The Magazine

THE VERDICT IS IN

Jun 10, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 38 • By TOD LINDBERG
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THE METHODICAL WORK OF A Little Rock jury has put an end once and for all to the proposition, advanced tirelessly by the defenders of Bill Clinton, that nothing really wrong was going on at the intersection of politics and money down in Arkansas during the 1980s.


Maybe they were all too cozy down there, the defenders said, and maybe there were some sleazy deals, but given the nature of the problems facing the nation in this last decade of the millennium, so what? And besides, it was all so complicated. Who in Washington had the time or stamina to wade through hundreds of pages of still-incomplete documentation in order to try to figure out the details of ten-year-old loans? Such obsessive activity would almost have to be partisan in inspiration, wouldn't it?


No. Two weeks ago it became the work of a jury -- twelve ordinary Arkansans who had been carefully screened for any sign of partisan bias, locked in a room for eight days with each other, some 700 pages of documents, and their notes on the testimony of 37 witnesses. And they decided that Arkansas governor Jim Guy Tucker, Clinton's handpicked successor, and Clinton's Whitewater business partners Jim and Susan McDougal were engaged in a $ 3 million fraud scheme and convicted them on twenty-four of thirty felony counts.


Thus the "Arkansas phase" of Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation has already reached an important climax, and probably not the last one. We no longer have to rely on the accounts of journalists, or partisans on either side, to understand what went on during the Arkansas years of Bill and Hillary Clinton. A neutral jury has found that the facts, beyond a reasonable doubt, are these: One of the things going on in Arkansas in the 1980s was, quite simply, criminal conspiracy.


This is especially important because Clinton defenders have felt free to dismiss any inquiry into what came after the Arkansas years -- at the Clinton White House, Justice Department, Treasury Department, etc. -- as baseless and partisan in part because they could point to Whitewater and Arkansas and say, "See? There was nothing there, and there's nothing here. Only a Republican could think differently."


One of the problems of "Whitewater" is that partisan speculation has indeed outstripped known facts, just as the Clinton defenders claim. Conjectures are taken for conclusions, and upon them more conjectures are piled. Some of the more exotic birds of this species have hatched out of the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster. And a small airport in Mena, Ark., has led conservative Republicans to swallow whole various conspiracy charges first levied by the radical leftist Christic Institute. The wilder the charges, the easier it has been to dismiss legitimate investigations, like Starr's.


To be sure, Starr had already won some guilty pleas -- including one from the former No. 3 official at the Justice Department, Webster Hubbell, former law partner of Hillary's and golf partner of Bill's. But the Hubbell case was about how he had defrauded his Rose law firm partners by engaging in false billing practices, in which case Hubbell could be considered guilty of victimizing Hillary, not conspiring with her.


If there was nothing wrong going on in and around the Little Rock governor's mansion, the defenders were saying, there was really no justification for an investigation at all -- especially one that was looking into the question of whether there might have been an Arkansas-related coverup inside the Clinton White House. If there was no crime, there could be nothing to cover up except maybe sloppiness and sleaziness. The verdicts last week indicate that there might indeed have been something worth covering up. Real crimes just might call for real obstruction.


There is no reasonable doubt that some kind of obstruction has taken place in the Clinton White House. The smoking gun appeared this year, with the belated discovery of those Rose law firm billing records detailing Hillary's representation of the Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan. The records had been under subpoena for two years; they had been removed from a table in the "book room" on the third floor of the White House residence, placed in a box, and discovered in January only inadvertently by a terrified White House employee. The White House had maintained they were missing or destroyed. Apparently not; one day they were not on the table, a couple days later they were, the employee testified. Whoever put them there had an obligation to turn them over to the appropriate authorities and then make himself or herself available for questioning about the circumstances of possessing them. The failure to do so is a textbook case of obstruction. We just don't know who did the obstructing.