The Magazine


May 18, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 35 • By BYRON YORK
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Russert confronted Burton: "That is rather exculpatory for Hillary Clinton, and you left it out when you released that document." Again on the defensive, Burton answered that he had tried to protect the Hubbells' privacy and condense many hours of tape into a small package. But the question left unanswered was: Exculpatory of what? As it turns out, Hubbell's exoneration of Mrs. Clinton -- even if it is believable -- was extremely narrow.

The disputed conversation which was recorded on March 25, 1996, took place just a few days after the Rose Law Firm filed suit against Hubbell, demanding that he repay the $ 457,000 he stole from the firm. Hubbell admitted that he took the money, but was angry at the firm's stance toward his overbilling of clients. Sure, he did it, he told his wife. But "so does every [other] lawyer in the country." And besides, the Rose firm had benefited from his overbillings.

Hubbell and his wife discussed a plan to countersue the firm, alleging misconduct on the part of several partners. If that happened, a lot of embarrassing information might come out -- including allegations that a former associate White House counsel had cheated his clients. "My friend Bill Kennedy," Hubbell told his wife, ". . . he's one of the most vulnerable people in my counterclaim." And that's when Hubbell said that Hillary Clinton had not been involved.

The effect of the exchange was to clear Mrs. Clinton on the charge of overbilling her clients -- which she had not been accused of doing in the first place. Hubbell's words had nothing to do with matters, like Castle Grande, in which the first lady is suspected of wrongdoing. So Hubbell had hardly exonerated her. (Incidentally a source familiar with Starr's investigation says prosecutors did look into the possibility that Mrs. Clinton had overbilled. Although they did not conduct an intensive investigation, they concluded that she had actually not billed very much at the firm. And even if she had overbilled, the statute of limitations had run out.)

Much of Waxman's other "exculpatory" material is equally weak. On another tape, Hubbell says several newspaper editorials were "pre-supposing that I -- my silence is being bought. We know that's not true." Before accepting that at face value, one should remember that Hubbell strongly and repeatedly proclaimed that he had not stolen money from his law firm. He said this before he resigned from the Justice Department, he said it after he resigned, and he said it virtually up to the day he pleaded guilty. (In his book, Friends in High Places, Hubbell admits that he lied even to those closest to him.) His denial this time may be no more credible.

But none of that stopped Democrats, the press, and the punditocracy from flogging Dan Burton. Some Republicans joined in, too. In addition to his apologies, by late in the week Burton was forced to fire his chief investigator, David Bossie, in an effort to placate an angry Speaker Newt Gingrich. But if Republicans thought firing Bossie would do anything to silence Democratic criticism, they were clearly mistaken. Indeed, it has only stepped up calls for Burton and the speaker to remove themselves from the fund-raising investigation. "In throwing David Bossie to the wolves, Speaker Gingrich is trying to evade any responsibility for the Burton tapes travesty," said head wolf Richard Gephardt. The minority leader plans to introduce a resolution calling for Burton's ouster.

But if Republicans -- especially those who privately view Burton as an embarassment -- think that dumping the chairman will solve anything, they are likely mistaken again. They should remember the circus that House Democrats made of Whitewater hearings held by the fair-minded, intelligent, non- partisan Jim Leach. And the circus Democrats made of Travelgate hearings held by the equally evenhanded Bill Clinger. Does anyone doubt that the next Republican investigator -- whoever he is -- will receive the same treatment?

Byron York is an investigative writer with the American Spectator.