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.

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.

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