The Body Count

The Senate whitewater hearings are titillating, but not very interesting. The only sustained drama involves chairman Alfonse D'Amato's Sisyphean struggle to scale his own private Everest of ill-repute. He purrs a lot. He is very solicitous. It is as if Moe or Curly had gone to finishing school. "I guess you have to go to . . . the library," he said at one point last week, as a witness requested a recess. But there is no gilding this lily: D'Amato is leading a scavenger hunt through a sewer. His Republican colleagues show buzzard subtlety as they pick through the effluvia of an amorphous parascandal, pouncing ravenously on each semi-solid morsel. At times, one begins to think something felonious is, ahhh, emerging through the reek of innuendo. But no. The bottom line is likely to remain what it is now: the Clintons had a weakness for sweetheart deals. Some worked (cattle futures); some didn't (Whitewater). Like most sentient pols, Bill Clinton would--in the midst of a hot election--bend fund-raising rules. And Vincent Foster committed suicide for personal reasons that will never be fully known.

And yet. There are morsels. There are insights into the perverse ways of this administration. Last week there was a voyeuristic epiphany as Maggie Williams--chief of staff to Hillary Rodham Clinton--described her reactions and whereabouts in the hours after Vince Foster died. Williams is a member of a distinct minority: she is one of the few Clinton aides never described as incompetent. She is, in fact, known to be very smart, tough and loyal. The big show was to be the conflict between Williams and a uniformed Secret Service officer named Henry O'Neill. who claimed to see her walking away from Foster's office with a stack of files the night he died. As it happened, both were credible. O'Neill was a solid basset hound with no ax to grind; Williams came armed with two polygraph tests--and heartbreaking testimony about her emotional reaction to the death of a friend.

In the event, the dispute was moot: Williams admitted to walking out of Foster's office with a stack of "personal" Clinton files two days later--under rather odd circumstances. What happened was this: White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum was divvying up Foster's files. He called Williams and asked her to get the "personal" files into the possession of Robert Barnett, then the Clintons' attorney. But she didn't do that. She claimed to be too tired to clear Barnett's messenger through security. So -- for reasons she couldn't quite explain -- she deposited the files in the White House residence. (The Clintons vehemently deny "reviewing" the files.)

There was more. The files were moved on a day when Susan Thomases, the New York lawyer who serves as the First Lady's Iago, seemed to go phone berserk. She called Williams (or perhaps other people) in the First Lady's office five times. She called chief of staff Mack McLarty three times. She paged Nussbaum once, and spoke to him at least once. What was going on here? Well, a deputy White House counsel named Steve Neuwirth has said Nussbaum told him the First Lady was very concerned about "unfettered access" to Foster's office by investigators. And Justice Department investigators have testified that Nussbaum seemed to be ducking them as well. And the personal files did wind up in the White House residence. It certainly seems as if Hillary Rodham Clinton had her folks--remember, Nussbaum was her old friend and mentor--make sure the files detoured to the residence. At first glance, that doesn't look too good.

Let us, however, take time out to ask a pertinent question: So what? These were personal files. The Clintons had a perfect right to review them before they were passed on to their attorney. They had a perfect right to keep them, for that matter. But, as is so often the case in the Whitewater affair, the Clintons--specifically, Mrs. Clinton --managed to make the routine seem sinister. And, as has so often been the case, loyal members of their staff have taken the fall. Toward the end of her ordeal, Maggie Williams was asked how much time she'd spent preparing testimony about these events. She began to cry. She was then asked how much money she'd spent in legal fees. "$140,000," she said.

Which brings us to the most disappointing Whitewater "revelation." It is about the character of the Clintons. They are the Tom and Daisy Buchanan of the Baby Boom Political Elite. The Buchanans, you may recall, were E Scott Fitzgerald's brilliant crystallization of flapper fecklessness in "The Great Gatsby." They were "careless" people. They smashed up lives and didn't notice. After two years, it's become difficult to avoid a distinguishing characteristic of this administration: the body count. Too many lives and reputations have been ruined by carelessness, too many decent people have been forced to walk the plank for trivialities, appearances, changes of mind. Whitewater has been the worst of it. From the start, aides pleaded with the Clintons to come clean--to release all relevant documents, answer all questions. They didn't. They have, instead, sulked and blamed Republicans and the press for blowing things out of proportion. True enough: there still isn't a hint of criminality here. But that only makes their behavior more mystifying. How could the First Lady allow her chief of staff to spend $140,000 on legal fees? Why hasn't she come forward and said, "Stop torturing my staff. This isn't about them. I'll testify. I'll make all documents available. I'll sit here and answer your stupid, salacious questions until Inauguration Day, if need be." Maybe the Clintons are hiding something. But I'll be surprised if it's anything cosmic. Certainly it won't be nearly as depressing as the casual insensitivity they've already revealed.