Media Beat, Mar. 30, 1994
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Whitewater: The Press Now Drowns in Story

Supporters of Bill and Hillary Clinton suggest that the failed Whitewater venture from their 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.

That's because most national media preferred to cover campaign melodrama and soundbites about "baking cookies" rather than complex stories of corporate collusion with politicians - especially when the stories weren'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.

No wonder George Bush and his allies were silent. 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 board member. And $5 billion was lost in the BNL bank scandal, which involved George Bush himself - while BNL funds helped arm Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

One Clinton opponent who wasn't silent about Whitewater and related issues in 1992 was Jerry Brown. Rather, he was silenced in much of the press.

As a media issue during the campaign, the whole affair rose and fell in about three weeks. Here's the history:

On March 8, 1992, investigative reporter Jeff Gerth broke the story in the New York Times: "Clintons Joined S&L Operator In Ozark Real-Estate Venture." The article asserted that Bill and Hillary Clinton "were under little financial risk" in the Whitewater deal initiated by McDougal, and that Hillary and the powerful Rose law firm represented McDougal's S&L in filings before a state agency.

The next day's newspapers featured Bill Clinton's responses to the article - for example, that the venture did carry risk for the Clintons. 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 report scrutinized the Rose law firm's representation of various corporate clients - including Madison - in front of state regulators appointed by Gov. Clinton. 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 combative of the campaign, Brown accused Gov. Clinton of "funneling money to his wife's law firm for state business." Clinton called it a "lying accusation."

The next day, Hillary Clinton defended 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 S&L was hardly quoted at all: "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 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 of "cookies" and "teas" - the issue of candidate Clinton's links to corporate power in Little Rock disappeared.

A key reason elite media dropped the story in 1992 was that the only newsmaker pushing it was Jerry Brown - an anti-establishment candidate whom journalists were more prone to deride than quote.

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. Today's media onslaught on Whitewater is 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 for relatives were rebuked by the Senate Ethics Committee.

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.

Having sidestepped the Whitewater story two years ago, many news outlets are now drowning in it.

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