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Life in the Wiggle Room

The more the first lady tries to explain things, the more questions she raises. Hillary Clinton just cannot seem to sound very convincing

January 22, 1996

From TIME Correspondent Richard Lacayo

Hillary Rodham Clinton came to the job of First Lady determined to be taken seriously. She got her wish. In these first weeks of the presidential-campaign year, Washington and the rest of America are taking her more seriously than ever, though not in the way she hoped. As she set across the U.S. this week to promote her book on children's issues, what some people were asking, perhaps unfairly, is whether her real gift might be for fiction.

The First Lady and the White House spent much of last week trying to neutralize skepticism about a number of her past statements, including some made under oath. Whether the questions involve Whitewater, the search of Vince Foster's office after his suicide or the 1993 firing of the White House travel-office staff, the issue boils down to whether she's none too fussy about the truth. In a TIME/CNN poll conducted last week by Yankelovich Partners, 52% of those surveyed think Mrs. Clinton lied about her role in Whitewater and Travelgate. Asked if they thought she had done something illegal, 47% said yes.

The skepticism-spillover problem is potentially acute for Bill Clinton, who is struggling back into voter approval with the budget fight. But he has been steadfast in defense of the wife who has stuck by him through more than one embarrassment. Early last week, after New York Times columnist William Safire called Hillary a "congenital liar," White House spokesman Mike McCurry said the President wanted to punch Safire in the nose. At his press conference on Thursday, Clinton compared his wife with Eleanor Roosevelt, another activist First Lady who came under fire. "For many of the same reasons," he added, "from many of the same sources."

One of the sources of Mrs. Clinton's problems may be herself. In her 20/20 interview last week with Barbara Walters, the First Lady's answers were both forthright and unsatisfying. Did she demand the firing of the White House travel staff? Chief of staff Mack McLarty "took responsibility for the decision," she said. "I did not tell him to do anything." But while McLarty may have taken responsibility, it was administrative aide David Watkins who did the firings. And in the 1993 memo disclosed by the White House two weeks ago, Watkins wrote that he did it at her "insistence.'' As for McLarty, a 1993 note from White House aide Lorraine Voles, which emerged last week, suggested his motivation. Scribbling at a White House meeting, Voles wrote that Susan Thomases, a close friend of Mrs. Clinton's, told McLarty that HRC, meaning Hillary Rodham Clinton, "wants these people fired." And a McLarty chronology relating to the travel office has an entry, "May 16: HRC pressure."

At the same time, even as her attackers keep the pot boiling on Whitewater, nothing conclusive emerges from the steam. Republicans have done little to disprove Mrs. Clinton's claim that she did nothing illegal on behalf of Madison Guaranty, the now defunct savings and loan association that was headed by Jim McDougal, the Clintons' partner in their Whitewater land investment. Similarly, there's no evidence that the thrift got favorable treatment from a Clinton-appointed state bank regulator, Beverly Bassett Schaffer.

The Senate Banking Committee's latest Whitewater hearing ended in a draw. The much anticipated witness was Richard Massey, a lawyer at the Rose firm in Little Rock, Arkansas, where Mrs. Clinton was once a partner. She says it was Massey, not she, who in 1985 brought Madison's business to Rose. When her long-sought billing records were suddenly discovered two weeks ago at the White House, Mrs. Clinton said the work they showed on behalf of Madison, 60 hours over 15 months, was also proof she did little work herself for Madison.

While Massey was expected to sharply contradict her stories, his testimony cut both ways. He supported Mrs. Clinton's claims that he did most of Madison's legal chores. "When it came to who was in the trenches," he said, "it was me." He also flatly denied that anyone had asked him to give Mrs. Clinton cover by falsely claiming he had brought in the Madison account, a speculation in an earlier Safire column.

What Massey did not do was back up the First Lady's recollection that it was he who brought together Madison and Rose. He remembered only having made an unsuccessful pitch to Madison's president, John Latham, and told the committee he didn't recall how the work eventually ended up with Rose. McDougal has claimed it happened via Bill Clinton, who stopped by his office on a jogging run and asked him to pass business along to his wife. It's a story both Clintons deny.

This week Congress turns the focus back to Travelgate when a House committee hears testimony from Watkins, the man who did the travel-office firing. Questions about Mrs. Clinton's credibility in that episode will cast a shadow over the next likely round of accusations in the more serious matter of Whitewater. But those accusations still await the evidence that will draw them into a convincing whole. At last week's Whitewater hearing, Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut complained, "We are no longer concerned with fact finding. We are fully engaged in the presidential-election battle."

In a bit of reverse psychology, Senate Democrats are thinking of demanding that Mrs. Clinton testify before the Senate, figuring that Republicans would only hurt themselves if they seemed to browbeat the President's wife. Republicans too are aware that if they move too fast they risk creating sympathy for Mrs. Clinton. And after all, that's something she finds hard to do for herself.

--Reported by James Carney and Viveca Novak/Washington

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