Ray’s Getting Ready to Smear First Lady

Anybody who remains unconvinced at this late date that the Whitewater prosecution is strictly a partisan production need only turn their gaze toward New York, where the final act of this long-running legal farce is about to be staged.

The action will resume when a press release on the stationery of the Office of Independent Counsel suddenly pops out of fax machines in newsrooms all over the state where Hillary Rodham Clinton happens to be running for the United States Senate. Quoting Robert Ray, the lawyer who replaced Kenneth Starr as independent counsel last year, that press release will contain a brief summary of the long-overdue final report on Whitewater.

The superhot release from Mr. Ray’s office may or may not acknowledge that nobody has been indicted in Whitewater since 1995-but it will also almost certainly include prosecutorial statements unflattering to Mrs. Clinton, the investigative target who has turned out to be so frustratingly innocent in this matter. And those statements will make headlines, many of which are likely to be big, bold and misleading, just weeks before Election Day.

Meanwhile, in recent advertisements, the campaign of Mrs. Clinton’s Republican opponent Rick Lazio obviously has been preparing for her last Whitewater moment. Their tag line, white letters on a dark screen, reads “Hillary Clinton. You Just Can’t Trust Her.”

If Mr. Ray stays true to form, his forthcoming press release will be similarly short on facts and long on insinuation. Indeed, the specific facts that form the basis of his conclusions will be hidden from public view for a while.

As mandated by law, the independent counsel will file a copy of his complete Whitewater report with the special court that oversees his office. But that document, the end product of an investigation dating back to early 1994, won’t be publicly available until many weeks after Election Day. It will be filed under seal in a Washington D.C. courthouse. There his report will remain safe from examination by journalists and from challenge by the First Lady and her attorneys. When the court does eventually release the independent counsel’s final report on Whitewater, any quibbling over its evidence and conclusions will be irrelevant to the political process in which Mr. Ray seems so determined to meddle.

This is exactly the kind of behavior that made Republicans scream back in 1992, when a previous independent counsel named Lawrence Walsh indicted a former Reagan cabinet secretary for perjury in the Iran-Contra affair on the eve of the Presidential election. Ever since, they have blamed that indictment for the defeat of President Bush and accused Mr. Walsh, a lifelong Republican, of using dirty tricks to sway the election. Mr. Walsh ably defends that controversial decision in his book Firewall , but the very least to be said for him is that he had the guts to indict someone he felt had committed a serious crime, rather than merely whine about why his most important targets got away.

By contrast, Mr. Ray already has demonstrated that if he doesn’t dare indict, he will just as gladly smear. Earlier this year, he issued a press release announcing the completion of the O.I.C.’s protracted probe of the White House Travel Office matter. His press release suggested that prosecutors had reluctantly refrained from indicting Mrs. Clinton because a jury wouldn’t have convicted her on the evidence at hand (which, come to think of it, sounds like a textbook definition of innocence, but never mind).

Making matters still worse, Mr. Ray appeared on television to discuss those strangely ambiguous statements about the Travel Office case. (For some reason, however, he never went on TV to discuss the F.B.I. files case, another strenuous waste of time and money by the independent counsel; it likewise established only that no crimes had been committed.)

If Mr. Ray were unexpectedly to utter the truth about Whitewater, he might say something like the following: There is no evidence that the Clintons did anything wrong in this case. They were swindled by their late partner James McDougal and lost money on the deal. The Rose Law Firm billing records turned over by the White House proved that Mrs. Clinton testified honestly about her minor legal work for McDougal, which had nothing to do with Whitewater. The testimony of the independent counsel’s star witness against President Clinton has never been corroborated and is almost certainly false in its entirety.

Moreover, he might add, we’ve known that there was nothing to this Whitewater nonsense since no later than the spring of 1996, when the Pillsbury Report was submitted to the Resolution Trust Corporation and exonerated both Clintons. Indeed, this “scandal” has been a hoax from the very beginning-and you, dear taxpayers, have footed the entire $50 million bill.

Hope you’ve enjoyed the show.