Hounding Hillary


Washington -- THE SENATE Whitewater committee is trying to make First Lady Hillary Clinton seem guilty of a cover-up of incriminating evidence after White House aide Vincent Foster's suicide.

It's boring, you see, if all this fuss is just about White House officials who mishandled the search of his office. But drag in the first lady on flimsy grounds and you get everybody's attention, particularly those who already view her as a dragon lady.

The committee is making much ado about not very much to justify hearings that thus far have been primarily a partisan circus rehashing old inconclusive information and wasting taxpayers' money.

The White House has denied that the president's wife played any role in the confused scene in Foster's office that followed the stunning news of his death only six months into the Clinton presidency. But the committee is determined to air every grievance, every unsubstantiated recollection and every possible conspiracy charge that might undermine the credibility of the president and his wife.

A U.S. Park Police detective, for instance, testified that he thought Foster's friends had "stonewalled" because they knew he was depressed but didn't immediately volunteer it. It is indicative of the pervasive partisan tone that the detective used a highly charged Watergate-associated word to describe a minor lapse that could easily have been due to the fact that they were in shock.

It is clear from the known facts that key White House staff members panicked, prematurely removed documents from Foster's office and generally failed to function in an orderly, legal fashion. White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum, whose legal talents the Clintons grossly overrated, is taking a well-deserved fall for this.

But making it into the crime of the century is ridiculous.

The committee's premise is that this behavior was not merely foolish but venal, prompted by a desire to hide evidence that would expose the Clintons' corrupt dealings in the Whitewater affair. Foster had handled some of their personal business affairs, including their taxes and their failed land venture called Whitewater.

Originally, Senate GOP investigators had suggested that Foster was murdered as part of a Whitewater cover-up, but they could find no police authority to confirm that notion.

So they shifted their focus to the contradictory accounts of the chaos inside the White House after Foster's suicide instead. The lack of instant cooperation is supposed to be the first lady's fault and to suggest that she and her husband are guilty of something awful, even if it is not clear what.

The committee's own credibility in all this is suspect, considering that the chairman is New York GOP Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, a key figure in Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's campaign to oust Bill Clinton from the White House. Mr. D'Amato's own career has been marked by a history of smarmy deals and suspected improprieties. He was rebuked a few years ago by the Senate Ethics Committee for letting his brother lobby a defense contractor from a desk in his Senate office.

The senator is a fellow who assumes the worst of his political enemies and wants everybody else to do so too.

But the public doesn't have to buy the committee's hatchet job. In addition to being a trusted adviser, Foster was a longtime friend whose unexpected death was profoundly shocking to the Clintons and those with whom he worked. They reacted emotionally, as anyone would.

The first lady has been accused by a White House aide of being upset about releasing papers from Foster's office to outside federal investigators. The story is that she may have ordered Mr. Nussbaum to conceal some papers and limit access to Foster's office.

But it's just a theory. Anybody can make up any theory and put the first lady's name on it. That's been done a lot, in fact.

And even if she did want to limit the circulation of some papers, so what? Confidentiality is crucial to a presidency, as to most policy-making authorities. There are a lot of papers in any White House that would be embarrassing and politically damaging if leaked but that are not indicative of criminal activity.

Foster was involved in more confidential White House projects than the Clintons' personal finances. For instance, he was central to the vetting process for potential White House appointments. Files on the imperfect backgrounds of those rejected would have been in his office and could be devastating to the subjects if exposed.

Picking on Hillary Clinton as a bossy villain is a habit of the president's foes. She was a prime target at the 1992 GOP presidential convention. She has taken much of the blame for the defeat of the administration's health care reforms. One GOP senator on the Whitewater panel even asked a witness about her investments in commodities futures. What does that have to do with the Foster episode? Nothing. It's just an attempt to discredit her.

But trying to portray her as an evil genius demanding a White House cover-up is really stretching it. The senators ought to knock it off and turn their minds to something serious, like the federal budget.

Marianne Means is a syndicated columnist.

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