JUNE 19, 1996
Jim Lehrer talks with the NewsHour's regular panel of regional commentators about the alleged "bureaucratic snafu" in the release of FBI files on Republican staffers to the Clinton White House.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Whitewater as seen by our regional commentators, Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, Lee Cullum of the Dallas Morning News, Patrick McGuigan of the Daily Oklahoman, William Wong of the San Francisco Examiner, Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution, and Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe. Mike, yesterday's competing reports, the Republicans said there was wrongdoing by people at the White House, including Mrs. Clinton. The Republicans said no--I mean, the Democrats said, no, all of this is election year politics. How does it look to you?
MIKE BARNICLE, Boston Globe: (Boston) Well, I think it appears to be a case of dueling spin masters, you know, charge and counter charge. And I think there's probably a couple of things going on here, Jim, at ground level where people live, and that is the Whitewater case in one, in one extent, that people are paying not much attention to. But beneath the tissue of the politics of Whitewater, I think there's the weight of everything surrounding the Clinton administration, and it has to do with Whitewater. It has to do with the FBI files. It has to do with Webster Hubbell. It has to do now with Bruce Lindsey. It has to do with the fact that we have a sitting President of the United States who apparently is going to spend much of the summer testifying at criminal trials. And eventually, the weight of all this, I think, has to have some impact on his reelection chances.
JIM LEHRER: Clarence, how do you see it? Is there a weight problem beyond yesterday's competing reports?
CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: It looks like it's all weight, light weight but weight. When I say light weight, I mean that these hearings have ended pretty much as they started with political charges and counter charges. No smoking gun, no clear evidence, or even links to wrongdoing by the President, but each side charging, the Republicans charging that the Clintons, Mrs. Clinton in particular, acted improperly. Democrats saying, no, they didn't, they're pure as the driven snow. In fact, the Clintons did drag their feet in providing information to the committee. At the same time, why wouldn't they, as to providing information that the Republicans are going to use against them. I think most Americans can understand that in a real practical sense. I was talking with a couple of friends from Southern Ohio today, and they were saying that most people they know aren't following the day-to-day back and forth of all this because it really doesn't pertain to their lives so much; however, as we get closer to election day, that it does cast a cloud on the, on the virtues of the Clintons and could, indeed, have a negative impact by election day. That's still quite a ways off.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see clouds in Northern Texas, Lee?
LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: (Dallas) Yes. I quite agree, Jim. I think Clarence and Mike both have a point. I think the accumulation of all these troubles is bound to tell on the Clintons, and I think that the best way for Bob Dole to take advantage of the situation is to present himself increasingly as a moderate alternative, as reasonable alternative. Now, there's no question these were partisan reports yesterday on the Democratic side, on the Republican side, highly partisan, but that doesn't mean there may not be some substance to them. I think that we do need to reserve judgment and let Kenneth Starr make his decision. After all, it's up to him to build a case that he can take perhaps to the grand jury and maybe even eventually to a court, and that's where the real story will be told.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think the real story may be, Bill Wong? How does it look to you at this stage of the game?
WILLIAM WONG, San Francisco Examiner: (San Francisco) Well, there certainly is the normal political posturing that we would expect out of this. I didn't hear a lot that was new out of the report because it had been dribbling out over, over the many weeks. And--but this can't be good political news for the Clintons by any means. I was struck by the fact that when Bob Dole was here in California, he made almost--he made very little reference, other than some veiled and some general comments about character. He, he mainly paid attention and criticized Clinton's defense policies. And I think the Democrats will have to pay some attention to trying to spin the, spin the case back toward talking about Dole and his association with a mean-spirited Republican Congress in order for, for voters to pay attention to the Democratic agenda. Right now it's not a good time, but there is plenty of time yet for, for this to play out before the election in November.
JIM LEHRER: Pat McGuigan, is what happened yesterday and what's happening on this story just a, a duel between spin masters, as Mike and the others have said?
PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: (Oklahoma City) Well, I think there's some of that, there's no doubt. You know, I agree with Clarence somewhat on this. I think we've got a little bit of spy versus spy going on. At the same time, I'm unpersuaded by--I raced through just as much of the competing reports as I could, and I'm unpersuaded by the Democrats' argument that this is just politics. I think Trent Lott, being somewhat restrained in his characterization of what's happened up to now is that at the very least we see a pattern of attempted concealment. That's at the very minimum. And this is the latest chink in the Clintons' armor. When you go through that lengthy Republican document, it's hard not to agree with the rationale behind the question that Assistant Attorney General Philip Hayman apparently asked Bernie Nussbaum a couple of years ago, Bernie, are you trying to hide something? I'm waiting for even more information. I want to see some people put under oath in these trials that are going on in Arkansas and then we'll maybe have a better picture. I do think the Republicans were making a big mistake if they rely just on this. They need to still be focusing on substantive political issues and not base Bob Dole's reele--or election chances just on this kind of a scandal.
JIM LEHRER: Cynthia, how do the two reports look to you?
CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: (Atlanta) Well, it may not be just politics, Jim, but the Republicans have made it seem as if it's just politics. It seems to me the report that the Republicans released put them exactly where they started from. After interviewing countless witnesses and going through thousands of pages of documents, they ended up just where they began, suggesting very strongly that Hillary Rodham Clinton was lying. Well, that's what they told us at the beginning. And you do get the distinct impression that the Republican Committee would have made an effort to make Hillary Clinton look bad no matter what she said. And that's unfortunate because I think there may be some serious issues here that the American public needs to know about, needs to understand, but the Senate investigating committee, which is dominated by Republicans and led by Alfonse D'Amato, of all people, hasn't done the job of giving the American people the answers they need. Hillary Rodham Clinton could be lying, but I don't trust Alfonse D'Amato to tell me that, and I don't think most Americans do either.
JIM LEHRER: Cynthia, how did your paper play the story this morning?
MS. TUCKER: We had, we have had front page stories over the last few days about the release of the varying reports. My editorial page has an editorial going in tomorrow saying basically what I just said, that the Senate investigating committee did the American public no favors because the report is so tainted by their partisanship.
JIM LEHRER: Mike, how did the Globe play the story this morning?
MR. BARNICLE: It played it big, Jim, above the fold. Uh, you know, it was the lead story in the paper. I think--
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
MR. BARNICLE: --what it gets to, though, is again, what this story gets too is not necessarily the land deal. It's the sense that more and more people, I think, have that dealing with this White House, listening to this White House, is like extracting the story from two twelve year olds about how they got in trouble at school. You never get the whole story. You have to drag it out, drag it out. It's like pulling teeth after a while, and eventually voters are going to get sick of it.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Big story in the Chicago Tribune?
MR. PAGE: Not as big as the Bulls championship, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: No. Hey, hey, that wasn't the question.
MR. PAGE: --Rodman is the big mouth everybody's listening to this week.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. No, is this something that people in Chicago care about?
MR. PAGE: Well, again, I think Chicago, like the rest of the Midwest, it's not something that pertains to people's daily lives, and so they don't talk about it as much. Heaven knows Chicago's got its own questions of impropriety in, in local politics that, that makes news. It is something that on the whole casts a shadow on the character question with regard to the Clintons. I think again one who does not follow the story closely would be hard pressed to find something new in these dueling committee reports.
JIM LEHRER: Lee, how did the Dallas Morning News play out today?
MS. CULLUM: Well, Jim, I think the media coverage has been quite appropriate. It has been what you would expect. It certainly covered the story, but I think there's been a certain restraint. I, I think that there's been a real effort not to, to punish the Clintons unduly, and there's been a, a wish, I think, to wait and see what actually happens with the special prosecutor, but it certainly has been covered.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Sarbanes on this program last night said that among the committee--he was referring to the Republicans, Lee--that he had never seen such venom directed toward anybody as that has been directed toward Mrs. Clinton, and he thought that was very special. Is that true in your world in Texas as well?
MS. CULLUM: Oh, yes. I completely agree. It reminds me of the terrible punishment that was visited upon Gerald Ferarro, if you recall, because she had the nerve to run for vice president. If you remember, her husband was hauled into court, her son was called into court, and I'm not commenting on the justice of the charges--
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
MS. CULLUM: --but, but it's very much--you know, we have an unusual thing here. We have a First Lady who has been involved in business, been involved in law under circumstances that have been difficult and unattractive, and this may happen again as time goes on. Suppose we have a woman running for President, and we will in time. She will probably have a spouse who's been involved in the world of commerce. And, and it's a whole new day.
JIM LEHRER: Is it a whole new day that way in Oklahoma, from your point of view, Pat McGuigan? Is there a special element here toward Hillary Clinton?
MR. McGUIGAN: Well, let's put it this way, this story has now been on the front page a couple of times within the last week. In the past, these stories have been back in the paper. Hillary Clinton's role in this is now emerging as a story cluster in and of itself. Everybody that watches the wire stories has noticed that. So I think we're in a significant stage, and the related FBI files issue and the troubles that Mr. Lindsey is now having are transforming this from there and then, as in back in the past and in Arkansas, to here and now, the current campaign and the present political situation, as well as the legal situation in Washington. I think the Clintons have some very serious challenges ahead of them, and I don't know if there's a particular edge any more than there was when Democrats were attacking Robert Bork in the summer of 1987 when he was nominated to the Supreme Court or George Bush just before the election in 1992. There was some pretty good venom at that time too.
JIM LEHRER: What--what's your venom count in Northern California, Bill, when it comes to Hillary Clinton?
MR. WONG: Well, I think that, as I've said in the past, Hillary, in my view, has been a target of the Republicans and conservatives for a long time. That does not excuse the fact that she may have done something either unethical or--either unethical or illegal in this case and Kenneth Starr will have to determine that. But I might want to raise the question of the possibility of Elizabeth Dole as First Lady going back to the Red Cross. There are some significant conflict of interest situations and problems related to that. And if I would advise Democrats to do anything at all, to, to bring it back to focus on, on Dole's capabilities as President, I would focus on that issue.
JIM LEHRER: Hillary Clinton an issue in Georgia, Cynthia?
MS. TUCKER: Yes, Hillary Rodham Clinton has long been an issue in Georgia, Jim. Georgia remains a very conservative state, and Hillary Rodham Clinton would have had troubles, I think, in this state even if the Whitewater issue had never come up because she is a very progressive First Lady who has been unabashed at involving herself in policy matters. She's not a southerner. She does not coat her strong policy positions in southern charm, as Elizabeth Dole does. And a lot of southerners are very turned off by her. They're simply unprepared for a First Lady who behaves as she does. So in this part of the world, she is a very easy figure to demonize, quite frankly.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, look, thank you all six for being with us again. We'll see you again soon. Thank you.