Information, please: How to mismanage a scandal


WASHINGTON -- While the chronology of the Whitewater land deal and Hillary Clinton's commodities trading (Cattlegate?) is complicated, I have put together a simpler chronology that reveals something about the nature of the press and the presidency:

MARCH 12: In an Oval Office interview with two Knight-Ridder reporters, President Clinton explodes when they ask if he will make public his 1978 and 1979 tax returns.

He abruptly ends the interview, refuses to shake their hands and has them ushered from the office.

While many are baffled by the eruption, what they don't know is that lurking in the 1978 and 1979 returns are Hillary Rodham Clinton's huge profits from her commodities speculation.

Revealing them would embarrass the Clintons in two ways:

It would show that while denouncing a "decade of greed," the Clintons money-grubbed along with plenty of others.

And, worse, it blows apart the "we-lost-money-so-there-is-nothing-worth -investigating" defense that the Clintons had been using to defend their Whitewater dealings.

MARCH 14: "Goodness knows what you all would be saying if we made any money," Hillary tells reporters. "I'm glad we did lose money."

But that applies only to Whitewater. Hillary keeps mum on the tremendous profits she reaped from her commodities trades.

A few days later, however, comes the bombshell.

MARCH 18: Under the headline "Top Arkansas Lawyer Helped Hillary Clinton Turn Big Profits, Commodities Trading in 70s Yielded $100,000," the New York Times spells out Hillary's impressive profit taking.

While some in the press (including me) hail the story as being very significant, others denounce it as shoddy journalism.

MARCH 22: "Some press critics both inside and outside the profession wondered why the New York Times printed the story since it lacked any evidence of wrongdoing," Reuters reports.

MARCH 24: President Clinton holds a press conference and announces he will release the 1978 and 1979 tax returns.

Since the New York Times has already revealed what the Clintons were keeping secret in those returns, there is now no reason not to.

MARCH 28: Newsweek magazine hits the stands with a story in which there is an error (or at least what may be an error). Newsweek says Hillary put up no personal funds to begin her commodities trading, while she says she put up $1,000.

The White House issues a stinging denunciation of Newsweek, and Newsweek admits to an "honest mistake."

But then the White House blunders badly.

MARCH 29: Instead of letting the story die, the White House decides to rub salt in Newsweek's wounds by holding a briefing and releasing documents "proving" that Hillary had put up $1,000.

But not only do the documents "prove" little -- no canceled check is provided by the White House, only a brokerage account sheet that says "Cash . . . $1,000" -- but the next day's stories do not focus on Newsweek, but on Hillary.

MARCH 30: USA Today: "Hillary Rodham Clinton traded huge amounts of commodities without putting up the money usually required for such high-risk trading, her financial records show."

Los Angeles Times: "The new information sheds light on the Clinton's approach to investing, which involved little cash and large amounts of expert advice from well-connected friends."

Newsday: (quoting an unnamed New York trader) "The chances of Hillary having legitimately made that money without some grandfather making sure [that] only winning trades were going into her account are lower than a meteor hitting you when you leave your office today."

National Public Radio: "It is impossible to determine from the documents released by the White House yesterday whether Mrs. Clinton's account was handled in an appropriate manner."

CBS: "These records, like every other shred of financial information from the Clintons, have been given only reluctantly, so the question remains: Is there anything more?"

There is another question:

Which hurts them worse -- when the Clintons release too little information or too much?

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