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May 18, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 35 • By BYRON YORK
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HENRY WAXMAN WAS OUTRAGED, and the Webb Hubbell prison recordings hadn't even been released yet. "The tapes," Waxman wrote in a letter to attorney general Janet Reno on April 21, "contain extremely personal conversations that are wholly unrelated to any investigation relevant to Mr. Hubbell or any other matter." The making Democrat on the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, Waxman pressed his point the next day on the House floor and later at an April 30 committee hearing. "I'm offended at the idea that they would be released," he told the committee. "They're private conversations, in many cases intimate conversations that Mr. Hubbell was having with his wife."

Waxman pointed out -- correctly -- that 99 percent of the discussions on the tapes were irrelevant to the investigation. But he failed to mention that 1 percent of the material was extremely relevant, casting new light on the relationship between the Hubbells and the White House at a time when Hubbell was at least nominally cooperating with independent counsel Kenneth Starr. At the very least, the tapes showed a down-and-out Hubbell under intense White House pressure to cover up incriminating information about top administration figures.

Nevertheless, committee chairman Dan Burton tried to accommodate Waxman's objections -- and ended up playing into his hands. Burton announced that he would not release the actual tapes, but rather transcripts of just those portions most important to the committee's investigation. The rest would be edited out. That way, Hubbell's privacy would be protected and the public would still learn important new information.

So Burton released the transcripts -- and Waxman had his opening. "Things shouldn't be taken out of context!" Waxman thundered. "They shouldn't be censored and cut -- doctored, really!" Picking up the charge, White House senior policy adviser Rahm Emanuel denounced the tapes as "doctored and altered."

Yes, the transcripts were amateurish. They weren't verbatim, and they did not cover all the important subjects on the tapes. But doctored? No. Still, Burton was on the defensive, at first explaining and later apologizing for the transcripts.

But Waxman's objections were not terribly reliable. Take his treatment of the most frequently quoted tape, a conversation between Hubbell and his wife that included the following exchange:

SUZY HUBBELL: [Marsha Scott] said you're not going to get any public support if you open up Hillary. Well, by public support I know exactly what she means. I'm not stupid.

WEBB HUBBELL: And I sat there and spent Saturday with you saying I would not do that. I won't raise those allegations that might open it up to Hillary, and you know that. We talked about that.

SUZY HUBBELL: Yes, but then I get all this back from Marsha, who's ratcheting it up and making it sound like, you know, if Webb goes ahead and sues the firm back, then any support I have at the White House is gone. I mean, I'm hearing the squeeze play.

WEBB HUBBELL: So I need to roll over one more time.

Waxman accused Burton of leaving out the punch line. He told ABC's Nightline, "There is one instance where [Burton] put out a tape saying that Webb Hubbell was going to try to roll over in order not to implicate Hillary Clinton. But he omitted the next sentence where Webb Hubbell said, Of course, Hillary Clinton knew nothing about the billing practices at their law firm."

The point sounded good, but it wasn't true. As Nightline correspondent Chris Bury reported, that "next sentence" was not the next sentence at all, but came 45 minutes later in the tapes. And what about the charge that the tapes had been doctored? Well, maybe that's not actually true, conceded Waxman. "It is not doctoring them in the sense, in the view of putting in different words," he said to Bury.

Beyond that, there was the question of what the taped conversation actually meant. On NBC, Meet the Press host Tim Russert played the missing excerpt for Burton. In it, Hubbell discussed lawyers at the Rose Law Firm who had overbilled clients. But:

WEBB HUBBELL: Hillary's not. Hillary isn't -- the only thing is, people say, Why didn't she know what was going on? And I wish she'd never paid any attention to what was going on at the firm. That's the gospel truth. She just had no idea what was going on. She didn't participate in any of this.

SUZY HUBBELL: They wouldn't have let her if she'd tried.

WEBB HUBBELL: Of course not.