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Jewish World Review Sept. 26, 2000 / 25 Elul, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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With a whimper: Whitewater peters out -- INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE. With that repeated finding, the nigh-endless Whitewater investigation has ended not with a bang, but a whimper.

Whitewater's tributaries, however, continue to trickle. L'affaire Lewinsky, a spin-off of Whitewater rather than a wholly owned subsidiary, is still before a grand jury if anyone cares. And disbarment still lurks for Arkansas' most prestigious shyster.

The only clear conclusion a court has drawn amid all this confusion is that William Jefferson Clinton, still Esq., gave false testimony intended to obstruct the judicial process. All else, like the Clinton administration/impeachment/legacy itself, remains an inconclusive murk. The only thing one can say for sure of the Clinton Era is that, like Whitewater itself, it lowered the level of public discourse.

Of all the improbable spectacles of the past eight scandal-filled years, the most improbable of all remains closure. The independent counsel's office can close its files and even its shop, but Whitewater will continue to seep until the muse of History sops it up, if she ever can. Meanwhile, there are campaigns for the First Couple to wage, funds to raise and Hollywood to dazzle.

Others in the Whitewater cast may still be dealing with shattered lives, careers and reputations, but Bill and Hillary Clinton shine brightly on in their artificial firmament. In their tinsel world, not being convicted equals being ethical, and what counts is not having been right or wrong, base or noble, but winning or losing elections. And no one can deny Bill Clinton's mastery at that low sport.

Was there no substance to Whitewater? Try telling that to ex-Governor Jim Guy Tucker of Arkansas, or ex-convict Webster Hubbell III, who were caught up in its tide. Their convictions remain the most prominent of the dozen or so that resulted from an investigation that at one time seemed ever-expandable.

Whitewater certainly changed the face of Arkansas politics. It gave us Arkies a peek at our state's invisible government -- a subterranean web of friends and mentors, kingmakers and pols, fund-raisers and commodity-traders. In short, the whole, messy nexus of personal connections behind the stage settings and slick lines. For a moment, the curtains of that once-glittering production parted, and the audience could see how the special effects were produced, and who paid for them.

It's been fascinating for those of us who always wondered what was going on behind the scenes. The most improbable characters kept wandering in -- like James McDougal, a promoter's promoter and the embodiment of Arkansas' great storytelling tradition, and his wife, Susan, who kept wanting to play Joan of Arc. And a cast of what seemed like thousands.

Those were the days, my friend, we thought they would never end. Even now it is hard to believe (a) that they ever will, and (b) that we will ever miss them. Yet we know both things will come to pass, for nothing is more fleeting than past scandals, and nothing more enduring than the urge to tell about them to the next, unbelieving generation.

In the end, the final line of Christopher Isherwood's memoir of Weimaresque Berlin keeps coming back like the perfect epilogue: ``Even now I can't believe that any of this has really happened.''

A playwright who outlined such an improbable scenario involving a Southern governor who reaches the Oval Office would never have found a producer, not pre-Clinton. And now Whitewater is closing without a conclusion. There is, as the prosecutors say, insufficient evidence. Legally, it's over. Morally, ethically, politically, historically, it remains a morass. The details are all so vague, murky, ambiguous ... in a word, clintonesque.

What significance, if any, will Whitewater have for the future? Presidents and prosecutors will come and go, history will be written and rewritten till Whitewater is reduced to a footnote. It was a comic, and for some a tragic, interlude but, in the history of the Republic, never serious.

The only scene from the whole panorama that still remains clear in my memory is the spectacle of a young man whose name I've mercifully forgotten telling a congressional committee that he'd lied to his own diary.

In the end, it is an absence and not a presence that may define the significance of Whitewater: the absence of any sense of a responsible, credible self. Which may be why it is no longer possible to rouse much interest in this particular play. The principal characters have made themselves unreal by not taking responsibility for their deeds, their word or their sworn testimony. They no longer have selves to swear upon.

Perhaps one reason Richard Nixon remains a fascinating, and even domineering figure of this age is because he paid the price of his falsity, and so remains an object of our pity and detestation; he can still make us shudder, and care. To make excuses for one's behavior, to spend 20 years carpentering a comeback, one must still have a self that recognizes the obdurate truth to be evaded. But not even to know what is is, is to cease to matter. There you have the difference between Watergate and Whitewater. What they had in common was this: It wasn't the original scandal that got a president in trouble, but the later attempts to cover up, stonewall, mislead and generally deceive. Also, this president beat the rap.

Whitewater's audience left long ago, and now the two stars of the show, the always fun First Couple, are finally dancing away, leaving a ruined cast behind -- much like Tom and Daisy Buchanan in ``The Great Gatsby.'' (``It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.''

This party isn't quite over and may never be. Rather than clean up the detritus, most of us would prefer to walk away and let time do its work. We yearn for a little normalcy, whatever that may be by now. It's all been a great ride, but on a merry-go-round. At the end we find ourselves where we began.

The great crises of the Republic involve character and issues. With character, the issues can be resolved. Without it, issues become meaningless.

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