May 1 1994

Whitewater Under the Bridge

How the Press Missed the Story

Supporters of the Clintons suggest that Whitewater, a failed real estate venture from Bill and Hillary’s Little Rock days, is old news. The election campaign is over, the argument goes, and the voters chose Clinton.

But Whitewater never really became a campaign issue in 1992. Most media gave a great deal of space to allegations of Clinton’s sexual affairs and accounts of his draft maneuverings, but shied away from a story about corporate collusion with politicians–perhaps because the story wasn’t pushed by an establishment party or politician.

Today, leading Republicans seem to want to talk about nothing but Whitewater and the Madison Guaranty S&L. That wasn’t the case during the ’92 campaign, when George Bush and his allies had reason to keep quiet: Bush had his own–much more costly–bank scandals to worry about.

Taxpayers lost $47 million when Madison, owned by Clinton crony James McDougal, failed. But taxpayers lost $1 billion in the collapse of the Silverado S&L, which boasted “First Son” Neil Bush as boardmember. And George Bush was implicated in the BNL bank scandal–which helped arm Iraq’s Saddam Hussein with $5 billion of the U.S. public’s money.

One Clinton opponent who wasn’t silent in 1992 about Whitewater and related issues was Jerry Brown. But his calls for more investigation were silenced in much of the press.

As a media issue during the campaign, the whole affair rose and fell in about three weeks. On March 8, 1992, investigative reporter Jeff Gerth broke the story on the front page of the New York Times–presenting much of the essential information about the scandal that would be “exposed” more than a year later.

The article, “Clintons Joined S&L Operator in an Ozark Real-Estate Venture,” asserted that Bill and Hillary Clinton “were under little financial risk” in the Whitewater venture initiated by McDougal. The implication was that this was a “sweetheart deal” offered in return for political favors. Gerth also pointed to Hillary’s partnership in the powerful Rose law firm, which represented McDougal’s S&L in filings before a state agency.

Gerth wrote that the McDougal/Clinton relationship “raises questions of whether a governor should be involved in a business deal with the owner of a business regulated by the state and whether, having done so, the governor’s wife through her law firm should be receiving legal fees for work done for the business.”

The next day’s newspapers featured Bill Clinton’s responses to the article–for example, that the venture did carry risk for the Clintons, who lost thousands. Ignored was Jerry Brown’s news release calling on Bill Clinton to “release all papers pertaining to his ties to the failed Madison Guaranty.”

Six days later, a Washington Post (3/14/92) report scrutinized the Rose law firm’s representation of corporate clients–including Madison and bigger businesses–in front of state regulators appointed by Governor Clinton. “If you want something from the state,” a Clinton rival was quoted, “you go to the Rose firm.” The article also reported, “One of Rose’s most lucrative clients is the state government.”

Hours after the Post story broke, in a Chicago debate that was the most heated of the campaign, Brown accused Governor Clinton of “funneling money to his wife’s law firm for state business.” Clinton called it a “lying accusation.”

The next day, Hillary Clinton responded to Brown’s charges against her husband with a feminist appeal that would be prominently quoted for days and years to come: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas. But what I decided to do was pursue my profession.”

By contrast, her revealing response to a question about whether she had represented Madison Guaranty was hardly quoted: “For goodness sake, you can’t be a lawyer if you don’t represent banks.”

Although Brown’s criticism was aimed at Bill – not Hillary – newspapers in the next two days were full of macho posturing from Gov. Clinton: “If somebody jumps on my wife, I’m going to jump them back.” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (3/18/92) even mocked Brown for being a bachelor. “One thing he knows nothing about – zilch, nada, zero – is marriage.”

Within a week, Whitewater was virtually dead as a campaign issue. With press attention shifting to depictions of Brown as a character assassin – and discussions about “cookies” and “teas” – the issue of candidate Clinton’s links to corporate power in Little Rock disappeared.

Our computer search of major dailies revealed only a couple dozen articles in 1992 mentioning Whitewater or Madison – compared to hundreds mentioning Hillary’s “cookies” remark.

These days – as if overcompensating for dropping the ball on what should have been a serious campaign issue – national media have been inflating the story. As “presidential” scandals go, this one seems distinctly gubernatorial. It’s silly to compare it to Watergate, a presidential abuse of the U.S. Constitution, or Iran-contra, which involved the White House in secret wars and arms to terrorists.

The media onslaught on Whitewater has been propelled day after day by quotes of outrage from Republican senators like Phil Gramm, who received favors from a Dallas operator of three failed S&Ls, and Alfonse D’Amato, whose dealings in support of friends and relatives were investigated and rebuked by the Senate Ethics Committee.

But in 1992, a key reason elite media dropped the story was that the only newsmaker pushing it was Jerry Brown, who often spoke about the corrupting influence of money in politics – but was considered an anti-establishment candidate, whom journalists were more prone to deride than quote.

A version of this article appeared as a syndicated column in the Seattle Times, Arizona Republic, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Dallas Morning News and other papers.