In 1993, Bill and Hillary Clinton moved into the White House on a swell of optimism. In less than a year, the new administration was mired in a sea of scandals: Travelgate, Nannygate, and, most consequentially, Whitewater. What went wrong?*
In the second episode of our series on the impeachment of Bill Clinton, Leon Neyfakh follows the Clintons and their friends and allies from the sleepy capital of Arkansas into the glare of Washington.
Slate Plus members get a bonus episode of Slow Burn every week. This week we hear from Dr. Joycelyn Elders, a pediatrician who served as the country’s first black surgeon general during Clinton’s first term. Leon also discusses the making of Episode 2 with Slate senior producer Mary Wilson.
If you are logged into your Slate Plus account, you can find this week's bonus episode in the player below, or in your members-only podcast feed. Not yet a member? Click here to join.
Notes on Episode 2
In researching Episode 2 of Slow Burn, we made use of the following sources:
- Clinton, Bill. My Life, Vintage, 2004.
- Conason, Joe and Lyons, Gene. The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, Thomas Dunne Books, 2001.
- Drew, Elizabeth, On the Edge, Touchstone, 1995.
- Gormley, Ken. The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr, Crown/Archetype, 2010.
- Hubbell, Webb. Friends In High Places, Beaufort Books, 2015.
- Maraniss, David. First In His Class, Simon & Schuster, 1995.
- Riley, Russell. Inside the Clinton White House: An Oral History, Oxford University Press, 2016.
- Sabato, Larry and Lichter, Robert. When Should the Watchdogs Bark? Center for Media and Public Affairs, Washington, DC, 1994.
- Schmidt, Susan and Weisskopf, Michael. Truth At Any Cost, Harper Collins, 2000.
- Stephanopoulos, George. All Too Human, Little, Brown, 1999.
- Stewart, James B. Blood Sport, Simon & Schuster, 1996.
- Toobin, Jeffrey. A Vast Conspiracy, Random House, 1999.
Film and TV
- American Experience: Clinton, PBS. Goodman, Barak and Durrance, Chris, 2012.
- McCoy, Terri and Perez, Rosie. “Capital Hillbillies,” In Living Color, Ivory Way/20th Television, Jan. 17, 1993.
- Boyer, Peter J. “Life After Vince,” The New Yorker, Sept. 11, 1995.
- Boyer, Peter J. “Hope Against Hope,” The New Yorker, Jan. 8, 1996.
- Canellos, Peter S. “Clinton denies liaison with singer,” The Boston Globe, Jan. 27, 1992.
- “FBI Records: Vincent Foster,” The Federal Bureau of Investigation.
- Cooklis, Ray. “Fishing in Whitewater: The suicide,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, Feb. 20, 1994.
- Hall, Jane. “ABC Airs Clinton Footage Shot by NBC,” The Los Angeles Times, Jan. 14, 1994.
- Ifill, Gwen. “Clinton Admits Experiment with Marijuana in 1960’s,” The New York Times, Mar. 30, 1992.
- Ifill, Gwen. “Clinton Defends His Privacy And Says The Press Intruded,” The New York Times, Jan. 27, 1992.
- Isikoff, Michael and Schneider, Howard. “Clintons’ Former Real Estate Firm Probed,” The Washington Post, Nov. 2, 1993.
- Maraniss, David. “Image Questions Bewilder Clinton, Longtime Friends,” The Washington Post, Apr. 12, 1992.
- Remnick, David. “Is Sex Necessary?” The New Yorker, Feb. 2, 1998.
- Rempel, William C. “Ex-Judge Hale Pleads Guilty Over Arkansas Loan Fraud Inquiry,” The Los Angeles Times, Mar. 23, 1994.
- Seper, Jerry. “Clinton papers lifted after aide’s suicide,” The Washington Times, Dec. 20, 1993.
- Sheehy, Gail. “The Road to Bimini,” Vanity Fair, Sept. 1987.
- “White House Follies: The Gang That Can’t Fire Straight,” The New York Times, May 22, 1993.
- “Who Is Vincent Foster?” The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 17, 1993
This is a lightly edited transcript of Episode 2.
In September of 1991, Bill Clinton summoned a group of Democratic operatives to a Quality Inn in Washington, D.C. Clinton was the governor of Arkansas, and he was exploring a run for president.
The group discussed Clinton’s potential platform and what his campaign might look like. Then, Clinton brought up a sensitive subject: his reputation as a serial womanizer. “I know you are all concerned about this,” he said.
Clinton had considered running for president once before, in the run-up to the 1988 race. His chief of staff had helped talk him out of it by showing him a list of women he was rumored to have been involved with. It was not a short list.
Four years later, Clinton told his guests at the Quality Inn that, this time, he had a plan for how to deal with accusations of infidelity. If the issue were to come up during the ’92 campaign, he said, he would be straightforward. He would say that yes, he and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, had run into some trouble earlier in their marriage, but it was now behind them. That would be the line: The past was the past.
Clinton seemed so convincing that he even won over a guy who had worked for Gary Hart, the Democrat whose presidential campaign had gotten blown up by a sex scandal in 1987. That’s how enthralling Clinton was—how talented he seemed, how seductive. Here’s journalist Ruth Marcus, who covered Clinton’s presidency for the Washington Post:
RUTH MARCUS: He was exciting both intellectually because he was full of ideas, full of policy, would stay up all night talking about policy until everybody else wanted to go to sleep. And he was also exciting because he was young and dynamic and really kind of charming.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Our governor, and the next President of the United States, Bill Clinton!
REPORTER: Clinton cast himself as an innovative alternative to what he called the visionless leadership of George Bush. A star since first elected governor at age 32, Clinton is driven less by ideology than by what works.
Clinton started looking like the Democratic frontrunner in early 1992. Then, just before the New Hampshire primary, the campaign was knocked sideways in exactly the way that Clinton had predicted.
REPORTER: The Arkansas woman who says she had a 12-year affair with a Democratic presidential candidate has now gone public with her side of the story.
Her name was Gennifer Flowers.
GENNIFER FLOWERS: I was Bill Clinton’s lover for 12 years, and for the past two years I have lied to the press about a relationship to protect him.
Confronted with the Gennifer Flowers scandal, Clinton stuck with the plan he had put forward at the Quality Inn. In an interview with 60 Minutes that aired after the Super Bowl, Clinton denied the affair with Flowers, but copped to personal mistakes that he had put behind him.
BILL CLINTON: You know, I have acknowledged wrongdoing, I have acknowledged causing pain in my marriage.
In a crucial show of support for her husband, Hillary Clinton appeared at Bill’s side during the interview.
HILLARY CLINTON: I’m not sitting here as some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I’m sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what he’s been through and what we’ve been through together, and you know, if that’s not enough for people, then heck—don’t vote for him!
The interview, which drew an audience of 34 million people, allowed Clinton to move on from the Gennifer Flowers story and regain his momentum. But it wasn’t long before the campaign was again rattled by questions about Clinton’s past—first about whether he’d dodged the Vietnam draft, then about whether he’d ever smoked pot. More than the charges themselves, what made a lasting impact on Clinton’s reputation were his evasive responses—that he didn’t mention receiving a draft induction notice because he just didn’t think it was relevant, that he’d taken a drag but never inhaled. He came off as a shifty politician—a guy who got out of trouble thanks to carefully worded denials and phony shows of remorse.
REPORTER: Those who have studied Clinton and those who know him well are troubled by his recurring tendency toward dissembling and half-truths.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He earned his name “Slick Willie.” He’s a liar, and he gets away with it because he’s charming, and he gives people what they want to hear.
By the end of the 1992 campaign, Clinton was seen by his critics as a man without character.
Of course, he got elected anyway.
BILL CLINTON: The American people have voted to make a new beginning!
And there was a ton of excitement around his victory: He was the first Democrat to occupy the White House in 12 years! Michael Jackson performed at his inaugural celebration with a pet monkey on his shoulder!
But the triumph and glamor quickly gave way to dysfunction, as the new administration was seized by one scandal after another.
REPORTER: There are questions about Zoe Baird. She may have broken the law.
First, two of Clinton’s nominees for attorney general were forced to bow out, one after the other, because they’d both employed undocumented immigrants as nannies.
REPORTER: There’s the presidential haircut.
Clinton was accused of delaying air traffic at LAX by holding Air Force One on the tarmac, so he could get an expensive haircut from a Beverly Hills stylist.
REP. DAN BURTON: He spent thousands of your tax dollars waiting to get a haircut. He oughta be more concerned about trimming the deficit than his own hair.
And then, there was Whitewater.
REPORTER 1: The White House Whitewater mess.
REPORTER 2: The Whitewater controversy.
REPORTER 3: Fallout over Whitewater.
A convoluted tangle of allegations involving bank loans, the savings and loan crisis, and Arkansas real estate.
REPORTER: Even though most Americans don’t quite know what it is, the Whitewater affair has hurt the president’s image.
For the White House, these scandals became all-consuming, and they felt like warning signs that the administration was fundamentally broken. All together, the scandals created an air of suspicion around the Clintons and gave rise to conspiracy theories and rumors. The president’s aides struggled to knock down negative stories before they metastasized. The Clintons themselves started to feel like they were under siege, and they became reflexively inclined toward secrecy. Here’s Ruth Marcus again:
RUTH MARCUS: It was a little bit misstep piled on misstep. They just kept on being their own worst enemies, and their actual worst enemies were more than happy to take their missteps and exploit them for all they were worth.
What made Clinton’s first year in office such a relentless mess? How did the new administration’s optimism turn so quickly into defensiveness? And how did Whitewater, an incredibly boring scandal that no one really understood, end up changing the course of the Clinton presidency?
This is Slow Burn. I’m your host, Leon Neyfakh.
REPORTER 1: This must be one of those days when the Clintons wonder whether it’s all worth it.
REPORTER 2: At the White House, more awkward attempts at damage control.
JANE SHERBURNE: If you’re bent on destroying somebody, you know, you can turn anything into a major issue.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Right now, the American public thinks somebody’s hiding something.
Episode 2: There There.
* * *
Vince Foster met Bill Clinton in their shared birthplace of Hope, Arkansas, where they attended kindergarten together at Miss Marie Purkins’ School for Little Folks. Foster was slightly older, and in his memoir, Clinton remembered feeling grateful that his classmate was nice to him in spite of their age difference.
Later in life, Foster became friends with Hillary Clinton. The two of them were partners at the Rose Law Firm, a prestigious Little Rock institution where they worked closely together on litigation. Here’s journalist Peter Boyer, who wrote about the Clintons’ Arkansas roots for the New Yorker:
PETER BOYER: The hot law firm in Little Rock was the Rose Firm. It was the place where the connected people worked and had their business attended to.
Foster was reserved and diligent. In the office, he wore a suit coat even when the Arkansas heat got so bad that everyone else came to work in shirt sleeves. A close friend and colleague of his, Webster Hubbell, described Foster as a “world class listener” and said that he possessed an “enigmatic self-containment” that gave him charm.
Hubbell, who was also a partner at the Rose Law Firm as well as a friend to Hillary Clinton, wrote in his memoir that the three of them used to sit at a tiny Italian restaurant in Little Rock, drink wine, and pretend that they were actually in Italy, where no one knew who they were, and all their responsibilities could melt away. Hillary even gave Foster a new name for the purposes of this mutual fantasy: “VinchenzoVincenzo Fosterini.”
Foster and his wife led a happy, private life in Little Rock. They had three kids and no particular ambition to shake things up.
PETER BOYER: Vince Foster was a very ordered person. He and his wife had, you know, this sort of perfect Southern, at that time, compact. You know, church on Sunday. They had pool parties. You know, they had the club—he had the kind of life to which people of his place in the social order aspired.
Foster’s friendship with Bill and Hillary Clinton ran deep—he even handled some of their legal work. All in all, it was a stable existence.
PETER BOYER: And then this thing happened. Bill Clinton—this bright guy who’d, you know, made it to the governor's office—became president, and then everything in nice, ordered Little Rock turned upside down.
Clinton asked Foster to join the administration as deputy White House counsel. It was not a natural move for Foster. He had never wanted to go into politics, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to leave Little Rock. But during the transition, it seemed as though everyone Foster knew was signing up to work for the Clinton White House. Webb Hubbell became a high-level official at the Department of Justice. Others from Little Rock were named White House personnel director. Head of domestic policy. Chief of staff.
Vince Foster decided he didn’t want to miss out on the chance to go to Washington and work for his friend Bill Clinton.
Now, I always thought the phrase Friends of Bill, or FOBs for short, referred to guys like Ron Burkle—billionaires who took the Clintons on vacation on their private jets. It turns out that’s completely wrong. The FOBs were mostly these people, like Vince Foster, who came to D.C. from Arkansas.
Official Washington treated the Arkansas crew as something of a novelty. The fact that this guy from the South had brought all his friends with him to D.C. made his administration look a little rickety and homemade.
On the sketch comedy show In Living Color, a bucktoothed Jim Carrey played Bill Clinton as a cowboy hat-wearing, jalopy-driving yokel.
SINGER: Come and listen to a story ’ ‘bout a man named Bill, hick razorback with a destiny to fill. But 20 years before he would take the oath and creed, he dodged Vietnam, and he toked a little weed.
It sort of summed up the Arkansans’ image during the first year of the administration.
SINGER: The Capitol Hillbillies! [banjo plays]
JOYCELYN ELDERS: I think the people in Washington felt that they were the cream of the crop, and we were the Arkansas stepchildren.
This is Dr. Joycelyn Elders, an Arkansas native who followed Clinton to D.C. to serve as his surgeon general. She says this idea that the Clintons and their friends were incompetent hicks made some of them feel like outsiders.
JOYCELYN ELDERS: And they did not feel that we had the charisma, wherewithal, or what—everything you needed to really be in the top echelon.
Clinton himself was extremely social and outgoing. So were some of the young hotshots at the White House who were not from Arkansas, like George Stephanopoulos. But the Arkansas crew was separate. There was even a recurring dinner gathering they called Arkansas Night. In his memoir, Webster Hubbell described it as “a port in the storm.”
But the Arkansans’ tendency to stick together could look like clannishness. And it didn’t help that they were from Little Rock: a city where political power was concentrated, and money traveled through tight social networks.
PETER BOYER: A walking tour through Little Rock would bring you into direct contact with pretty much anyone you would ever need to know if you needed money, needed to get yourself extricated from trouble because of the money and the big deal you had just gotten yourself involved in. That is what Little Rock was.
Little Rock was seen as a town built on favor-trading and low-grade collusion. Webster Hubbell liked to joke, “It’s not a conspiracy, it’s Arkansas.” But being associated with an insular power structure made the Clintons and their friends look shady. It made people in Washington—including some journalists—think these hicks were up to something.
Of all the scandals that tripped up the White House during Clinton’s first year, none played into this narrative more intensely or consequentially than a now mostly-forgotten controversy centered on the White House travel office.
BOB DOLE: Judging from some of the tantalizing evidence the media’s uncovered, it’s no wonder people are now asking: Is there a Travelgate cover up going on?
Travelgate was in many ways the marquee scandal of the early Clinton years. It involved Bill and Hillary’s Arkansas connections, it boiled down to accusations of cronyism, and it provoked a nasty confrontation between the White House and the Washington press corps. Looking back, it’s mind-boggling how much trouble Travelgate stirred up for the Clinton administration. But no one paid a higher price for it than Vince Foster.
More after this break.
* * *
The White House travel office was a bureaucratic backwater. Its primary function was to make travel arrangements for the White House press corps whenever the president left Washington.
On May 12, 1993, Vince Foster got a visit from a White House employee who told him the travel office was being grossly mismanaged. The employee, Catherine Cornelius, was Bill Clinton’s third cousin. She had been assigned to a temporary job in the travel office after the 1992 election. Cornelius told Foster that she had been making surreptitious copies of financial records, and she suggested, without offering much in the way of evidence, that the employees were on the take.
After that meeting, Foster and a handful of other aides moved to clean house in the travel office. It seemed like a rare opportunity for the White House to get some good PR. Instead of being accused of corruption, the Clinton administration would finally be celebrated for exposing some. Soon, there was real momentum behind the initiative—even the first lady was asking about it, and making clear to other White House officials, including Foster, that she wanted something done fast.
Peter Boyer thinks the allegations of sloppy accounting in the travel office were just a fig leaf—that what the Clintons were really doing was waging war on a deep state that they couldn’t trust.
PETER BOYER: The Clintons believed, and with some reason, that there were a lot of people in the permanent staff around the White House who were against them, who sought to undermine them. And, you know, the thought was that these people's loyalties are suspect. Let us get shed of them.
Just a week after Catherine Cornelius’s meeting with Foster, all seven of the travel office staffers were abruptly fired. Cornelius, who was in her mid-20s, was put in charge. Foster helped prepare a page of talking points that framed the dismissals as a victory for government efficiency.
But the maneuver did not work out the way Foster and his colleagues had hoped. Journalists in the White House press corps had been working closely with the travel office staff for years, even decades—and now the Clintons, these newcomers, had fired them all after just four months?
At the press briefing that day, reporters hurled loaded questions at White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers. They asked about Cornelius’s relationship to the president.
[Overlapping chatter from reporters]
DEE DEE MYERS: No, she’s not a first cousin. Not a first cousin.
[Reporters all speak at once]
DEE DEE MYERS: OK, let me explain who she is. She has a business degree …
And they asked whether the Clintons were trying to install loyalists to replace career civil servants.
DEE DEE MYERS: There’s just ample evidence of mismanagement that we thought the best thing to do was to restructure the office immediately. We’re going to reorganize the office …
The controversy quickly made it to the evening news.
REPORTER 1: There’s a storm building over the White House decision to fire seven longtime members of its travel office …
REPORTER 2: … in what’s fast becoming known as Travelgate.
Things got even worse when it came out that one of Clinton’s aides had asked the FBI to investigate the travel office for criminal wrongdoing. He had also talked about calling the IRS. Republicans, including Senator Bob Dole, portrayed this as an abuse of government power.
BOB DOLE: The most terrifying letters in the English language are FBI and IRS, so when the American people hear that these two powerful, independent—and I underscore independent—agencies may be getting political marching orders from the White House, the American people have the right to be alarmed.
The New York Times editorial board wrote that Travelgate made the White House look “inept, callous and self-serving.” There were calls for congressional hearings. Even Ross Perot, the eccentric billionaire who had run as an independent candidate against Clinton and George H. W. Bush, got in a few shots.
ROSS PEROT: He’s still doing thing the Arkansas way, like trying to give a travel business as a political payoff. Now that’s just straight out of Arkansas.
Vince Foster felt it was his responsibility to fix Travelgate. When the scale of the problem came into focus, he turned to one of his fellow Little Rock transplants in the administration and said, “My Ggod, what have we done?”
As deputy White House counsel, Foster was supposed to protect and serve the institution of the presidency, not the president himself. But Foster’s deep ties to the Clintons made him take that duty extremely personally. Here’s Peter Boyer again:
PETER BOYER: This tidying up of other people's messes, including Travelgate and all of that for Hillary and Bill, was just real torment for him. On the other hand, he was their lawyer, and it was his duty. And it was just exquisitely difficult.
Foster had begun to feel overwhelmed by the pressures of White House life even before Travelgate. In early May, he’d flown to Arkansas to deliver a commencement address at the University of Arkansas School of Law. In his speech, he struck an unmistakably melancholy note.
VINCE FOSTER: There will be failures. And criticisms, and bad press, and lies, and stormy days, and cloudy days, and you will not survive them without the support of those spouse and law partners and friends.
It tore Foster up that he was failing to defend the president and the first lady from unfair attacks. But he also came under fire personally when the Wall Street Journal published a staff editorial headlined “Who Is Vincent Foster?” The Journal editors took Foster to task for ignoring the newspaper’s request to send in a photograph of himself. “No doubt Mr. Foster and company consider us mischievous (at best),” the editorial read. “[But] how an administration deals with critics is a basic test of its character and mores.”
PETER BOYER: I mean, his peers back in the actual world—the world that meant anything to him, Little Rock society—those folks in the morning read the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, and they were looking at Vince’s caricature and reading, you know, these stories and seeing him connected with these tawdry little mini-scandals that were surrounding the Clintons. And it was just a kind of disgrace.
As Travelgate churned, Foster seemed to be in a constant state of dread. He began to prepare detailed notes on his role in the controversy so that he would be ready to answer questions if he ever needed to testify before Congress. He started losing weight and having trouble sleeping. At his wife’s urging, he wrote out a list of what was bothering him. Foster wrote: “The public will never believe the innocence of the Clintons and their loyal staff. I was not meant for the job or the spotlight of public life in Washington. Here ruining people is considered sport.”
Bill Clinton knew that Foster was having a hard time. After seeing that the Wall Street Journal had published a second editorial attacking Foster, the president invited his friend to the White House to watch a movie and relax. Foster declined. It was the last time they would ever talk.
More after this break.
* * *
Vince Foster’s boss in the White House counsel’s office was a New York lawyer named Bernie Nussbaum. Nussbaum loved Foster and had always considered him invaluable. But in the summer of 1993, he started noticing that his deputy was becoming less reliable. Foster seemed distracted and disengaged, even when he was working on important matters, like the nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court.
On July 20, 1993, Nussbaum was having dinner with friends when he got a phone call. Here he is talking about it in 2002.
BERNIE NUSSBAUM: All the sudden my pager rings. “Oh,” I say, “the White House is calling. As you can see how important I am. I can’t even have dinner. I’m called at all times.” I go to the phone, and Mark Gearran, the director of communications on the phone, he says, “Bernie, you have to come back to the White House right away. Vince Foster’s dead.”
REPORTER: Good evening. One of President Clinton’s oldest and closest friends, an Arkansas lawyer who came with him to the White House, last night drove to an isolated area along the Potomac River and shot himself to death.
That day, Foster had eaten lunch in his office: a cheeseburger and a plate of M&Ms. As it happened, the person who brought that food to him from the White House cafeteria was Linda Tripp. At the time, she was serving as the executive assistant to the White House counsel; years later she would play a pivotal role in Clinton’s presidency by tape-recording her phone conversations with Monica Lewinsky.
After Foster finished eating, he told Tripp that he was stepping out for a bit and would be back later.
REPORTER: Foster left the White House yesterday after lunch and didn’t return. At 6 p.m. Park Police found his body, a .38 caliber revolver, and no note. An autopsy revealed that Foster’s death was consistent with a self-inflicted wound.
Close friends, including Bill Clinton and Webster Hubbell, gathered at Foster’s home in Georgetown with his family. Because Foster was such a private person, they decided that the administration would not make any public statements about his struggles with depression. The official White House line, delivered the following day at a press briefing by Clinton’s chief of staff, was that Foster’s death was inexplicable.
MAC MCLARTY: For try as we might, all of our reason, all of our rationality, all of our logic can never answer the questions raised by such a death.
In the wake of Foster’s suicide, investigators from the Park Police wanted to search his office for a note or any other window into his state of mind. This created a dilemma for the White House: Given Foster’s high-level responsibilities, some of the legal material in his office was sure to be extremely sensitive—the police couldn’t just be allowed to rifle through it.
After much debate and negotiation, Bernie Nussbaum decided that he would be the one to look through Foster’s papers and separate out anything privileged or confidential. Nussbaum conducted the search two days after Foster’s death. Meanwhile, two high-ranking lawyers from the Justice Department sat and waited, forbidden by Nussbaum from looking over his shoulder. Over the course of two and a half hours, Nussbaum set aside two piles of documents—one that would be given to lawyers representing Foster’s family, and one that would be sent to the Clintons’ personal lawyers.
What Nussbaum did not anticipate was that the removal of these files would soon be held up by Clinton’s critics as evidence of a criminal conspiracy. It would also breathe new life into the long-simmering scandal known as Whitewater.
So what was Whitewater? If you’ve never really known, don’t feel too bad—even seasoned Clinton experts have trouble explaining it. But it’s actually not impossible to understand. The scandal divides up pretty easily into three interlocking parts.
First, the land deal. In 1978, when Bill Clinton was Arkansas attorney general, a friend of his named Jim McDougal invited him and Hillary to invest in an exciting new real estate development.
REPORTER: He found this riverfront property in the Ozarks, later called Whitewater, and cut the Clintons in on what appeared to be a great deal.
McDougal’s idea was to build a vacation community for Little Rock’s elite. The Clintons would plant their flag first and all the other Little Rock power brokers would follow. Bill and Hillary agreed to invest in the property alongside Jim McDougal and his wife, but the rest of the Arkansas ruling class was not as eager, and McDougal’s development quickly failed.
HILLARY CLINTON: We made a bad investment, we lost money, and there’s really not much more to add to it.
OK. So that’s part one. Part two has to do with a $300,000 loan that McDougal’s wife Susan received in 1986 from a government-backed investment firm in Little Rock. Later, the person who ran the bank alleged that Bill Clinton had personally called him from the governor’s office and asked him to approve the McDougal loan.
BANKER: He just simply asked me if I was gonna be able to help hedge him out.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Gov. Clinton?
BANKER: Yes, sir.
The takeaway was that Clinton had used his power to provide a financial lifeline to his co-investors in Whitewater.
That’s part two. Part three—and this is the last part—centered on some unspecified legal work that Hillary Clinton did for Whitewater impresario Jim McDougal. This was when she was a partner at the Rose Law Firm. McDougal was running his own savings and loan bank, and much like Whitewater, it was failing. The eventual collapse of the bank would end up costing the federal government $73 million.
REPORTER: That raises another key question. Was it ethical for her to have represented the S&L before a state regulator, an official appointed by her husband?
Reporters wanted to know the exact nature of Hillary’s work for McDougal’s savings and loan, but the White House claimed that the billing records were missing.
REPORTER: So far, the questions about Hillary Clinton’s conduct as a lawyer do not involve possible criminal wrongdoing. The questions do involve ethics and judgment.
OK. So, Whitewater was kind of complicated. And provincial. And also dull.
Then Vince Foster died.
REPORTER: Question: What drove him to suicide? Question: Did it have anything to do with Whitewater? And how did the White House handle documents in the office immediately after Foster died?
JANE SHERBURNE: That was a story that people could understand.
This is attorney Jane Sherburne. She joined the White House counsel’s office after Foster’s suicide. Her job was to deal with the fallout of all the scandals that plagued the Clinton administration during its first year.
JANE SHERBURNE: Unlike a complicated investment or S&L, sort of, you know, failures of banks or whatever it was—this was something where there was a very real guy who came from Little Rock, had a close relationship with Hillary, had been a partner of hers. They brought him into the White House. He was trusted, and he killed himself.
The White House’s plan to tell the world that Vince Foster’s death was an unsolvable mystery backfired immediately. Two days after Foster’s suicide, the Wall Street Journal editorial board made a show of mourning him while demanding transparency from the administration. “We had our disagreements with Mr. Foster during his short term in Washington, but we do not think that in death he deserves to disappear into a cloud of mystery,” the editors wrote. “The American public is entitled to know if Mr. Foster’s death was somehow connected to his high office.”
The questions only intensified as time went on. In December of 1993 the Washington Times reported that a cache of documents related to Whitewater had been taken out of Foster’s office after his death by Bernie Nussbaum. As it turned out, Foster had done a fair amount of work on Whitewater in his capacity as one of the Clintons’ personal lawyers.
The removal of Whitewater documents from Foster’s office created a basis for suspicion: What was it about Whitewater that the Clintons wanted so badly to conceal? And was it possible that Foster’s involvement in Whitewater was somehow related to his death?
REPORTER 1: There is some intrigue because the papers were removed from the office of deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster two days after he killed himself last July and turned over to the Clinton’s personal attorney, not to authorities investigating Foster’s suicide.
REPORTER 2: But there’s still a big question out there: What’s in those files?
Against the backdrop of Whitewater’s opaque deal-making, the documents that had been secreted away from Foster’s office seemed very sinister and exciting.
JANE SHERBURNE: And it sounded cool and murky and understandable, and the imagery that it brings up—of, you know, somebody sneaking into his office and scurrying away with some documents—but it was a story that fueled scandal and was much more easily understandable than Whitewater.
Starting around January of 1994, the rumor-mongering about Foster’s death took a sinister turn. Conspiracy theories started to spread about how Foster had actually been murdered, possibly by the Clintons themselves. These rumors were signal-boosted by a journalist named Christopher Ruddy. Ruddy was then a reporter for Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post as well as a Pittsburgh paper owned by a wealthy anti-Clinton activist. Ruddy is now the CEO of the right-wing media organization Newsmax, and he’s best known these days as a good friend of Donald Trump.
Back in 1994, Ruddy was just a guy with some questions about how exactly Vince Foster had died, and why there wasn’t more blood found near his body. In one representative column, Ruddy noted that, according to “some experts,” it was strange that Foster was found with a gun in his right hand, given that he was left-handed.
Ruddy’s columns helped give rise to an entire community of Vince Foster suicide skeptics.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What was so damaging about the Whitewater file that caused Vincent Foster to lose his life?
REPORTER: The White House has accused Republicans of spreading what it calls irresponsible, unsubstantiated rumors insinuating foul play in the death of Vince Foster, the White House counsel.
Here again is Joycelyn Elders, Clinton’s surgeon general:
JOYCELYN ELDERS: Every kind of story was put out about that. And the fact that the man died was painful enough, but then to have to deal with all of the stories that was generated surrounding this was even worse.
In the meantime, the drumbeat on Whitewater kept getting louder. It wasn’t just Vince Foster’s death that brought new attention to the real estate scandal. Media interest in the land deal had started building with the opening of a federal investigation into Jim McDougal’s savings and loan bank. Then, the New York Times and the Washington Post began pressuring the White House to release any documents related to the Whitewater deal that had not yet been made public. The Clintons’ instinct was to refuse these demands out of fear that they would only give rise to more scandal. Here again is Jane Sherburne:
JANE SHERBURNE: There were a lot of documents, and people wanted to see what the documents were. And the Clintons didn't want to disclose them. And it created this pressure and this mystique around these documents that was completely unnecessary.
Some people in the White House, including Jane Sherburne’s boss Harold Ickes, thought the administration should release more information rather than less, to show that the Clintons had nothing to hide.
JANE SHERBURNE: Harold Ickes said, “Let's just have a yard sale.” You know, put it all out on the lawn. You know, let them have at it. If that had occurred early on, I think it would have would have diffused a lot. And I think that sort of closed attitude tended to feed the sense that they were hiding something, or that they thought they were above the law, or that they were—you know, there was this hubris about it that annoyed people and kept a certain segment of political folks very motivated to try and unmask all of that.
Sherburne told me that she understood the thinking behind the Clintons’ resistance. If Republicans could turn the travel office firings into a scandal, imagine what they could do if the Clintons gave them unlimited access to their financial affairs.
JANE SHERBURNE: If you're bent on destroying somebody, you know, you can turn anything into a major issue. That's not a crazy argument. But I think with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been worth the risk.
By early January of 1994, Whitewater was a fixture on the front pages of newspapers and on the evening news. The focus was on the alleged cover-up and withholding of evidence; the New York Times, for example, published an editorial under the headline, “Release the Whitewater Files.”
When Clinton traveled to Russia to conduct talks with Boris Yeltsin, he was frustrated to find that the scandal had followed him across the Atlantic.
REPORTER: President Clinton may be in Europe tonight but his problems at home continue with Whitewater.
During one interview, Clinton responded to a Whitewater question by standing up and taking off his microphone. “You’ve had your two questions,” he said. “I’m sorry you’re not interested in the trip.”
By this point, all the scandals that had been dogging Clinton since the beginning of his presidency had been boiled down to one yes-or-no question: Should the administration invite a special prosecutor to come in and investigate, so that every last controversy could be resolved, and the White House and the country could move on?
After Watergate, Congress had passed a law that made it really easy to appoint an independent counsel to investigate whatever Congress wanted to investigate. But that law had expired in 1992. Two years later, the only way to get an independent counsel was for the attorney general to appoint one. And there was a lot of pressure on the Clinton administration to make that happen.
REPORTER: Republicans question the administration’s ability to investigate a case that could involve the president himself.
Republicans in Congress were pushing for a special counsel. So was the press.
REPORTER: In today’s editorials, two national newspapers called on the Clinton administration to appoint an independent counsel to investigate the case.
Even Democrats got on board.
REPORTER: The big blow came yesterday when Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan became the first Democrat to urge appointment of a special counsel. He also said the president should make all documents public to end the appearance of stonewalling.
DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN: If there are things that are embarrassing, turn them over even faster.
Inside the White House, a bitter debate broke out between those who thought that asking for a special prosecutor was politically necessary, and those who believed it would be a disaster. Bernie Nussbaum, Clinton’s White House counsel, fought as hard as he could against the idea.
BERNIE NUSSBAUM: I knew the dangers of independent counsels. I knew the dangers of that institution, how sparingly it should be used if ever. None of the other people in the White House knew this or understood it. Including the president. See, they thought I was clueless. They thought I was politically naïve. Ultimately, they’re smart guys, but they were clueless about the dangers of putting into place institutions, which yes, which may calm down the press for the next 24, 48 hours, but which will act as a knife in your heart for the next eight years.
The opposing view was that the more Bill Clinton resisted the calls for a special prosecutor, the more guilty he and Hillary would look. Plus, chances were good that Congress would soon vote to reauthorize the independent counsel law and then a prosecutor would be forced on Clinton whether he liked it or not. If the president went ahead and made the request himself, he could at least get some credit for transparency.
In the end, Clinton decided that his political advisers were right, and Bernie Nussbaum was wrong. With a heavy heart, he sent a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno asking her to appoint a special prosecutor. On Jan. 20, 1994 she introduced her pick.
JANET RENO: This morning, I am announcing that I have asked Robert Fiske Jr. …
A widely respected former U.S. attorney from New York named Robert Fiske.
REPORTER: Wall Street lawyer Robert Fiske is a lifelong Republican, with nine years’ experience as a federal prosecutor, appointed U.S. attorney by Gerald Ford …
At the press conference announcing the appointment, a reporter asked Fiske whether Vince Foster’s death was within the purview of his investigation. Fiske said that it was. It would be one area of interest among many.
ROBERT FISKE: I know you asked about the Foster suicide, and that will be one of the things we will be trying to find out.
This proved to be true. Over the next few months, Fiske pursued all kinds of unexpected angles. He investigated Hillary Clinton for making a suspicious killing on cattle futures, and he built a case against the Clintons’ friend Webster Hubbell for embezzling money from the Rose Law Firm. But Robert Fiske would not last even a year as special prosecutor. His successor, Ken Starr, would have an even wider range of interests.
* * *
Next week on Slow Burn, you’ll hear the story of Cliff Jackson, a friend of Bill Clinton’s who became his worst enemy. In Eepisode 3, you’ll learn about how Jackson helped publicize accusations of sexual misconduct against Clinton, and set the stage for the revelation that would imperil his presidency.
CLIFF JACKSON: Everybody’s wanting to talk to me. Everybody’s wanting an exclusive. It was absolute madness.
Slow Burn is a production of Slate Plus, Slate's membership program. You can sign up for Slate Plus to hear a bonus episode of the show this week and every week until the end of the season. In this week’s bonus episode, my colleague Mary Wilson and I talk about a husband-and-wife duo whose intriguing role in the travel office fiasco I was not able to get into in this episode. You’ll also hear an extended interview with Joycelyn Elders, Clinton’s iconoclastic surgeon general, who was forced out of her position after publicly suggesting that sex ed teachers should talk to children about masturbation.
JOYCELYN ELDERS: They were shocked. I made them understand that 80 to 90 percent of men masturbated, 70 to 80 percent of women masturbate, and the rest lie!
This episode of Slow Burn was produced by me and Andrew Parsons, with editorial direction by Josh Levin and Gabriel Roth. Our researcher is Madeline Kaplan. Our theme song is by Spatial Relations. Our artwork is by Teddy Blanks at Chips NY. T.J. Raphael is the senior producer for the Slate Podcast Network. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of Slate Podcasts.
Thanks to the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, NBC News archives, ABC News, C-SPAN, and the Clinton Presidential Library for the archival audio you heard in this episode.
For script notes and all kinds of other help, we want to thank to Ava Lubell, Susan Matthews, Faith Smith, Jeff Friedrich, Jayson De Leon, Forrest Wickman, June Thomas, Mary Wilson, and Camilla Hammer. And an extra special thanks to Russell Riley at the Miller Center for sharing with us audio from his work on the Bill Clinton Presidential History Project.
See you next week.