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A 'Scandal' That's More Snooze Than News : Politics: The reviews are in --the public and the pundits have pronounced the Whitewater hearings a dud. And that's just what the Democrats wanted to hear.

August 02, 1994|JAMES RISEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — David Dreyer is the very model of a modern White House PR man: He comes equipped with a full beard; one earring; stylish Italian-cut, double-breasted suits, and carefully matched shirts in terribly fashionable hues. The ponytail of younger years is long gone. Oh, and one more thing: a cellular telephone is almost always cocked to his ear.

When you are White House stage manager for the Whitewater hearings, pacing the corridors of Congress, passing a few choice words on to favored reporters, spinning the story, it is important to look good.

But give Dreyer credit: His flash conceals a steely commitment to defend the reputation of Bill Clinton's White House. And so far, Dreyer and the rest of the Administration's Whitewater spin patrol have achieved their main objective of making sure that the hearings are as boring as possible.

The Whitewater hearings have been a colossal flop, making for bad television while offering virtually no news or substantive insight into the Whitewater scandal that has ensnared the First Family for months. And what few revelations were to be unleashed by Republicans were judiciously leaked to the press before the hearings by the White House and its Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, further deflating their news value.

"These hearings are so dreary they wouldn't attract anybody," muttered House Banking Committee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.), who is presiding over the hearings in the House.

*

The White House could hardly have asked for more.

In fact, anyone who has seen "The Producers," Mel Brooks' 1968 comedy about two partners who purposefully set out to stage a terrible play that will close quickly on Broadway, can easily understand what the Clinton team wants from these hearings. Unlike Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, the Clinton Administration has succeeded in staging a dud.

For the Republicans who demanded these dual hearings in the House and Senate Banking Committees, they have brought little but frustration and seething resentment of the Democratic congressional leadership for limiting the hearings' scope to a handful of issues that have already been thoroughly hashed over by the media and Whitewater special counsel Robert Fiske. The only issues now under review are questions about allegedly improper contacts between White House and Treasury officials to discuss a criminal referral in the Whitewater case from federal regulators to the Justice Department, and the July, 1993, suicide of White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster Jr.

"We have not gotten at anything very material . . . and Republicans didn't think we would because we've not been allowed to look at the real issues here," complained Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), one of the leading Republican questioners during the House hearings.

Appearing depressed and frustrated by the limited scope of the hearings, Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), the Republican Party's leading Whitewater critic, has sat quietly through most of the sessions, leaving the bulk of the questioning to junior members with less knowledge of the scandal. Leach has apparently delayed scheduled testimony from his star witness, a criminal investigator on Whitewater, and seems to be holding his fire until a second round of hearings can be arranged to deal with more controversial aspects of the case.

The result has been that Republicans have resorted to peevish grilling of witnesses on trivial issues, and often appear unfocused and harping. Rep. Jim Nussle's endless questioning of former White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum about a fax of a newspaper article he received from Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman prompted laughter and ridicule from opposing Democrats.

The hearings finally went from boring to farcical when a shouting match erupted between Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) after she told him to shut up and stop badgering Margaret Williams, chief of staff for First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and an Administration witness. Waters and King went at it again on the House floor the next day, providing a perfect television sound bite to prove the point that the hearings have generated some heat but little light.

The appearance of eccentric Whitewater figure Jim McDougal with a blonde, college-age friend in the audience at the hearings, along with anti-Clinton demonstrations outside by fundamentalist Christians led by Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, only added to the comic sense that the hearings were not to be taken seriously.

"The Republicans have committed the ultimate political sin in Washington--they made no news," crowed Rep. Jim Bacchus (D-Fla.), a member of the House panel. "After all the predictions, after all the press conferences, after all the dire warnings, this was much ado about not very much."

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