, even in the context of the investigation. . . . Every act is portrayed in its most cynical light, every failure of recollection is treated as though the standard for human experience is total recall and photographic memory."

There was, from start to finish, an undertone of sarcasm and ridicule accompanying the overt partisanship of the hearings.

D'Amato, in his most earnest tones, would declare some statement by a White House witness "preposterous" or "disingenuous."

The White House would dismiss the chairman as "ethically challenged," pointing out the times when his own financial and legislative dealings had been questioned.

At times the hearings seemed to take odd diversions down lonesome Arkansas byways, delving into arcane actions tangentially related to the Clintons from more than a dozen years ago.

All along the way, the public was barely paying attention. Polls conducted during the year-long committee hearing process showed that it was considered a low-level scandal.

A majority of respondents said they thought the president and first lady might not be telling the whole truth about Whitewater but that it was not something that would determine whether they would vote for the president in 1996.

The Senate proceedings were often characterized in the news media as a "snooze" or a "box-office bomb."

The hearings were televised on C-Span but rarely made the evening newscasts until, just as Whitewater seemed to be evaporating, some new document or testimony would create new problems for the Clintons and the news media interest would temporarily revive.

Chertoff's deliberative style of questioning was occasionally harpooned by unfriendly witnesses.

Betsey Wright, Clinton's former chief of staff when he was governor of Arkansas, spent eight hours before the committee one day, bobbing and weaving with Chertoff in her sarcastic and colorful fashion.

"Go ahead and talk," she told Chertoff at one point, when he was asking an especially long and intricate question. "And then sometime next week I'll come back and answer."

Near the end of Wright's time in the chair, after she had responded to "nigh on a jillion questions," D'Amato asked how she was doing. "I'm tired and I'm bored," she said, leaning back and breathing a deep, mournful sigh. "But there's not anything you can do about it."

Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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