First the hats, now the files


IT IS the end of Hillary Rodham Clinton's first year in office. That description alone illustrates how successful she has been at transforming the notion of how the spouse of the president can serve the nation.

Amid endless speculation about how much she could do and how openly she could do it, Mrs. Clinton simply went to work on health care reform.

When the president introduced his plan to the Congress, she was applauded enthusiastically. Polls suggest the American people applauded, too.

It's hard to remember that the biggest contretemps in her first day on the job came over something small and silly, reflecting the tired role of first lady she inherited: the disproportionate dust-up over the ugly hat she wore at the inauguration.

A year later, and substance has triumphed over style. A year later, and Mrs. Clinton is embroiled in an error of judgment not sartorial but monumental, reflecting the new and difficult demands on the first presidential spouse to be a full partner in policy and politics. It sounds like the name of a men's cologne, Whitewater, but its inept handling has caused a stink.

Whitewater is a catchall term for a chain of events, beginning with the Clintons' 1978 partnership with James McDougal and his wife in a vacation home development.

Mr. McDougal headed a failed savings and loan, which seems to have been a prerequisite for being on the periphery of politics in the 1980s.

The Justice Department is investigating whether the S&L; improperly funneled money into Whitewater or into Mr. Clinton's 1984 gubernatorial campaign.

In the bell jar of Little Rock, where everyone who was anyone knew everyone else, Mrs. Clinton became entangled in a cat's cradle of conflicts.

After she and her husband had gone into partnership with Mr. McDougal, and after Mr. McDougal gave a fund-raiser to retire Mr. Clinton's 1984 campaign debt, Mrs. Clinton, one of the state's most prominent lawyers, represented Mr. McDougal in an effort to keep his sputtering S&L; afloat. She made his case in a letter to a state regulator who was a personal friend of the Clintons, who had been appointed by Mr. Clinton and who had done work in the past for the S&L.;

What does all this add up to? No one knows. No one knows because files have been lost or sealed. No one knows because the file on Whitewater kept by Vincent Foster, who was the Clintons' personal lawyer before he went to work in the White House, was never part of the investigation into Mr. Foster's suicide and has never been made public.

And no one knows because the Clintons, who insist they have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide, have been behind times on full disclosure. There's no evidence that they made money on any of this: these are people who don't even own a home. But if there's nothing to hide, let's lay all the nothing on the table.

With calls for a special counsel growing louder from members of both parties, it is Mrs. Clinton who should direct the release of all materials relating to this case. Present evidence suggests Whitewater may be more her quagmire than her husband's; anecdotal evidence suggests she has always been better at making hard choices.

Damage control has been her strong suit. First on "60 Minutes" during the campaign, then in interviews during the holidays, she made allegations about her husband's infidelity seem distasteful and irrelevant. Poof! The tell-all troopers became a book proposal without a publisher.

But while looking down your nose may work with sexual innuendo, it does not adequately address conflict of interest. The Clintons have not controlled Whitewater. They have inflated it with the gases of temporizing. A big bang looms.

As capably as she has done so much else, from propping up her husband to fashioning a career in the shadow of his, Hillary Rodham Clinton has changed the role of presidential wife.

Her wardrobe is beside the point; her hair is a non-issue. But she must now answer for those matters that sometimes attach to a woman who has achieved parity in this wheeling-dealing world.

To hell with the hats; she is judged on her political acumen, her intelligence and her judgment. Perhaps a full investigation into Whitewater will show that sometimes her judgment was faulty. She does not seem like a woman to welcome that sort of disclosure. But how much better if she were to make it herself. And soon.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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