With the excruciating politeness of an Agatha Christie detective, members of the Senate opened a hearing on the Whitewater affair Tuesday by questioning one another’s motives.
Their civility was disturbed only once - by the sudden appearance of a dead man’s briefcase.
The senators, particularly Sen. Alfonse D’Amato of New York, the Republican committee chairman, insisted on their fairness and impartiality in calling the hearing, but their arch opening statements set the mood as both sides lined up as if in a tag-team grudge match.
Almost every Republican suggested President Clinton and his White House staff were guilty of some sin or crime, from arrogance to obstruction of justice.
On the opposing side, each Democrat used his or her allotted time to remind them that the hearing was not supposed to be a partisan witch hunt and warned it could turn back on the Republicans.
The main witness, former Deputy Attorney General Webster Hubbell, a close friend of the Clintons who is about to begin serving a 21-month jail term for an unrelated charge of tax evasion and fraud, waited silently for 2-1/2 hours as the senators jousted before they asked him about the suicide of former White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster.
The focus of the hearing, which may last an entire month, is on actions taken by members of the Clinton administration immediately after Foster’s death on July 20, 1993. Conspiracy theories abound among Clinton’s critics and one of the main questions to be asked in this hearing is whether any documents relating to the Arkansas land deal known as Whitewater were taken from Foster’s office.
Still it was a surprise to Democrats when Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, held up Foster’s worn, black leather briefcase in which White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum belatedly discovered 27 torn pieces of a note Foster had written on a yellow legal pad.
Holding it high for the cameras, Murkowski suggested conspiracy was afoot.
The Democrats seemed flabbergasted. The briefcase, in the possession of Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr until just the night before, suggested all their expectations about partisan mudslinging might be true.
Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts interrupted the hearing in the middle of Hubbell’s testimony and displayed a far different, less nefarious way to hold the briefcase and not notice the torn pieces of paper in the bottom.
In the torn note, Foster expressed his dismay with Washington. “I was not meant for the job or the spotlight of public life in Washington,” he wrote. “Here, ruining people is considered sport …”
Political motivation is at the heart of the questions and the hearings, which are expected to continue well into next year’s election campaign.
While little evidence of wrongdoing on the Clintons’ part has been uncovered despite almost three years of investigations, the hearings will rehash the history of their investment in the land deal and its relationship to the failed Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan.
Federal investigators are trying to determine whether money from Madison was improperly diverted to Whitewater or to Clinton’s gubernatorial campaigns, and whether then-Gov. Clinton gave Madison favorable treatment. Later, the inquiry expanded into whether the Clinton administration impeded federal Whitewater investigators and whether Foster’s death was related.
Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., reviewed Foster’s handwritten notes, which were projected on a big screen.
Shown for the first time, the documents revealed that Foster was concerned about a possible IRS audit of the Clintons’ finances.
One cryptic document, for example, said: “more importantly would result in audit as proof of basis” and “can of worms you shouldn’t open.” Another said: “don’t want to go back into that box.”
“The documents tell me that, contrary to the assertions of the White House. … This is not a harmless issue about tax returns,” Mack charged.
“Rather, it is about the financing about Whitewater Development and the fact that Vince Foster couldn’t square the first couple’s public statements with reality. Imagining the nervousness of the White House suspecting that these documents and others existed and that they were easily discoverable during the suicide investigation, a great deal of odd behavior is explained.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also flashed documents that were removed from Foster’s office. The records, released by the Clintons’ personal lawyer, showed that the White House deleted information, citing executive or attorney-client privilege.
Tuesday’s session added incremen tal details to the exhaustive record of a failed Arkansas land deal, but the substance of the hearings remains uncertain.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHITEWATER OVER THE DAM? An ABC News-Washington Post poll found that only 28 percent of those questioned believe the Whitewater hearings will investigate legitimate issues, while 67 percent said they believed the main purpose is for Republicans to embarrass Clinton. In the telephone poll, conducted Friday through Monday, 58 percent said Whitewater was not an important issue, a number that has been steady for more than a year, while 38 percent said it was important. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.