In one of the thousands of Clinton administration papers released Friday came a hint of what is to come if Hillary Rodham Clinton decides to run for president in 2016.
In a January 1996 memo to White House communications director and speechwriter Don Baer, President Clinton’s political advisor Paul Begala wrote that in the upcoming State of the Union address “it’s imperative that the president defend the honor of the first lady tonight, with the whole country watching.”
“The Republicans are attacking her without compunction, in part because they know the Democrats are too . . . to retaliate,” Begala wrote, including a term – omitted here – rooted in his Texas upbringing.
The memo does not mention why she was being attacked – but the fact that there were so many options explains why even many Democrats are wary of a Clinton restoration.
In just that one month, January of 1996, dual Clinton scandals were confounding the White House and greatly complicating the presidency. House and Senate hearings featured gavel-pounding displays of anti-Clinton fervor; also revolving around the first couple were independent counsels – visible threats to the family’s political viability:
Four months after Bill Clinton took office in 1992, the White House announced that it was firing all seven employees of the in-house travel office, which arranged trips for the media. Officials blamed the employees for gross financial mismanagement – but the move took on another cast when the administration sought to replace them with a travel agency from Arkansas.
Hillary Clinton insisted in a 1995 deposition that she had no role in the firings. But an investigation by independent counsel Robert W. Ray found that there was “overwhelming evidence” that she had played a role. Still, he said in a report released in the fall of 2000, only months before the Clintons left the White House, there was not sufficient evidence to prove that she had lied under oath about what she had done.
“Mrs. Clinton’s input into the process was a significant – if not the significant – factor influencing the pace of events in the travel office firings and the ultimate decision to fire the employees,” Ray concluded.
As one of the first moves made by the Clinton administration, the travel office brouhaha helped craft an impression of the new White House couple as, at best, willing to run roughshod over employees in order to install loyalists. Ultimately, the administration admitted the firings were a mistake, and five of the employees were rehired. The former travel office director, a well-known and popular figure at the White House, was acquitted of criminal embezzlement charges.
All seven travel office veterans appeared before Congress the day after the president praised his wife in the State of the Union address. Angry and tearful, they testified that the accusations by the Clinton White House had ruined them financially by forcing them to incur massive legal bills to clear their names.
Hillary Clinton’s lawyer, David Kendall, said the decision not to charge her with lying was “entirely appropriate” but that it was “unfair and misleading” for Ray to say that her deposition was inaccurate.
The day before the State of the Union address, the White House announced that the first lady had been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury investigating one of the longest-standing controversies of the Clinton era, the Whitewater real estate deal.
Whitewater arose as a campaign issue in 1992, during the Clintons’ first try for the White House. More than a dozen years earlier, the then-governor of Arkansas and his wife had been given shares, at almost no money down, in a land development along the Whitewater River in the Ozarks. Their partners were James and Susan McDougal.
The deal turned bad, but that was not the biggest problem. McDougal was the owner of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, which failed at a cost to taxpayers of $73 million – raising the question of whether taxpayer money had bailed out the Clintons and their partners.
The issue became so disruptive in the administration’s early years that the White House agreed to an independent investigation, one that would eventually encompass an inquiry into the president’s affair with intern Monica Lewinsky.
Hillary Clinton’s involvement stemmed from her role as investor and lawyer – and from the curious fate of key documents found mysteriously in the White House. Days before the State of the Union address, Hillary Clinton’s personal aide testified before the Senate Whitewater Committee that billing records from Hillary Clinton’s old law firm in Little Rock – records that had been subpoenaed two years before – had been found months earlier in the White House living quarters.
The sudden reappearance raised suspicions that the documents had been deliberately withheld from the committee. The area in which the documents were found was closed to most members of the White House staff and guarded by Secret Service agents. The documents were meant to establish whether Hillary Clinton had done minimal legal work for Madison Guaranty – as she had said – or played a more prominent role.
In his fall 2000 final report, independent counsel Ray did not wholly exonerate the Clintons. “This office determined that the evidence was insufficient to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that either President or Mrs. Clinton knowingly participated in any criminal conduct or knew of such conduct,” Ray said.
Hillary Clinton, by then close to seizing a U.S. Senate seat in New York that would establish a political career separate from that of her husband, declared that she had always known there was “nothing there to report.”
Bill Clinton did not regale his State of the Union audience with all the flourishes that Begala had proposed. But he did praise the first lady as, he said, “the person who has taught me more than anyone else over 25 years about the importance of families and children, a wonderful wife, a magnificent mother, and a great first lady.”
Since then, Hillary Clinton has served in the U.S. Senate, run for president, worked as her former opponent’s secretary of State, traveled the world for her family’s charitable foundation, and, in recent months, greatly expanded her private speechmaking and political profile.
For many voters, all of the rest is in the past. But if the Clinton family’s gothic political turns say anything about Hillary Clinton’s future, the past will be there, waiting.