WASHINGTON -- The curtain goes up tomorrow on the Senate's new round of Whitewater hearings with a look at one of most tantalizing subplots of the controversy: events at the White House in the hours just after the July 1993 suicide of deputy counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr.
Those events are not thought to be central to the complex tangle of money and power that has come to be known by the catchall "Whitewater." But they provide Republicans with a forum for a very public, and potentially very embarrassing, grilling of present and former Clinton administration officials.
A special committee, chaired by Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, will examine the handling of a file in Mr. Foster's office relating to the Clintons' Whitewater land deal. The panel also will review whether White House officials impeded an investigation of the lawyer's death by U.S. Park Police.
The Senate sessions -- expected to run into early August, when the House will also begin Whitewater hearings -- could offer some of the most compelling human drama in an otherwise prosaic and complicated story of money and real estate.
They are likely to reveal bungling by administration officials in actions taken at the White House soon after Mr. Foster's body was found in a Northern Virginia park. And they are also likely to show, through documents already made public by the White House, that Mr. Foster and other White House officials worried that they could not back up, in the Clintons' tax returns, assertions made during the presidential campaign about the extent of the couple's losses in the Whitewater real estate venture.
But it will take more damning revelations to prove a White House "cover-up" related to Whitewater or that Mr. Foster's concerns about the ill-fated land deal were severe enough to have contributed to his depression and suicide. Theories linking Whitewater to Mr. Foster's death have abounded, becoming almost a cottage industry -- but primarily for a limited audience of conservative watchdog groups and conspiracy theorists.
Still, along with another congressional inquiry that begins this week -- a re-examination of the administration's deadly 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas -- the hearings will offer Republicans a rich opportunity to embarrass the Clinton White House.
"The length, the prominence and the hostility of these hearings are certainly part of the political and partisan warfare now going on along Pennsylvania Avenue," says Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution.
After years in which a Democratic majority set the agenda and called for inquiries into a wide range of controversies involving Republican administrations, the new majority on Capitol Hill is taking advantage of its new authority. Both hearings are likely to reveal administration missteps and misjudgments.
But, in part because the Foster and Waco inquiries both tend to appeal mostly to the right-wing, anti-government sector of the Republican Party, some believe the hearings will not resonate much with the average moderate voter and thus will pack a limited punch against the administration or the Democratic Party going into the 1996 election season.
"Vince Foster has the same impact as Kennedy assassination theories," says Terry Michael, director of the bipartisan Washington Center for Politics and Journalism. "It's stuff for books and titillating feature stories, but it doesn't have any impact on average voters." He adds, however, that to the extent that the news media focus on the hearings, they will serve to keep the president on the defensive and deny him the ability to drive the news agenda or gain in the polls.
Fodder for conspiracy buffs
The Whitewater affair, including Mr. Foster's death and the handling of files from his office, is still being investigated by the Whitewater independent counsel, Kenneth W. Starr.
Mr. Foster's death almost exactly two years ago was determined by the first independent counsel investigating Whitewater, Robert B. Fiske Jr., to have been a suicide resulting from profound depression.
But it heightened interest in Whitewater, then just beginning to emerge, since Mr. Foster had been handling Whitewater's tax returns and, a month before his death, the sale of the Clintons' interest in the Ozarks real estate venture.
Cover-up theories began to snowball once the White House disclosed, five months after Mr. Foster's death, that a file of Whitewater papers from his office had been turned over to the XTC Clintons' personal attorney. They were stored over the weekend in a locked closet in the family quarters of the White House instead of being turned over to the Park Police investigators.
To try to make its case before the start of this week's hearings, the White House made available last week Mr. Foster's Whitewater file and other papers relating to the land deal.
The file contains little of interest -- mostly standard stock certificates and financial records that document the Clintons' investment in Whitewater with their partners, James and Susan McDougal.
The Clintons' 1992 tax records, also recovered from Mr. Foster's office, contain notes the lawyer wrote to himself suggesting that taking a loss on Whitewater would risk an Internal Revenue Service audit because there was little supporting documentation. He called it "a can of worms you shouldn't open."
Republicans on the special panel are likely to focus on the handling of Whitewater papers, specifically on whether White House officials tampered with anything related to the matter. Mr. D'Amato says he wants to find out whether documents were "mishandled, misplaced or destroyed" by senior aides who entered the office the night of the suicide.
Three officials -- Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief of staff, Margaret Williams; Patsy Thomasson, then the White House administrative director; and Bernard Nussbaum, at the time White House counsel -- entered Mr. Foster's office that night and are among those expected to testify.
The special committee, on which Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland is the ranking Democrat, is expected to conduct subsequent rounds of hearings through the fall, to at least February and the presidential primary season.
Heart of the matter
Not yet explored is the heart of the case -- whether the Whitewater development or Mr. Clinton's 1984 campaign for governor received cash infusions from Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, a thrift owned by Mr. McDougal that collapsed, leaving taxpayers with a $60 million bill.
The Whitewater saga has so far cost the administration three senior Treasury Department officials, an associate attorney general and a White House counsel.