Whitewater Comes Due

SEATED IN A CHIPPENDALE CHAIR IN the White House Map Room, Bill Clinton answered a prosecutor's questions on Whitewater for more than two hours. But for the fact that the president of the United States was a witness in a criminal case, his videotaped testimony was remarkably undramatic. Although he at times showed flashes of icy temper, Clinton flatly denied he pressured Arkansas businessman David Hale to make an illegal $300,000 loan to Susan McDougal, a former business partner who is now on trial with her ex-husband, James McDougal, on multiple counts of fraud. Clinton aides professed relief that the president's day in court had gone so well. ""This sort of spells the end of any speculation that [independent counsel Ken Starr's investigation] is going to touch the president in any way,'' said deputy counsel Mark Fabiani.

But that may be premature. The Little Rock case, based on a multicount indictment against the McDougals and Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, goes to the jury this week, and the outcome will have important political and legal implications. If the jury convicts the McDougals on the fraudulent-loan charge, it will in effect decide that Clinton was less credible than David Hale, a convicted felon already headed for prison. That in turn could give new life to the probes led by Starr and committees in the House and Senate. An acquittal, on the other hand, would all but cripple Starr and turn off the klieg lights on Capitol Hill. And the Dole camp, NEWSWEEK has learned, has tentatively decided the controversy is too complex to make good specific campaign fodder.

That could change if Starr can answer the related question of who, exactly, left a sheaf of computer records in the Book Room of the White House family quarters. The records, which document Hillary Clinton's legal work for McDougal's failed savings-and-loan, disappeared after the 1992 campaign and, despite subpoenas, remained missing for nearly two years. That smacks of obstruction of justice, and Michael Chertoff, counsel to Sen. Al D'Amato's Whitewater panel, staged a nifty piece of theater last week by listing possible suspects. Records show that more than 200 people had access to the family quarters, around the time the printouts mysteriously reappeared. The list includes guests like Steven Spielberg. Chertoff said only six people -- Bill and Hillary Clinton, Clinton's brother Roger and his wife, aide Bruce Lindsey and Susan Thomases, Mrs. Clinton's close friend -- have yet to deny under oath to the committee they had nothing to do with the records' reappearance. Fabiani called that ""rank innuendo,'' and it may be just that. But both sides will be watching when the jury returns.

Under oath for two and a half hours, the president laid out his side of Whitewater. A few highlights:

"Obviously people's memories of specific things are different as time passes, particularly if they are not especially important to them."

". . . These things are simply not true; they didn't happen."

"I'm doing my best to tell you the truth and you keep asking me to speculate."