The decision by special prosecutor Kenneth Starr to call the first lady before a grand jury was a chilling warning that the days of treating Hillary Clinton with kid gloves have passed.
Lawyers wait outside
Rather than being interviewed in the White House with her lawyers at her side, she will be examined by a prosecutor before 23 members of a grand jury in a federal courthouse, while her lawyers wait outside.
Although the first lady has not been identified as a "target" of the inquiry, the subpoena is probably no less damaging in the eyes of most voters, for whom the idea of being summoned before a grand jury seems a forbidding prospect.
TV news images
It is not the kind of thing that routinely happens to someone in the neighborhood. It is instead the kind of thing you see on the television news -- people walking into courthouses surrounded by their lawyers with bulging briefcases.
If that image of Hillary Clinton is politically damaging, no one should be surprised. It was clear when he was chosen as special counsel that Kenneth Starr was a far more actively partisan and politically ambitious Republican than the man he replaced, New York attorney Robert Fiske. So he can hardly be expected to, for example, hold off on the subpoena for a week or two to avoid stepping all over President Clinton's State of the Union address.
On the other hand, it is also true that someone ostensibly on the Clintons' side in this whole thing gave Mr. Starr the opening for his new tough treatment of the first lady -- that someone being whoever was responsible for putting those billing records on a table in the White House "book room" last summer when the special prosecutor had been seeking them for almost two years.
Indeed, the whole history of the White House and Clintons' handling of the Whitewater affair has been shot through with blunders that make things appear worse than they may be.
It should not be forgotten that there is not a shred of evidence at this point that the Clintons' relationship with Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan violated either the law or ethical standards. The question is whether there was an effort to cover up some aspect of their role once the investigations started.
But it also is obvious that Hillary Clinton has become a significant political liability for her husband when he is trying to set the agenda for the 1996 election. An opinion poll last week put her negatives at more than 50 percent, an unprecedented level of popular disapproval of a first lady. And much of that disapproval seems to come from the image she has acquired, justifiably or not, for dancing around the facts on both Whitewater and the 1993 controversy over the White House travel office.
It can be argued, of course, that the voters will make a decision on whether Bill Clinton should serve another four years rather than on his wife. But it is obviously bad news for someone known as "Slick Willy" to have his wife now seen as "Slick Hillary."
The White House has consistently tried to counter that image by claiming that all the records have been made available as expeditiously as possible and that Mrs. Clinton has been not only willing but anxious to clear up any questions raised either by the special prosecutor or the Republican-run Senate Whitewater Committee.
But that approach has been made far more difficult by the belated discovery of the Whitewater-related billing records and by testimony from former White House aides that Hillary Clinton played a critical role in firing the travel office staff, her denials to the contrary.
It may turn out that neither the travel office issue nor Whitewater will play a role in the campaign. But there is a clear message in Kenneth Starr's decision to drag Hillary Clinton before a grand jury. And that message is that he's the one who controls the agenda.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.