Read an Excerpt
"Bill Has Always Been Someone Who Has
Lived on the Edge"
As the Christmas holidays neared, Clinton was riding high. The atmosphere at the White House was almost giddy. The NAFTA victory seemed to have settled the matter of his legislative prowess. In some quarters, he was being credited with having successfully pushed the most ambitious legislative program since Lyndon Johnson.
Though the Johnson comparison was an exaggeration, Clinton had accomplished a lot: his economic program, NAFTA, national service, aid to Russia, direct student loans, the Brady bill, had all been got through Congress. Winning bills that Bush had vetoed--family leave, "motor voter"--was no great feat, but they were heralded as triumphs by the White House. Other Clinton initiatives were part way through the legislative process, and he was well on the way to winning most of his "lifelong learning" proposals: national service and direct student loans were enacted; his Goals 2000 education program, which had to overcome resistance from the education establishment, was moving through Congress (and was signed into law on March 31, 1994); the school-to-work plan was moving (and was signed into law in May 1994). Legislation providing a large expansion of Head Start was under way (and was signed into law in May 1994). Reauthorization and reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was moving. The Reemployment Act, to provide one-stop shopping for worker retraining, would be introduced in 1994.
Needing as he did congressional allies. Clinton talked a lot less about political reform legislation, and made less effort to achieve it, than had been suggested in the campaign. In fact, he hardly talked about it at all. He had concluded that if he wanted to get a lot done quickly, more quickly perhaps than the Congress wanted, he had to work with it, push it, be a partner to it. By the end of the 1993 congressional session, campaign finance reform bills were passed by the House and the Senate, but they didn't really get at the problem. Despite Clinton's campaign pledge to bring "change" to Washington, its lobbyist/money culture remained undisturbed.
Though Clinton's accomplishments weren't as sweeping as Johnson's, he achieved them under more difficult circumstances. (Johnson followed a martyred President and then won a landslide victory; his congressional margins were much more commanding than Clinton's, there was more party discipline then, and there were more Presidential levers, including federal projects to throw around.) Moreover, the nation's politics, Clinton's politics, and budget realities forbade legislation on the scale of the Johnson era. Most of Clinton's important victories were narrow scrapes (the economic plan) or grew out of an ad hoc coalition unlikely to be replicated (NAFTA). And despite the achievements, both Clintons now had a more sobering sense than before of the limitations on the modern Presidency--the absence of strong parties, the increased independence of Congress, and a more cynical press.
In December, Clinton's poll ratings were the highest since the first months of his Presidency. The Washington Post/ABC poll put his favorability rating at 58 percent, the Los Angeles Times at 59 percent. Significantly, a Times-Mirror Center poll in early December said that 63 percent of those surveyed thought of Clinton as someone who could get things done. Press coverage was largely positive--it was accepted that Clinton had accomplished a lot. And now he was giving good speeches more consistently than before. The unpleasantness over his foreign policy fumbles had faded from the public's mind (until the Aspin firing in mid-December). The year-end wrap-up stories, for which the staff worked hard to provide positive data and backgrounded reporters like mad, promised to be good ones.
The economy was doing well. The unemployment figure announced in early December was 6.4 percent, the lowest rate since early 1991. Inflation was low, and so were interest rates. Consumer confidence and the purchase of new homes were on the rise.
The Clintons, who had always made a big thing of Christmas, were going all out for their first one at the White House. They held at least one Christmas party or reception every day, starting December 6--in all, thirty-two events. (To avoid overcrowding, they held four for the press, for whom they still had little affection. They also gave one for the Secret Service.)
The Clintons stood patiently in the Diplomatic Room, on the first floor of the White House, while guests' pictures were taken with them, and they chatted briefly with each guest. (If a guest was thoughtless enough to start up a conversation with the President, the obliging Clinton colluded in holding up the line.) Tickets stipulating one's time for the picture taking were handed out to avoid long lines. Upstairs, in the entertainment rooms, the food was bountiful, and the guests mixed and admired the extensive Christmas decorations. Twenty-two trees were hung with ornaments crafted by artists from across the country. Clinton staff members mingled--some of them looking more relaxed than they had reason to be.
Clinton's closest aides knew--the President had known for a long time--that a story was coming alleging that as governor, Clinton had used Arkansas state troopers to help him conduct numerous sexual liaisons. A writer for The American Spectator, a conservative monthly magazine, had been digging around in Little Rock for some time, as had the Los Angeles Times, and some of the troopers were talking. The President had been alerted in August by Danny Ferguson, one of the four troopers who talked to the Spectator.
Something else was brewing as well. In the fall, press stories had begun to appear about an investment the Clintons had made in 1978 in a planned resort development in the Ozarks called Whitewater. The project was to be developed on two hundred thirty acres of land overlooking the White River, in northern Arkansas. There had been a brief flurry about the project during the campaign, following a story in the New York Times March 8, 1992, which questioned the losses on the project that the Clintons had claimed, and their relationship with their partners in the deal, James McDougal and his then wife, Susan.
McDougal was working for Clinton in the Arkansas government when the investment was made; he left the government in 1979 and in 1982 took over a small savings and loan, Madison Guaranty, and built it into one of the biggest S&Ls in Arkansas--until it failed in 1989. In the eighties, when the project got into trouble, McDougal put more money into Whitewater than the Clintons did. McDougal said later that he did this because he felt bad about getting them into the deal.
The New York Times piece alleged that the Clintons had put up little money and had taken improper tax deductions, and that Madison money had been used to subsidize the Whitewater project--which went bust. It also alleged that Mrs. Clinton had been retained by Madison, to help prevent it from being closed down by a state agency after it had been found insolvent, and that the closing of the bank was forestalled by Clinton's appointment of a new state securities commissioner. The Times reported that some of the Whitewater documents were missing. In late March, the Clinton camp produced a report by a Denver attorney and friend of the Clintons, James Lyons, that stated that the Clintons had lost $68,900 on the Whitewater project. (No backup documentation was released, and it was subsequently learned that the accounting firm Lyons had turned to had worked from incomplete information.)
This Clinton campaign exercise in "damage limitation" succeeded--as all such efforts did during the campaign--and press attention soon turned elsewhere. When, in a debate in Chicago on March 15, on the eve of the Illinois and Michigan primaries, Clinton was asked by Jerry Brown about the Times story, he responded with an angry defense of his wife. (This exchange was what precipitated Mrs. Clinton's famous "tea and cookies" remark.) No one knew then how many more such scenes there were going to be. Clinton won both Illinois and Michigan by landslides. The consensus was that Clinton would be the Democratic nominee. Whitewater was forgotten.
On October 31, 1993, the Washington Post reported that the Resolution Trust Corporation, which acquired and disposed of the assets of failed S&Ls, had asked the Justice Department to conduct a criminal investigation of Madison. This "criminal referral," as such requests to the Justice Department were called, included questions about whether Madison funds had been used to pay off a Clinton campaign debt from his 1984 gubernatorial campaign. McDougal had helped organize a fund-raiser in 1985 to help pay off the debt. The Post also reported that the questions about transactions involving Whitewater were part of the criminal referral. It was later learned that the RTC had also examined whether Madison funds had been siphoned into the foundering Whitewater project. The referral didn't name the Clintons as targets of the investigation, but they were mentioned as among the prominent Arkansas political figures McDougal had done business with or helped in some way. McDougal's dealings with Jim Guy Tucker, who had succeeded Clinton as governor, were allegedly far more extensive than they were with the Clintons, and were also part of the referral.
The Post story said that there had been a "protracted debate" within the RTC over whether the referral should name the Clintons, since the investigation primarily focused on Madison officials' handling of S&L funds. (The Madison failure was estimated to cost taxpayers about $50 million.) There had been a similar referral in October 1992, but the Republican-appointed United States attorney in Little Rock recommended against pursuing it, on the grounds that this would seem a blatantly partisan act on the eve of the Presidential election, and the Bush administration Justice Department concurred. The subsequent referral, in October 1993, in which the Clintons, while not subjects, were named, was rejected by the new Democratic U.S. attorney in Little Rock, a former law student of Clinton's, who afterward recused herself from the case.
So when the Clintons left for Washington, it was well known in political, legal, and financial circles in Little Rock that the Madison case, which was a very big deal there, was very much alive.
On September 29, 1993, White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum had met with Jean Hanson, the general counsel of the Treasury Department, who told him that the RTC was preparing a request for a criminal investigation of Madison and would name the Clintons as potential witnesses. (The Treasury Department supervised the general policies of the RTC.) In a follow-up call, Hanson told Nussbaum more details about the referral. So the White House was aware of the criminal referral at some point before it became public. Shortly after his conversation with Hanson, Nussbaum told Bruce Lindsey of the pending action. Lindsey said that a few days later, on a trip to California, he told Clinton about the referrals.
There was another meeting, on October 14, between White House aides (Gearan, Nussbaum, and Lindsey) and three Treasury officials. Those attending said they simply discussed how to deal with press inquiries about the investigation, which hadn't yet become public but which were now drawing reporters' interest. These meetings, and subsequent ones, were later to bring considerable grief to those who attended them--they could be construed as improper contacts between regulators and the White House--and to the Clinton White House itself. Public knowledge of these meetings was triggered by testimony to the Senate Banking Committee on February 24, 1994, by Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman, who in the absence of an appointed head of the RTC was its acting supervisor. (The Clinton personnel system struck again.) Altman, under questioning, told the committee that there had been one "substantive" contact between Treasury and White House officials: a meeting on February 2, 1994, at which he had given a "heads up" about the statute of limitations on RTC civil suits. (Later that month, Congress passed and Clinton signed an extension of the statute of limitations.) But, shortly afterward, it turned out that there had been other meetings, and Altman had to amend his testimony four times. (White House aides realized at once that Altman's testimony was incomplete, and pressed for the amendments. The Treasury Department's inspector general later reported that there had been as many as forty contacts, including those of the most casual nature.) The disclosure of the meetings led almost immediately to subpoenas, in March of 1994, of ten White House and Treasury officials, and to the ouster of Nussbaum, who had attended all the meetings. (Nussbaum's other misjudgments--on Justice Department appointments, the travel office, and other matters, also played a role in his departure. And there was something beyond the recently disclosed meeting, which Nussbaum, as White House counsel, should have prevented. Nussbaum in general took an expansive view of the White House's relationship with regulatory agencies, and talked openly about this. An alarmed Joel Klein took the matter to other officials, and when Gore learned of it, he was very disturbed. At the end, Gore, for a number of reasons, was a strong advocate of Nussbaum's departure.) On the day after his testimony, Altman recused himself from the Madison case. (In the Whitewater hearings in the summer of 1994, it emerged that Altman had considered recusing himself from the Madison case in late January, but held off after the February 2 meeting, at which Nussbaum and others argued against it. Maggie Williams and Ickes opposed his recusing himself. No one ever doubted for whom Williams spoke. Treasury's legal and ethics offices had told Altman he wasn't required to recuse himself, but Treasury and RTC officials also told him that he would be wise to do so. Altman hadn't told the Banking Committee about the recusal discussion at the February 2 meeting.) The Clintons didn't want Altman to recuse himself and were reliably reported to be furious when Altman went ahead with it. As they expressed it to others, his presence might protect them from what they saw as "partisan" actions on the part of the RTC staff. The Clintons were particularly incensed by the RTC's hiring, in February, of the law firm of Jay Stephens, a former Republican U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia who strongly protested his firing by Reno (who had fired all holdover U.S. attorneys), to handle the Madison case. According to a senior official, the Clintons wanted Altman to "keep the lid on." (Stephanopoulos and Ickes angrily phoned Altman about the recusal, and Stephanopoulos phoned Josh Steiner, the twenty-eight-year-old Treasury Chief of Staff, about the hiring of Stephens--which landed Stephanopoulos a subpoena. Ickes already had one.) Also, there had been bad blood between Nussbaum and Hanson, going back to their both practicing law in New York, and Nussbaum wasn't comfortable with Hanson's having a large role in overseeing the RTC, without Altman's presence. The Clintons kept thinking they could control a situation that was rapidly spinning out of their control, and in the process made things worse for themselves and their aides.
A second strand having to do with Whitewater was making its way into investigatory channels. David Hale, a Little Rock businessman, who had managed a company that dispensed Small Business Administration funds, supposedly for minorities and women, was under investigation and threatening to charge that Clinton himself had leaned on him to make a $300,000 loan in 1976 to Susan McDougal. Hale alleged that part of the loan went to Whitewater. Conspiracy theorists made note of the fact that on the day Vince Foster died, the FBI had obtained a warrant to search Hale's offices. But by the time the subpoena was issued in Little Rock, Foster had already left his office.
To try to ensure that the case was pursued once the referral was made, there were leaks out of the RTC to newspapers and to James Leach, the Iowa Republican who, as the senior minority member of the House Banking Committee, had taken a great interest in the S&L bailouts.
Leach, a moderate with a reputation for judiciousness, was a good foil to send up against Clinton. House Minority Leader Bob Michel encouraged Leach to pursue the matter. In early December, at an embassy party, Leach told a journalist, "It's not sex that's going to bring Clinton down--it's ethics that's going to bring him down." This remark didn't comport with Leach's later claims that all he expected to arise out of the issue was a two-to-three-week investigation.
White House aides, aware that a number of reporters had turned up in Arkansas to look into Whitewater, were quietly trying to put out fires concerning the story. On December 6, a White House delegation--Lindsey, Gearan, and Gergen--went to the Washington Post to talk about some questions about Whitewater for which the Post wanted answers, as well as the Post's request for some Whitewater documents. Later in December, the Post published a story questioning the Clintons' claimed loss. Pressure--from newspapers, from Leach--on the Clintons to release their documents on Whitewater was building.
"Whitewater" was a wonderfully apt, and ominous, metaphor.
On Friday, December 17, the Spectator began to fax copies of an article by David Brock around Washington. The article relayed in salacious detail stories recounted by four troopers--only two of whom would go on record--of Clinton's allegedly numerous liaisons with women, and how he allegedly used the troopers to transport him to assignations, procure women Clinton had spotted or get their phone numbers for him, deliver gifts to the women, guard him while he was having sex with them, and cover up his activities from his wife. The article asserted that these activities continued through the Presidential campaign and the transition. It portrayed Mrs. Clinton as a foul-mouthed harpy and alleged that she had had an affair with Vince Foster. It also alleged that directly (in calls to the troopers) and indirectly, Clinton had offered one of the troopers a job in exchange for refusing to cooperate with the reporters nosing around about his past sex life. The article did point out that none of the women confirmed the stories, that the troopers were hoping to make money through selling a book on the subject, and that Cliff Jackson, a Little Rock attorney who was a longtime enemy of Clinton's, was representing the troopers.
By Saturday, December 18, the White House knew that the Los Angeles Times and CNN were considering running pieces soon on the troopers' stories. Gergen was trying to discourage the stories, relaying rumors that the troopers had been paid for their story.
Early in the afternoon of the Saturday before Christmas, in the midst of the holiday parties, advisers gathered with the Clintons in the residence to brace them for what was coming and to talk strategy. At the meeting were McLarty, Gergen, Stephanopoulos, and Lindsey, together with David Kendall, the Clintons' private attorney at the firm of Williams & Connolly, and another attorney from the firm. The President had by then received a copy of the Spectator story, but aides said later that they didn't know whether he or his wife read it. (They had urged Mrs. Clinton not to read it, fearing that she would be emotionally devastated.) But both Clintons were at least aware of what was in the article. Clinton pressed his advisers for their judgments on how big the troopers story would be, where it would go, and what they should do. No one knew whether the story would be picked up in the mainstream press.
Gergen said that a storm was coming, but it wouldn't last very long. He thought that Whitewater would be a longer-term problem. Clinton was urged very strongly not to make specific responses about specific women mentioned in the article. (Gergen turned out to be right until one named by the Spectator as Paula--later to become famous as Paula Jones--brought a suit against Clinton the following May, for allegedly trying to get her to perform oral sex with him in a Little Rock hotel room, in May 1991, during, of all things, a governor's conference on total quality management. She first made her charges at a conference of conservative groups in Washington, where she was presented by Clinton's nemesis Cliff Jackson. The White House struggled, with incomplete success, to kill the story, and an aide dismissed Jones as "pathetic." But White House officials were plenty worried, with reason.)
Both Clintons were angry. Clinton demanded to know where this story had come from. He denounced it as "bull," said it was "crazy"; he said that some of the things in the article were "outrageous." And Clinton was perplexed about who was behind these stories--surely someone or some group was behind them.
Bruce Lindsey mentioned a story in that day's Washington Post: it said there was "renewed investigative interest" in papers concerning Whitewater that had been in Foster's office. (Foster handled the sale to McDougal of the Clintons' remaining interest in Whitewater for a thousand dollars in late 1992, and the payment of back taxes due on the project, and had been working on setting up a blind trust for the Clintons.) The next day, Sunday, the New York Times reported that "investigators" had been told that Foster had kept a file on Whitewater in his office and were trying to confirm whether the file had been taken from his office after his death; it hadn't been listed in the inventory of the items in his office conducted two days after he died.
Mark Gearan was giving a party late that Sunday afternoon at his home in Alexandria, Virginia, for the departing Roy Neel and Howard Paster. While he was out buying wine, a couple of reporters had phoned. At 4:45 P.M., fifteen minutes before his party was to begin, he participated in a conference call with Dee Dee Myers and Gergen. Gergen said that CNN was going to do something with the troopers story that night and needed a response to some questions. Also, the Los Angeles Times had asked to talk to him. It was decided that Gergen and Myers would miss the party and call the television networks to see if they were planning to run a story. Bruce Lindsey stayed at the White House to draft a statement. The Clintons were having a large extended-family Christmas party at the White House that night, which included several old friends from Arkansas.
At his party, as Gearan played the piano and guests were singing songs he had written teasing Neel and Paster, beepers started going off, including Nussbaum's and McLarty's. As their beepers sounded, guests would go to the phone and then leave the party--which was rapidly becoming depopulated. At eight-thirty, Gearan kissed his wife, told her it had been a good party, and left for the White House.
At six o'clock on CNN, Roger Perry and Larry Patterson, the two troopers who had gone on the record with the Spectator, talked about Clinton's sexual activities and said that Clinton had offered another trooper, Danny Ferguson, a job in exchange for his not talking. (Soliciting anything of value in consideration for the promise of federal employment was a federal crime.) The trooper was allegedly offered a job either as U.S. marshal in Little Rock or as a regional director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. One former trooper, Buddy Young, who was in touch with the President and had tried to dissuade the others from talking, allegedly also spoke to them about the possibility of jobs. Young had already been made a FEMA regional manager in Texas. (The job paid $98,000; an Arkansas state trooper was paid a maximum of $25,600 after five years.) It later emerged that Lindsey--the President's consigliere and, as it happened the director of personnel--had been having frequent conversations with Young in recent weeks.
The statement finally issued by the White House on Sunday night, in Bruce Lindsey's name, was the first in a series of nondenial denials of the allegations about Clinton's sex life. It said, "The allegations are ridiculous." It continued, somewhat misleadingly and with fractured syntax, "Similar allegations were made, investigated, and responded to during the campaign, and there is nothing here that would dignify a further response." (Allegations of this breadth had not come up in the campaign.) It flatly denied the allegations of a job offer but did say that the President "has had conversations about the fact that false stories were being spread about him."
A Clinton aide said later that the calls Clinton made to the troopers were sparked by Ferguson's phoning to say, "Mr. President, there's a lot of stuff around here." Another aide said Ferguson told Clinton that two troopers were talking to reporters and that they were being represented by Cliff Jackson. Since then, Clinton had been making calls to Arkansas to see what was going on. He had several phone conversations with Ferguson after that; the Spectator said Clinton had offered Ferguson a job and, through him, had made the same offer to another of the talking troopers. "He was really ripped," an aide said later.
For Clinton to have made the calls--whether or not he offered jobs--was foolish. The picture of the President of the United States calling state troopers and trying to kill a story about his sex life was dismaying. It was yet another sign, and a costly one, of the fact that Clinton had no one around him strong enough to dissuade him from doing such things. Lindsey privately admitted to knowing that the President had made some calls--and to making calls himself--and McLarty, characteristically, said he may have known about them but wasn't sure. He also said that Clinton tried to keep in touch with people who had worked with him in Arkansas, like the cook.
Some advisers attributed the calls to Clinton's "hands on" style of governing. One said later, "It may be good advice for a President of the United States that if someone calls you and says, `There are people down here telling tales and being promised good money,' maybe he should say, `This isn't a conversation a President should have,' but that's not his style." Another adviser said Clinton's phoning the troopers grew out of his belief in his persuasive powers. Clinton had come to think he could talk his way past anything and persuade almost anyone of his point of view. His phoning the troopers was also a sign of his need to control matters, his sense--in which he appeared to have indulged himself for a long time--that the rules didn't apply to him, and a lack of judgment about where not to venture the Presidency.
It was the phone calls that gave the troopers story currency, that gave those in the media who didn't feel that the sex story by itself was a valid one something to hang it on, raising the question of whether the President had behaved illegally as well as foolishly. Clinton later told a friend in the government that he realized he shouldn't have called the troopers--it wasn't Presidential--but he had thought he had nipped the story.
Monday, the day after the troopers story broke, was the most bizarre day thus far in this and perhaps any other administration. There were crisis meetings about what to do about the sex story. Paul Begala stopped by George Stephanopoulos's office and said, "I think I'm going to throw up."
That morning, the Washington Times ran the banner headline: CLINTON PAPERS LIFTED AFTER AIDE'S SUICIDE. The subhead read: "Foster's office was secretly searched hours after his body was found." The gist of the story was that papers pertinent to the Whitewater project were removed from Foster's office "during two searches"--the first one, on the night of Foster's death (which went on for two hours rather than the ten minutes originally claimed), by Nussbaum, Maggie Williams, and Patsy Thomasson. The second "search" was the one Nussbaum conducted two days later in the presence (if not within eyesight) of the Park Police and the FBI. Making the story even more labyrinthine, it was pointed out that Thomasson had been executive director of an Arkansas investment firm that was headed by a man who had done a lot of bond business with the state of Arkansas and who was convicted of distributing cocaine (including to the President's brother, Roger). The Park Police later complained to the Justice Department that Nussbaum had impeded their investigation of Foster's death.
The story went on to say that what had actually happened was that the Whitewater file, being a personal matter, had been turned over to the Clintons' private attorney. (Much later, in early August 1994, it was learned that the file was first given to Williams, who, at Mrs. Clinton's direction, locked it in a closet in the mansion for five days, before it was given to the attorney. The attorney was going to Foster's funeral.) But the idea, with sinister overtones, that the Whitewater papers had somehow vanished--took hold. From that time on, news stories about Whitewater talked of "the file removed from Vince Foster's office."
Now the Whitewater and Foster stories were conjoined, enlarging and heating both. The Washington Times had already run stories pointing out that on the day of Foster's death, James Lyons, of the Lyons Whitewater report, had called him. But Foster didn't return the call before he left the office. (Lyons said later that he had called to leave a message about the fact that he was coming to Washington on Wednesday and was to have dinner with Foster because Foster was depressed over the travel office affair.) The Lyons call helped to feed the Whitewater theory of Foster's death.
For those who couldn't, or didn't want to, accept the simpler theory that Foster had become severely depressed by his sense that he had damaged himself professionally, especially in the travel office affair, and let down or damaged others, the Whitewater angle was grist. For those, particularly in the right wing, who wanted to exploit Foster's death and spread lurid stories about it (that he had been murdered, that he had been murdered in a nonexistent government safe house), and build Whitewater into a major scandal, the joining of the two issues was manna. But though it was possible Foster was worried about Whitewater--in the state he was in, he might have been worried about all manner of things--there was at that point no basis in fact for asserting that it had led to his suicide.
So on Monday, December 20, at the Clinton White House, while damage control was being exercised on the troopers story and a nervous vigil went on to see if it was picked up in the mainstream press, a statement had to be got out about Foster's Whitewater file. Gearan said privately, "The missing-file story is bullshit, ridiculous. We really had to shut it down. It was like the eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap in a tape [the famous gap in a tape of a Nixon conversation]. We had to work through the day to get out a statement." The statement, in Gearan's name, said that all the files on the Clintons' personal business had been turned over to their private attorney. "We know of no missing files," it declared.
Then there was also news that day that Inman had failed to pay Social Security tax for a housekeeper for several years.
And there was the news of Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders's son being arrested that day--this about two weeks after Elders had suggested a study of the question of whether drugs should be legalized. (The President had quickly knocked that down. Dr. Elders, who had been the Health Commissioner of Arkansas, often made controversial statements, but Clinton had known that when he picked her.)
In the course of the day, Gearan, asked by a reporter about the Inman story, said, "I can only deal with one nightmare at a time."
Dee Dee Myers held no briefing, so as not to have to answer questions and propagate more news about the troopers story. She held none the next day either. The atmosphere at the White House was eerie, as if someone had died.
That night, the Clintons held their Christmas party for the White House staff. The First Couple looked strained as they came down the stairs, stayed five minutes, saying little, and left.
The Los Angeles Times story, on Tuesday, added details about numerous phone calls Clinton had made to various women. It reported that fifty-nine calls had been placed to a particular woman's home and business between 1989 and 1991. Nussbaum told the press, "This President calls lots of people." The Times piece also had three troopers saying that Clinton carried on an affair with one woman into January 1993.
The troopers story had, by several accounts, a devastating effect on the Clintons. The revival of the painful Foster memory upset them all the more. The President was described by aides as "distracted." Both Clintons were described as angry, and tensions in the family quarters were said to be high. Clinton called a friend and said that it was really terrible to go through this with both his mother and his wife's mother in the house. At one point during that week, a Presidential aide called Vernon Jordan and suggested that he invite the President for some golf. Clinton had complained that he wanted to get out of the house. It's hard for a President to simply "get out of the house"--go for a drive, take a walk, drop in on a friend, as ordinary people do when they're troubled. A few days after the troopers story broke, and two days before Christmas, another top adviser to Clinton described him as dismayed, vexed, and frustrated--as well as angry.
Both Clintons were also upset that no one was defending them on Whitewater. A senior aide said, "He gets frustrated when he's not being defended. There are frequent times when they feel they're out there almost alone."
The White House's Whitewater defense was much like its trooper defense. Presidential aides said that it was an "old story," which had been hashed through during the campaign--even though it hadn't. And they and the Clintons kept the response narrow, with the aim of keeping the issue narrow. All kept insisting that the Clintons had lost money on the deal.
In coping with the troopers stories, the President's advisers pointedly avoided making flat denials of the sex stories. It was widely understood that Clinton had fooled around--he virtually admitted as much in his appearance with his wife on 60 Minutes in February 1992, during the campaign. and his friends had never tried to dispel that widespread impression. It had been common knowledge for some time all had not been well in the Clinton marriage. Friends said that the Clintons had gone their separate ways. But on 60 Minutes, Clinton had strongly suggested that that was all in the past.
Clinton took big risks. After the troopers story broke, a longtime friend said, "Bill has always been someone who has lived on the edge, politically and personally, for better or for worse." The friend said, "I don't think he thinks he's vulnerable." And Clinton did have a JFK fixation. His idol had been a sexual compulsive--and had taken great chances during his Presidency, some in the White House itself. But that was a different time. Questions about a Presidential candidate's personal life were fair game now--especially if it suggested a certain recklessness. It was probably only a matter of time before these questions carried over into Clinton's Presidency.
Clinton's advisers insisted that the public had elected him knowing that he was flawed and had accepted that he had strayed sexually. But they also said that if he was found to have had extracurricular sex while he was President, the public would be unforgiving. But the seamy new tales of Clinton's past, even if only partially true, were a reminder of unease about him. Clinton complained to friends that the troopers story raised the question of whom he could trust, which appeared to be a confirmation of sorts of at least some of their story.
Somewhere along the way, Clinton seemed to have become convinced that he was indeed "The Comeback Kid"--the title Paul Begala had coined to magnify Clinton's second-place showing in New Hampshire (after the Gennifer Flowers and draft episodes). Clinton was a truly resilient man. He had come out of more corners fighting than most people had ever been in at all. But inner resilience wasn't the same thing as the cumulative impression others got.
The Clinton White House's strategy for dealing with the renewed sex issue was to insist that it was all an "old story." The Clinton people were fairly confident that no other women would come forward to confirm any allegations of an affair, because Gennifer Flowers had been trashed for her public claims. (Clinton had said, according to the transcripts of the famous taped conversations with Flowers, "They don't have pictures. If no one says anything, then they don't have anything.")
White House aides and consultants also decided to combat the troopers story by saying, "It's no accident that this story is coming out when Clinton is high in the polls again." One heard the line quite often. An official who was about to proffer it at a Christmas party at the Vice President's house began with, "Stop me if you've heard this," Those who used it weren't fazed--or didn't appear fazed--by reminders that the Spectator was a monthly magazine, whose editors couldn't know what the polls would be in December. The fallback position was that the article was timed for when there would be a lull in the news, what with Congress gone and the holidays approaching.
The other part of the strategy against the troopers story was to trash the troopers. Betsey Wright, Clinton's chief of staff in Arkansas for several years, a damage controller during the campaign, and now a Washington lobbyist and still very loyal to Clinton, was dispatched to Arkansas. Soon stories were appearing in the papers about alleged transgressions on the part of the troopers. But the White House was particularly worried about the charge that Clinton had offered jobs to troopers if they didn't talk. At Wright's urging, and with Lindsey's involvement, trooper Danny Ferguson sighed an affidavit saying that Clinton "never offered or indicated a willingness to offer any trooper a job in exchange for silence or help in shaping their stories." When the affidavit was made public, a White House aide said, "We've been waiting for that affidavit." Subsequently, however, Ferguson essentially took it back, telling the Los Angeles Times that all he meant was that Clinton "didn't say those words." Ferguson had told the Los Angeles Times that Clinton had discussed jobs for him and for Perry, the other trooper who went on the record, and he stuck with this even after the affidavit was issued.
That the troopers weren't without fault, and might have been elaborating at least some of their story and been in it for the money, didn't automatically make the gist of the story untrue. Nor did the fact that, as the White House kept pointing out, the troopers were being managed by Cliff Jackson.
The troopers story caught on and took more of a toll than most of Clinton's aides had expected. It had been receiving minor coverage (except in the tabloids), and the White House devoutly hoped that it would die by Tuesday, December 21. But on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times story was published, and also on Tuesday, contrary to plan, Mrs. Clinton talked to wire services and attacked "outrageous, terrible stories" about her husband, charging that the stories were politically motivated. The "outburst" had been thought through. She was trying to redirect the story to the motives of the President's accusers, leaving out the matter of her husband's calls to the troopers and the alleged job offers. Mrs. Clinton also employed the standard line: "I find it not an accident that every time he is on the verge of fulfilling his commitment to the American people"--at what other points this was the case she didn't say--such stories come out. They were politically motivated, she said. She said that she was "bewildered" by the continuing interest in Whitewater and saw no reason to make any of the relevant files public. She said, "I think what we've said is adequate."
Mrs. Clinton's comments led the network news programs that night and put the story on the front page of the New York Times, which until then had run only a wire service report, on an inside page.
Aides were loath to confront her for not following the script--which was to say nothing in the hope the story would die. Her combative side and her anger got the best of her, not for the first or last time. Someone who knew the Clintons said, "They can be very hard to argue with. He says, `I'm the President and you're not,' and she says, `I'm the First Lady and you're not.'" This was a hazardous but not uncommon way of thought for Presidents (and First Ladies). George Bush used to tell his aides, "If you're so smart, why aren't you President?"
Though White House aides tried to brush off the troopers story (with telltale bravado), they knew it was damaging. The story became the stuff of late-night talk show jokes. And each reminder of the "character" question was erosive. Though people might have said that they knew Clinton had been unfaithful to his wife, the story was sleazy even if the troopers were elaborating. Each trivialization of the Presidency undermined both the Presidency and Clinton's moral authority, which could have real consequences.
The much planned year-end interviews with the Clintons were turning into a major headache. The network morning shows all canceled scheduled interviews with Mrs. Clinton when her staff stipulated that the questions be confined to celebrating Christmas at the White House. In a radio interview on Wednesday, Clinton, asked if he denied the whole troopers story, stammered and hesitated as he didn't on any other subject. When the tape was played on one of the network news broadcasts, the effect was very damaging.
Through the exercise of impressive foresight--he thought--Mark Gearan had arranged for Arkansas reporters to come to Washington (with enough warning that they could purchase low-fare tickets) to interview the Clintons on December 21. Mrs. Clinton passed Christmas cookies. After her outburst to the wire services, White House aides were tempted but didn't dare to cancel other interviews.
While the Republicans, wisely, kept silent about the sex issue, within a day of the "missing file" story, Robert Dole, on December 21, called for "some independent review" of Whitewater. If there were to be no congressional hearings, he said, an independent counsel should be appointed to investigate the matter.
Amid all the turmoil over the troopers issue, the Christmas celebrations, the year-end interviews, the Clintons and their staff had been immersed in an internal struggle over how to handle Whitewater--in particular, how much information to make public through the release of private papers.
The argument broke down largely but not entirely as one between, on the one hand, the Arkansans, including Lindsey, and most of the lawyers, including Nussbaum and Clinton's private attorney, David Kendall--all of whom saw it as a matter of damage control, and in terms of legal tactics--and, on the other, those who saw it as a political issue. An exception among the lawyers was Joel Klein, the new deputy counsel. Klein, forty-seven, had previously practiced law in Washington. His general view was that the information was going to become public at some point anyway; the defensive posture wasn't the best one for the Clintons to be in; and when you govern and refuse to turn over information, that only ratchets up interest in the information. Others who pushed for making information public were Stephanopoulos, Gergen, and, interestingly, McLarty. A colleague said, "Mack was just using common sense."
Mrs. Clinton's reaction was much like the one in the case of the travel office, writ large. She was strongly opposed to making any information public. She bristled at being told that she had to conform to the Washington culture and felt that the White House had been too forthcoming with the press. The irony about Mrs. Clinton's rebellion against the Washington culture was that, in the main, the best advice she was getting was from the aides most experienced in Washington. She argued that if the Whitewater papers were released, there would simply be more questions (she may have had special reason to think that); there would be no end to it.
She was right, but that didn't solve the Clintons' political problem. The impression began to grow, the charge began to be made, that--in a reach back to an earlier time--the Clintons were "stonewalling." The Watergate vocabulary was too easy to draw upon. On the basis of what was known, Whitewater was by no stretch of the imagination of the dimension or seriousness of Watergate--a constitutional issue of the abuse of power by a President. Nonetheless, term inflation was on the rise, as was disproportionality. The words "impeachment" and "cover-up" were tossed around. As of then, at the least, there was no sign of a cover-up. The Madison case had proceeded. No Presidential misconduct had been alleged.
A White House aide said later, "We treated it as a legal rather than a political issue." Another said, "Hillary reacts with her defense lawyer training: you hold things tight, you manage it closely, you reveal only what you have to." And whatever else was going on between them over the troopers storey, each Clinton tried to protect the other on Whitewater. An aide said, "There may be ups and downs in the relationship, but a lot of what drives her is trying to protect him. And he won't do anything about Whitewater unless he feels she's comfortable with it." People who were looking for differences between the Clintons over how to handle Whitewater were looking for the wrong thing. The President may have seemed more "relaxed" about the issue of taking matters public, and about Washington, than his wife was, but he would let no one see any distance between them on what to do. And despite their different temperaments, his views weren't so different from hers as was widely believed. He told his aides that if he'd listened to the Washington establishment and the media, he wouldn't have become President: he got there alone, without their help.
The first argument over how to respond to Whitewater had been in regard to a Washington Post request on November 17 for documents, including financial records, offering proof that the Clintons had lost what they claimed on Whitewater, plus records from the 1984 gubernatorial campaign and the fund-raiser in 1985. (All of these were related to items in the RTC criminal referral.) Mrs. Clinton, her defense lawyers, Nussbaum, and Lindsey were strongly opposed to turning over the material. Lindsey and some others felt that the Post had been unfair to Clinton, that it was on a Whitewater kick, and that to give it the material wouldn't put an end to the issue but would probably lead to a request for more. Stephanopoulos, Gergen, McLarty, and Klein favored turning the papers over to the Post and making them public, even though that might have started a "feeding frenzy," as Mrs. Clinton predicted. Their view was that the papers would become public eventually, and the sooner the subject was got over, the better. Nussbaum and Kendall argued that this wouldn't end the matter. That struggle ended with a decision to not give the Post the papers. Lindsey sent the paper a letter saying that the matter had been examined fully during the campaign, an independent firm had written a report, and there was nothing to add. But the subject of the Whitewater papers was far from over. Now there were many demands for them.
Late in December, Gergen said wearily, "I can't say we've been a great success at putting out that fire."
By this time, the subject of Whitewater, which had been deemed by much of the media to be too complicated to explain, began to be covered on television. Newspapers were all over it. A new question about the Clintons was being raised. Whatever their virtues or flaws, and whatever the merits of the allegations, they had never been seen in the light of greed or shady dealings. They may have been simply trying to build a nest egg for their daughter's education--and Arkansas' (at $35,000) was the lowest-paid governor--but what came across was at odds with the nation's prior perception of them, and also their serf-description. They had been seen as devoted to public service, as not caring very much about money. Ethics was one of their issues (even if Clinton pursued it sporadically).
The evidence produced thus far suggested the possibility of minor ethical transgressions in the past--nothing that rose to an issue on a Presidential level. The idea of "impeachment"--Leach used the word on one television program and then on a subsequent one said he shouldn't have used it (this sort of thing became a pattern)--was absurd on the face of it. But by late December, the troopers were essentially gone from the stage and a full-fledged "scandal" had taken over. Its true dimensions couldn't be divined yet, but that was almost irrelevant. Now the Republicans had a handle on something they could use to try to stop Clinton's progress, and the press had a scandal to chase. The Clintons' handling of the issue left even some of their strongest allies wondering whether they had something to hide.
On the morning of Thursday, December 23, the White House was half empty. The President was to take the day off, to relax and do some Christmas shopping. He was tired from all the receptions and all the strain. Contrary to the plan for that day, he spent a brief period in the Oval Office, where he was joined by his mother. He also dropped by the press briefing room, surprising reporters, to say hello. Those White House staff members who were in their offices planned to be gone by afternoon. Clinton aides took seriously their chances to clear out. McLarty was in his office, preparing to take his staff (what was left of it) to the White House Mess for lunch.
But the Clintons made a big decision that day. At long last, after a lot of argument--and a running discussion that morning among the Clintons, Nussbaum, Klein, Lindsey, Stephanopoulos, and Gergen--David Kendall, the Clinton's private attorney, was authorized to phone the Justice Department and offer to turn over all the Clintons' Whitewater papers, and to do this pursuant to a subpoena, in order to protect the papers--a not unusual procedure. White House officials claimed that when Kendall called, Justice attorneys said that they had been preparing a subpoena for the files that had been in Foster's office; Kendall proposed that they broaden the request. Gergen said later, "The trooper story was dying. If we could lance the boil on Whitewater, we'd have a pretty calm Christmas season and then come back and deal with the issues."
And so on the afternoon of December 23, the White House announced that all of the Whitewater papers in the Clintons' possession would be turned over to the Justice Department. (Skeptics questioned whether all the files that had been in Foster's office were intact.) The announcement said. "The President has voluntarily decided to release these documents for whatever relevance they may have to any Department of Justice law enforcement inquiries." It left out the matter of the subpoena.
The Clintons' action wasn't as magnanimous as the White House tried to make it appear. There had already been newspaper reports that Justice was considering a subpoena for the documents, so there was reason for the Clintons and their advisers to think that it was only a matter of time before they would be forced to turn them over. Moreover, Leach had just requested that Kendall turn over the documents to his staff. Leach had also just called for a special counsel to investigate the Madison and Whitewater cases.
The point of Kendall's requesting the broad subpoena was to try to hold the material as tightly as possible and at the same time appear to be cooperating with an investigation. But not telling the public about the subpoena turned out to be a big mistake. A White House official said later, "It left people here out to dry."
Hoping that they had bought a respite, the Clintons turned to trying to enjoy the holidays. After a family Christmas dinner, they went to the Kennedy Center to see The Will Rogers Follies.
On the Monday after Christmas, they left for a few days in Arkansas and planned to spend New Year's at Renaissance Weekend. Soon enough, they would be back in Washington to deal with health care and to prepare for the President's forthcoming trip to Europe and Russia.
They hoped for some peace, and time to concentrate on the President's agenda.