WASHINGTON -- Let's use some imagination. Suppose that George Bush were still president. Suppose further that his former business partner of 14 years, found guilty of four felonies including fraud, has been sentenced to jail for contempt of court. The reason? Refusing to cooperate with a grand-jury investigation into the activities of the president.
Would this not be front-page news, day after day? Would the jailed friend of the president not be featured on every network news broadcast regularly? Would the commentators not be jumping up and down, and jumping to conclusions about the motives of the presidential friend?
Yet there is little interest in the story of Susan McDougal, who sits in a jail in Arkansas, serving a contempt citation for refusing to answer grand-jury questions. Let's be clear about what is going on. All McDougal is being asked to do is to truthfully answer questions about the fraudulent $300,000 Small Business Administration loan she received (part of which was used to finance the Whitewater scheme). Former judge David Hale says he made the loan to McDougal because then-Gov. Bill Clinton asked him to.
McDougal is refusing to answer two questions: Did President Clinton know about the loan? And did President Clinton testify truthfully in his videotaped testimony at her trial?
Now it seems obvious that if the truthful answer to the first question is "no" and the truthful answer to the second question is "yes," Susan McDougal would be a free woman today (pending sentencing on her felony counts).
Why is she making such a fuss? And why is she lobbing stink bombs at the independent counsel, Kenneth Starr? "They have an agenda to ruin the president," she complains. "They're after the Clintons, and they're killing me to do it."
But if the Clintons are innocent, McDougal can help them by testifying truthfully. If they are guilty, however, then her defiance makes perfect sense. It is part of the run-out-the-clock strategy that the administration has been following in all scandal-related matters over the past several weeks (Craig Livingstone recently defied a subpoena to appear before a congressional committee investigating the Filegate matter).
Reading the polls
McDougal can read the polls. She reckons that her best bet is not to cut a deal with prosecutors for a reduced sentence but to hang tough until after November 5, and then receive a full presidential pardon.
And so, heading into the key campaign season, we have the following parameters of the Whitewater affair: the president hinting broadly that pardons will be forthcoming for those who keep their own counsel and Kenneth Starr, under obligation not to influence the outcome of the election, promising not to spring any indictments until after November 5.
Meanwhile, the steady drip, drip, drip of Whitewater continues to accumulate. The inspector general of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation has issued a report concluding that Mrs. Clinton, her denials notwithstanding, was involved in a sham real-estate transaction on behalf of Madison Guaranty -- a transaction designed to allow the thrift illegally to speculate in real estate at the taxpayers' risk and expense. (Decade of greed indeed!)
This, you will recall, is the transaction of which Mrs. Clinton has denied any knowledge and the records relating to which mysteriously disappeared and then reappeared years later in the White House residence.
Shrug if you dare, but if the inspector general's report is accurate, the first lady may be liable for criminal charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and giving false statements designed to influence federal regulators of financial institutions.
Here's one more thing to consider: If the Clintons win in November, the immediate spin will be that the voters adjudged Whitewater and related scandals to be insignificant. The Clintons will declare that the voters were giving their seal of approval to everything they have ever done. Pardons will then flow like water, and the most corrupt administration since Richard Nixon's will wriggle off the hook.
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 9/26/96