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COLUMN LEFT/ ALEXANDER COCKBURN

When Bobbing and Weaving Aren't Enough

Even Clinton won't be able to maneuver his way around Whitewater.

May 30, 1996|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn is the coauthor, with Ken Silverstein, of "Washington Babylon," new from Verso

Those who know him best appear to trust him least. Declining to endorse Bill Clinton for the presidency in 1992, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette concluded, "Finally, and sadly, there is the unavoidable question of character. It is not the duplicity in his policies that concerns so much as the polished ease, the almost habitual, casual, articulate way he bobs and weaves. He has mastered the art of equivocation. There is something almost inhuman in his smoother responses that sends a shiver up the spine."

Until the moment the jury returned those guilty verdicts in Little Rock Tuesday, ensuring that Whitewater will stay as a trapdoor under the feet of the president and first lady, the Republicans appeared almost hypnotized by the masterly equivocations and inhuman smoothness lamented by the Democrat Gazette.

Is it possible, these Republicans have been asking, to get to the right of Clinton? Paul Gigot, the regular Potomac columnist for the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, lamented Friday that after starting to compose a list of all the conservative ideas Bill Clinton had embraced, he'd barely been able to keep up with the president's rightward lunge on the gas tax, on a law to inform neighborhoods about convicted sex offenders, on tax credits for adoption, against judges who are "soft on crime," against gay marriages.

Gigot didn't even mention Clinton's recent ringing endorsement of Gov. Tommy Thompson's vicious welfare "reform" in Wisconsin. About the only policy Bob Dole had left to swipe Clinton with was "Star Wars" and here, too, the president attacked Dole's scheme as profligate and offered his own thriftier version.

So complete has been the president's transition into a Republican candidate that Gigot didn't even make the traditional charge that still, despite it all, Clinton is a closet liberal, yearning for the moment when he can tear off his disguise.

Meanwhile, as if sensing that it was time to throw a bouquet to the long-suffering liberals (who will, if truth be told, endure any humiliation) Clinton gave a winsome mid-May interview to E.J. Dionne Jr. of the Washington Post, saying he is prepared to defend "government activism." This from the man who told Republicans in Congress last January that "the era of big government is over."

Exercises in fence-mending with liberals have also been taking place. A five-bell alarm went off in the White House in mid-May when the Los Angeles-based Voice of the Environment ran a series of tough newspaper advertisements denouncing the administration's policies and stating baldly, "President Clinton, you have done more to harm the environment and weaken environmental regulations in four years than Presidents Bush and Reagan in their 12 years." The ad urged support for Ralph Nader, now aiming to be on the ballot in more than 20 states, including California.

Within hours of the ad's appearance, Vice President Al Gore was on the phone to Hollywood liberals, apologizing for Clinton's salvage rider, which unleashed chainsaws in ancient forests. Later, he sent out his former aide, Katie McGinty, to sweet-talk the enviro-stars, embarassingly eager to have their doubts allayed.

In the midst of all this bobbing, weaving and masterly equivocation has come the decision of the Little Rock jury to convict Clinton's former business associates, James and Susan MacDougal, along with his successor as governor, Jim Guy Tucker. The sensational news made me think of Ren Clair's great film "Plein Soleil" (released in English as "Purple Noon"), which was playing in the Seattle Film Festival when I was there last week. Alain Delon has got away with murder and in the last scene his yacht is dry-docked for cleaning. As it's winched up the jetty, up also comes the body of the man he killed, snagged all those weeks on the anchor chain.

Clinton can bob and weave, outflank Bob Dole on the right, dupe the liberals. But he also has an anchor down in the murk and grime of that phase of his and his wife's operations in Arkansas known in shorthand as Whitewater. The press had mostly been saying it was all too complicated for a juror to understand. But those Little Rock jurors didn't seem to have too many problems getting to the gist of the matter and they--the home crowd--were clearly unimpressed by Clinton's video-testimony. We'll have Whitewater, Travelgate and Fostergate with us through November. Like the war record and the comic opera of "commander in chief immunity," Whitewater is an issue on which even Clinton, the supreme maneuverer, can't outflank Bob Dole.

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