Starr Power Wanes; Clintons In Clear?

Those talkative “sources close to” Kenneth Starr sound strangely subdued of late, as if the Whitewater independent counsel were preparing his Republican and conservative fans for disappointment. Aside from Monica Lewinsky’s alleged affair with Bill Clinton-which may still cause embarrassment or worse for the President-it now seems that the various avenues of inquiry explored so long and so expensively by Mr. Starr are just so many dead ends.

That was the subtext of the vast Whitewater review on Page 1 of The New York Times on April 20. Although Times reporters Jeff Gerth and Stephen Labaton labored to suggest wrongdoing by the Clintons, they noted that it would be “difficult, if not impossible” for the independent counsel to wring any indictments from the grand jury in Little Rock, Ark., which officially expires on May 7. Among the independent counsel’s problems is that the much-touted cooperation of former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker has been of little use-which won’t surprise anyone who understands that Mr. Tucker was a political adversary of the Clintons, not an ally, and certainly never a business associate. As the Times reporters politely put it, Mr. Tucker’s testimony has been “only moderately helpful.”

None of that kept The Times from displaying the Clintons in the worst possible light. There was almost no news in the story. But to take only a single example, the paper of record strongly suggested that Hillary Clinton lied about her law firm’s retainer agreement with Madison Guaranty, the savings and loan run by the Clintons’ late business partner James McDougal.

Dramatically, The Times tells us of a briefcase found in the attic of Vince Foster’s Little Rock home, four years after the White House’s deputy counsel committed suicide. The briefcase “contained documents that raise questions about Mrs. Clinton’s accounts of her legal work for Madison.” What questions? Well, according to The Times , she said that “the retainer agreement was set up because an earlier bill [to] Mr. McDougal’s bank was unpaid.” And Mrs. Clinton must have been lying, because The Times says McDougal’s “paid bill” was found “in Mr. Foster’s briefcase.”

This brilliant sleuthing is slightly flawed. Mrs. Clinton actually testified three years ago that lawyers at her firm “were opposed to doing any more work for Jim McDougal … until he paid his bill [emphasis added] and then only if Madison Guaranty agreed to prepay a certain sum to the firm once a month … As I recall, McDougal … informed me that he would arrange to pay the past due bill [emphasis added].”

So it seems she testified that McDougal was going to pay the bill before her law firm did any more work for him, and The Times has uncovered evidence that he did pay the bill. Pretty damning, eh? The other allegations are just as hollow and almost as ridiculous. No wonder the independent counsel is facing difficult-to-impossible obstacles in his quest to indict the President’s wife. There isn’t much of a case.

If you don’t believe me, pick up a copy of the April issue of The American Spectator . Yes, The American Spectator , piggy bank for Richard Mellon Scaife’s Arkansas Project and house organ of the Office of Independent Counsel. After repeatedly predicting (and celebrating) the inevitable imprisonment of the Clintons and everyone who ever knew them, The Spectator reports-aw, shucks!-that there probably won’t be any new indictments after all. (The exception may be a tax rap against Webster Hubbell to induce him to say whatever Mr. Starr longs to hear.)

“The probe has uncovered an enormous number of clear contradictions in testimony, suspicious circumstances and downright fishy business involving the Clintons,” writes The Spectator ‘s Byron York. “But it might not be prosecutable fishy business.” Proceeding glumly down the list, Mr. York admits that on Whitewater, the billing records, the Foster papers, “Filegate” and “Travelgate,” Mr. Starr has found little, if anything, that could support criminal charges against anyone.

Mr. York’s conclusions regarding Filegate, still a source of much indignation, are stark: “Starr’s team looked for evidence [that White House officials] were searching for dirt on Republicans. But the early investigation revealed no solid proof to support the theory. The idea that higher-ups ordered the file project has apparently not panned out.” Even the two dummies who ordered up the files, Anthony Marceca and Craig Livingstone, are unlikely to be charged with any intentional wrongdoing because “it appears that there is no solid evidence on which to bring an indictment.”

Does this mean that Republicans will stop whining about the terrible crimes of Filegate, since apparently there were no crimes worth prosecuting? (By the way, you read it here first.) Fat chance.

Mr. York predicts that Mr. Starr will write a final report that forbears from ruining the reputations of people he cannot indict, and that he should be remembered as “the most ethical independent counsel in history.” Yet while we await his report, the nastiest interpretations of the evidence seem to leaking out already.