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First Whitewater hearing achieves its goal: boredom


WASHINGTON -- Henry Gonzalez entered the hearing room wearing a white linen suit so wrinkled and baggy it looked like the entire House Banking Committee had just finished sleeping in it.

As chairman of that committee, Gonzalez, D-Texas, was presiding over the first public hearings into the Whitewater affair.

Sort of.

Gonzalez, whom the Houston Chronicle recently called "eccentric even by Texas standards," made sure the scope of the hearing was so narrow as to make the dullest possible TV.

Which was the fervent hope of the White House.

Gonzalez, who was in Dallas at the time of John F. Kennedy's murder, has said of these hearings: "I was present for the assassination of one president, and I won't be a party to the attempted assassination of another. The Republicans might as well have gotten a hit man; they've already attempted to assassinate Clinton's character."

So as to the hearings that began yesterday and also will be taken up by the Senate later this week, Gonzalez said his committee would examine the "so-called Whitewater affair," but "the rules will be strictly adhered to with no deviations therefrom."

Which meant if anybody got into any really interesting stuff, Gonzalez would gavel them out of order.

The ranking Republican member of the committee, Jim Leach of Iowa, is Gonzalez's emotional opposite.

Soft-spoken and practically radiating earnestness, Leach tried to explain the import of what was taking place.

"On the landscape of political scandals," he said, "Whitewater may be a bump, but it speaks mountains about 'Me Generation' public ethics. . . . Whitewater is about the arrogance of power; it is a metaphor for privilege, for a government run by a new political class which takes shortcuts to power with end-runs of the law."

He concluded, however: "But fairness to the president demands that I be clear: Whitewater is not Watergate. Accountability is in order; a constitutional crisis is not."

The only witness of the day was the president's lawyer, Lloyd Cutler, who had nothing to do with Whitewater except investigating it as part of the White House's damage control effort.

A master of Washington politics, Cutler did what Washington lawyers do best: emit fog.

He droned on and on in a gravelly voice so deep and dull that you almost had to pinch yourself to stay awake and appreciate what kind of scene he was describing at the apex of power in our government:

Roger Altman, head of the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC), was an old friend and political crony of Bill Clinton.

But the RTC found itself investigating a request for a criminal prosecution of a savings and loan that both Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton had ties to.

Altman and others began passing information regarding the investigation back to the White House, but at some point Altman felt he should "recuse" himself, that is step aside, to avoid the obvious conflict between his duty to his job and his friendship to the president.

But the White House did not want Altman to step aside. Then White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum wanted Altman very much to stay.


Reasonably suspicious (or even reasonably conscious) people might conclude that Nussbaum wanted Altman to stay on in the job so he could at least warn if not outright protect his pal Bill Clinton.

Nussbaum wanted Altman to stay at the RTC and oversee the "career officers" there who were investigating the Clintons.

But how did Lloyd Cutler put that in the best possible light before Congress yesterday?

"Mr. Nussbaum said he thought these officers could be expected to act with greater fairness and professionalism," Cutler said, "if Mr. Altman did not recuse."

Translation: As long as the White House had a shill in the job, he could ride herd on the people who were supposed to be investigating the president and his wife.

But all this was pretty dense stuff, as fog is supposed to be.

And few members of the committee were excited by it.

"I find this hearing to be boring, uninteresting and uninformative," Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said.

Which is exactly the way the White House wanted it.

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