WASHINGTON — In an extraordinary moment of White House drama, Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday answered and deflected dozens of questions about her finances and her ethics in a 66-minute press conference broadcast live nationwide.
The First Lady, sitting in a Chippendale-style chair beneath a portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the State Dining Room, provided composed and lawyerly answers to a swarm of reporters who demanded to know--with all due deference--whether she and her husband were liars, hypocrites or crooks.
She maintained her innocence and retained her composure through persistent grilling by the White House press corps. She was obviously well prepared for the long-awaited appearance, seeming to know where the land mines were in questions that reporters had been itching to ask for weeks.
But while she appeared to meet each question head on, at the end of the session she had added little to the store of knowledge about the cluster of controversies known collectively as Whitewater.
In a striking series of statements, the First Lady said she believes that she had contributed to public perceptions of wrongdoing in recent months by refusing to answer questions about the Whitewater controversy.
She said that trying to maintain a vestige of privacy and her parents' counsel to ignore the opinions of others "led me to perhaps be less understanding than I needed to be of both the press' and the public's interest, as well as right, to know things about my husband and me."
The wonder of the occasion was not in the news the First Lady made, but that the event occurred at all.
No First Lady has ever submitted to the kind of rough-and-tumble press conference that Hillary Clinton volunteered for on Friday. Other presidents' wives have conducted mannered chats with reporters over tea or stepped behind microphones to make pronouncements for children and against drugs.
But Hillary Clinton--who described herself Friday as a "transitional figure" between more traditional First Ladies of the past and a new breed of presidential spouses with independent identities and careers--handled highly specific questions about a series of complex real estate, banking and securities investments that took place while her husband was the governor of Arkansas and she was a partner in a Little Rock law firm.
She took on questions about her hugely profitable foray into the commodities markets in the 1970s, her knowledge of the Whitewater real estate venture's finances in the 1980s and the state of mind of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster, a close friend of hers who apparently committed suicide last July.
She said she was "extremely comfortable and confident about everything that I have done" during the past 16 years and predicted that the broad Whitewater investigation by special counsel Robert B. Fiske Jr. would vindicate her and the President.
On the chief matters of substance on which she was challenged, the First Lady said:
* She had "absolutely no reason to believe" that she profited from favorable treatment by her advisers when she parlayed a $1,000 stake in the cattle futures market into nearly $100,000 in less than a year.
* She could not remember "any of the details" of how she turned that initial $1,000 investment into $6,300 in her first day of commodities trading.
* That accepting lucrative investment advice from James B. Blair, attorney for Arkansas' largest employer, Tyson Foods Inc., was not unethical because the Blairs were "among our very best friends." She denied any impropriety and said there were no favors granted Blair or Tyson Foods in exchange. His profitable counsel was simply "you know, very fortunate for me," she said.
* She "can't answer" why she and President Clinton lost considerably less money in the Whitewater real estate project than their putative 50-50 partners, James B. and Susan McDougal. She denied that the McDougals' greater losses amounted to a "gift" from the owner of a state-regulated thrift to the governor and his wife. She also said she did not know how the Whitewater project's bills were paid after the Clintons stopped contributing to its accounts.
* She has "no memory" of using her commodities-trading profits to make Whitewater loan payments, thus reducing her tax liability for 1978. She said she got into the Whitewater project to make money, not as a tax dodge.
* She was told nothing in advance by federal regulators or the White House staff about a pending criminal referral on McDougal's failed savings and loan. The Clintons were named as possible beneficiaries of questionable acts at the thrift, and federal regulators tipped off White House aides about the pending referral.
* She knows nothing about possible shredding of incriminating Whitewater material at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, where she and Foster used to practice. She said reports that she and Clinton shredded documents at the governor's mansion in Little Rock were "absolutely" untrue.