Den of Sleaze

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Blood Sport: The President and His Adversaries, by James B. Stewart, New York: Simon & Schuster, 479 pages, $25.00

There are at least two good reasons why the definitive treatment of Whitewater is probably several years away. For one, the subject virtually demands multimedia. Several gigabytes of charts, diagrams, video clips, and hypertext links could bring the multi-threaded mess together.

The other reason is legal. The passage of time means expiring statutes of limitations for all manner of skullduggery. The truth tends to bubble up when indictments are impossible.

Until that day, James Stewart's well-built examination will have to do. For the most part it does quite well. Only a staff apologist for the Clintons could come away from Stewart's portrayal without feeling a little ashamed of having their ilk in the White House. The new information Stewart adds to the Whitewater canon will not jump out at most readers. Instead what Stewart has described as the Clintons' "pattern of deceit" will.

This is striking enough, given the genesis of the book. Stewart relates that in March 1994 he was approached by Clinton confidante Susan Thomases. Thomases, a New York lawyer and unofficial Clinton adviser, was acquainted with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author via friends.

In 1987, Stewart's Den of Thieves followed the ins and outs of the junk bond trade. Bashing that aspect of the 1980s put him on the same team as the Clintons. Thomases must have surmised Stewart would put the Clintons' own '80s adventures in the "proper" perspective. Thomases promised access, and Stewart in fact received a session with Hillary Clinton. But such cooperation soon melted away. By then Stewart was hooked on the Whitewater saga.

More than just a raw land deal gone bad, Whitewater has come to represent the Clintons' Arkansas roots. For Democrats, that just means the way things are done in a small state; the governor simply knows everyone, so every deal is "inside." For Republicans, Whitewater is a money grab by a crooked draft dodger.

In Washington, reaction to Blood Sport has been colored by those two extremes. Clinton supporters point out the lack of a "smoking gun" while Clinton bashers label Blood Sport a whitewash. The irony is both extremes tend to discount the new information Stewart has turned up.

For example, Blood Sport takes the time to paint the first well-rounded picture of the late Vincent Foster, whose suicide is the one undeniably tragic aspect to this story. The White House lawyer was sober-minded, even a little square, Stewart asserts. Foster was intelli gent enough to fall into practicing law without a lot of effort. He relished legal research and seems to have enjoyed it more than dealing with clients. Rounding up clients simply wasn't his forte.

"Foster did not golf. It was a game for which he had little natural aptitude, and rather than risk something at which he didn't excel, he preferred not to play at all," Stewart writes. A lawyer who eschews golf is an outsider at most firms. Hillary, along with Foster, was an outsider at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock during the 1980s. A Yankee woman who was wired politically, she was one of a kind. That she and Foster would become close friends is not a surprise.

Stewart concedes it is impossible to prove that Foster and Hillary never had an affair, as has been widely rumored. But he clearly thinks it is implausible. "Foster never joked about women, flirted, or repeated even mildly off-color stories," he writes. Thus Stewart concludes Foster could not abide the scrutiny and gossip an intraoffice affair would bring. That Hillary was a public figure makes it even less likely, he believes.

Foster's retiring nature also makes the idea that he functioned as a super-secret agent--as some of the wilder Whitewater conspiracy theories posit--far-fetched. Stewart finds no evidence Foster ever went to Switzerland, the starting point for theories that wind through Pentagon slush funds, the National Security Agency, and Mossad hit teams. Peddlers of such theories will no doubt take this as proof Stewart is really working for the Clintons.

Stewart does conclude Foster was a profoundly unhappy man in the middle of 1993, unhappy enough to take his own life. That does not mean his death was investigated in textbook fashion or that the White House did not immediately clam up. But the conspiracy buffs might want to return to pamphleteering on the Trilateral Commission or writing scripts for The X-Files until they can generate more light than heat on the topic.

By talking to real people, Stewart does turn up a meeting between Foster a nd Thomases at a supposed "safe house" a short time before his death. There Foster unburdened himself of concerns about his job, his marriage, and life in general, according to Stewart. Foster had good reason to be troubled by White House handling of the travel office. Contacts between White House flunkies and the FBI and IRS were improper at best. A special counsel seemed to be in the cards. Thomases is supposed to have been troubled by the meeting and relayed her concerns to Foster's boss, White House cou nsel Bernard Nussbaum.

This account is at odds with what Thomases has told Congress. Foster's July 1993 death came as a shock, she said, which has been the official White House line. Investigators will no doubt probe Thomases's recollections further on the matter.

The financial elements of Whitewater are less murky, but still not clear. Conceived as a way to turn scrub forest with river frontage into gold, the development never panned out. Blood Sport shows the Clintons' "passive investor" mantra, begun in 1992, to be a fiction.

Bill Clinton wasn't passive--he was negligent. His attention was plainly not on Whitewater, which adds up to a sort of defense, one could suppose. But Hillary was anything but passive. In 1985, Hillary resisted overtures from the Clintons' partners, Jim and Susan McDougal, to sell the Clintons' Whitewater stake. At one point Stewart says Hillary was defiantly refusing to sell because the sour deal was supposed to pay for Chelsea's college.

Jim McDougal further complicated the pictu re by buying a savings and loan. McDougal's Madison Guaranty, federally insured deposits and all, soon become tied to Whitewater. McDougal also hired the Rose Firm and put Hillary on a $2,000-a-month retainer. Here Stewart follows the well-trod path of fe deral investigations on the topic.

Following the break-up of the McDougals' marriage, and Jim McDougal's illness in 1986, Hillary stepped up to manage the messy partnership. From talking to the McDougals and bank officers, Stewart portrays Hillary resisting every effort to obtain financial information for a series of loans on Whitewater.

In 1987, a loan from 1st Ozark National Bank was particularly troubling. The bank was about to be sold and wanted a complete set of files for examiners. Some officers wanted the loan called. But Stewart notes the bank also wanted Gov. Clinton to sign a branch banking bill which would help it expand.

Stewart turns up notes which appear to link the Clintons' outstanding loan to the banking bill, but at least one bank official denies ever discussing such a thing with Hillary. As it turns out, the loan was extended and the bill became law.

Other documents Stewart obtained show the Clintons, with Hillary presumably calling the shots, to be very generous in how they valued their assets on these loan applications. That could be counted as loan fraud by a zealous prosecutor.

How the Clintons handled their loans throughout the 1980s and right up to the 1992 campaign also has important tax implications. Some of the Clintons' payments were deductible and some of the payments made on behalf of the Clintons could be construed as loan forgiveness. That is income which must be reported. These details help Stewart implicitly connect Foster's anguish over Whitewater to his handling of the Clintons' tax returns.

At the outset, Stewart confesses a lack of political reporting experience. That lack of experience shows in his acceptance of the conventional wisdom on Bill Clinton's decision not to run for president in 1988. Stewart notes Gov. Clinton had gone so far as to rent out a hotel to make the announcement before backing down. Blood Sport also details Gov. Clinton's relationships with the women of Little Rock during this period. From this Stewart concludes that the decision not to run was motivated by a fear of "bimbo eruptions," as campaign aide Betsey Wright described them for posterity.

This view is the same as that found in First in His Class, the Clinton biography by David Maraniss. Maraniss's account was based on an explosive anecdote, relayed and later recanted by Wright, that she went over a list of women with Gov. Clinton and urged him not to run. Relying on any one person's account of anything in Arkansas, especially so skilled an operator as Wright, is fraught with peril.

This explanation simply ignores the political firestorm the S&L issue had become. Early in 1987, the General Accounting Office declared the S&L insurance fund bankrupt. Multimillion-dollar bailouts had become routine, as had congressional special pleading on behalf of well-connected S&L owners. Both political parties played the game. And notable Democrats like Jim Wright and Tony Coelho had to explain away connections to high-flying S&L "kingpins."

In short, it was not a good time for a governor with close ties to a wobbly S&L and outstanding loans to a handful of others to jump onto the national stage. Bad loans had to figure as large as bimbos in Clinton's political calculus. Clearly, the Whitewater affair would have to be buried a little deeper before the Clintons could make their move.

Stewart does recover to recount that burial process. McDougal's 1990 acquittal on charges arising from Madison's collapse was the first spade. Stewart notes just how fortunate McDougal was: "Of the 247 S&L defendants indicted that year, Jim McDougal and (his in-laws) were the only ones who were acquitted."

Clinton's reelection in 1990 further insulated him. By the time 1991 rolled around, George Bush was stuck with the S&L tar baby. Bush-led Republicans would not be eager to bring up failed thrifts. The coast was as clear as it was going to get.

The last third of Blood Sportis given over to what Stewart calls "Shrouding the Truth." During the 1992 campaign and throughout Clinton's presidency, a Whitewater damage-control operation has been in place. From the outset Foster, Thomases, and Rose Firm alum Webb Hubbell were involv ed in managing documents and the flow of information on Hillary's work for Rose and Madison.

Stewart is also fascinated here by the White House reaction to Troopergate in late 1993. Stories on Bill's late-night romps through Little Rock, from his former state patrol body guards, shattered that holiday season. The frenzy of activity by the president and Wright which resulted in a partial recantation by one of the troopers has never been explained. Stewart notes its oddity, but sheds no new light on it.

He seems genuinely bewildered by the White House's behavior. This is also a strike against the Clintons, who have held that only right-wing crackpots could find anything strange about the administration's handling of these events.

Stewart relies on the recollections of former White House counsel Nussbaum for much of the play-by-play during this period. It makes sense to go to Nussbaum, a man obviously tossed over the side by the Clintons, to find someone willing to talk. But Nussbaum gets away with distancing himself too much from White House eagerness to gather information on the Resolution Trust Company investigation into Madison.

Testimony before the Senate Whitewater Committee in February shows the Whitewater Response Team, of which Nussbaum was a member, to have been very active. In January 1994, the team formed around newly arrived Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes. Ickes had no trouble ordering Nussbaum's assistants to research various issues of import. Of vital importance the first few weeks of 1994 was the RTC investigation. Ickes set White House lawyers to studying the statute of limitations question. Ickes also discussed the RTC's investigation with the president.

The White House has always maintained it was RTC chief Roger Altman who came to them to "brief" them on the statute of limitations. But now it appears the response team was much more proactive. Perhaps not in the league of Nixon's plumbers, but not spectators either. The facts are still being spun, and Nussbaum may not come out the gruff hero Stewart makes him out to be.

The one mystery Blood Sport cannot clear up is, Why did Thomases ever approach Stewart with the idea of doing a Whitewater book? Is it possible that as late as March 1994 Thomases too was in the dark as to the extent of the Arkansas paper trail? Is a critical book released in early 1996 supposed to inoculate the Clintons for the November campaign? Did she seriously misjudge Stewart's willingness to look for the truth?

Even if Blood Sport was supposed to be part of the cover-up, it delivers more than enough facts to confront Clinton supporters with unpleasant truths. From that start, the whole truth may finally emerge.

Jeff A. Taylor (jefataylor@aol.com) covers Whitewater for Investor's Business Daily.