Without any primary contests to preoccupy the would-be heirs of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York Senate race already is approaching autumnal levels of partisan acrimony in the first weeks of summer. Although both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rick Lazio are battering each other over policy issues for the moment, the “character issue,” that great favorite of the political press corps, appears due for an imminent revival. And despite the perennial presumption of guilt that has colored so much media coverage of Mrs. Clinton since 1992, she won’t be alone in defending her personal integrity this campaign year.
Mr. Lazio flagged his own potential vulnerability when he told Observer reporters Josh Benson and Greg Sargent that he holds Alfonse D’Amato as a role model. While he was no doubt referring to the former senator’s reputation for constituent service, that isn’t necessarily the first description that comes to mind when Mr. D’Amato’s name is mentioned. As Mr. Lazio’s financial dealings, campaign contributions and official conduct come under increasingly close scrutiny, Republicans are rediscovering the chief drawback in nominating a senatorial candidate reared in the dubious political culture of the G.O.P. machine on Long Island.
Meanwhile, however, just in case any voters have forgotten the dog-eared litany of accusations against the First Lady, a lengthy recapitulation was provided in The New York Times on June 19 by Neil A. Lewis of the paper’s Washington bureau. (Let it be duly noted that several weeks ago Mr. Lewis trashed The Hunting of the President, a book I co-authored with Gene Lyons, in the paper’s book review section.) The occasion for Mr. Lewis’ piece was a forthcoming report from the Office of Independent Counsel concerning the so-called Travelgate affair, which has been under investigation by prosecutors for more than four years. Mr. Lewis moved swiftly past the near-certainty that the O.I.C. will clear Mrs. Clinton, and everybody else implicated in that fiasco, of any criminal wrongdoing. More important than her impending exoneration are the “old questions” that continue to injure her reputation. Unsurprisingly, his summary emphasized information that would tend to encourage suspicions about Mrs. Clinton, while slighting or wholly ignoring exculpatory facts. For example, in recounting yet again the moldy dispute over how her law firm came to represent Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, Mr. Lewis strains to contradict her testimony with statements by her former associate Richard Massey. This was never a matter of grave importance, as it involves events that took place in 1985. Although Mr. Massey’s recollections 11 years later varied slightly from Mrs. Clinton’s, he confirmed the broad outlines of her account. That was the conclusion of the 12-volume report on Whitewater and related matters prepared for the Resolution Trust Corporation by the law firm of Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro–-which Mr. Lewis doesn’t even mention. The Pillsbury report might have helped him better understand those infamous Rose Law Firm billing records. He claims those records show that, contrary to her previous testimony, Mrs. Clinton worked on an allegedly fraudulent development known as “Castle Grande.” Yet the actual documents prove that, precisely as she had testified, the project she briefly assisted was known not as Castle Grande but as the “Industrial Development Corporation” (which Mr. Lewis inaccurately identifies as the “International Development Corporation”).
Still more sweeping was the overall assessment reached by the Pillsbury firm’s investigators. Based on the billing records and thousands of other documents, the President and Mrs. Clinton are innocent. The “theories that tie [her legal work] to wrongdoing … are strained at best,” they wrote. It is hard to see how a fair summary of these stale controversies could disregard the Pillsbury report’s heavily documented conclusions. But nobody cares any more about the details of Whitewater, the Travel Office firings, the F.B.I. files matter or the small fortune that Mrs. Clinton reaped in the commodities market more than 20 years ago, do they? No, because the details are convoluted and unsexy. Yet an unfair impression of dishonesty lingers long after the facts have been forgotten.
Perhaps the Times editors felt this Clinton scandal rehash, however slanted and incomplete, was needed to balance the paper’s recent coverage of Mr. Lazio’s lucrative stock plays, which smell a bit like an inside deal provided to Mr. D’Amato by a Long Island brokerage several years ago. The Times account of Mr. Lazio’s trading noted in passing that, unlike Mrs. Clinton and many other candidates for public office in both parties, he has refused to release his income tax returns.
It will be interesting to see whether the Times editorial board, which has examined Mrs. Clinton’s finances with such zeal, demands full disclosure from her opponent, too.