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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.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.”

The Democratic members of the House and Senate panels, meanwhile, confident that the hearings are going their way, have been content to toss softball questions at Administration witnesses. While they publicly deny it, the Democrats appear to have been carefully coached by their leaders not to make waves, and the lawmakers have taken that to mean they should go out of their way to ingratiate themselves with the White House officials at the witness tables.

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“I just can’t help but say that it’s very unfortunate that individuals like yourself who have voluntarily given up huge incomes to come and serve in this city find it so rough and tumbling that sometimes you leave before you finish your service,” said a sympathetic Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.), when he questioned Nussbaum, who resigned under fire earlier this year for his role in Whitewater.

Perhaps the best measure of the unified front presented by the Democrats came from Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.); the former 1960s radical black activist was tossing just as many softballs to the witnesses as any other party stalwart.

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So, as the hearings in both the House and Senate entered their second--and final--week yesterday, there was a sure sign that public and media interest had slackened; seats in the hearing rooms reserved for reporters and tourists went begging.

There is just one nagging problem for the White House spin patrol, however: there are some substantive questions to be answered, even within the limited topics covered by the hearings. Today could prove to be the highlight of the hearings, in fact, when Altman confronts the Senate panel and undergoes what is certain to be harsh Republican grilling, led by Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), who has already called for Altman’s resignation. D’Amato, in fact, seems committed to making all of the Administration witnesses sweat more before the Senate committee, and has had more success in scoring points with new revelations than have his House counterparts.

Altman, a sophisticated and wealthy former Wall Street investment banker, has come under intense fire for his decision to give a “heads-up” to the White House earlier this year about the status of the Whitewater criminal referral inside the Resolution Trust Corp., the regulatory agency where he was then serving as acting chairman.

Altman, along with the other Treasury and White House officials testifying on their contacts, have been cleared of any wrongdoing by Whitewater special counsel Fiske. Yet Altman’s actions have proven so controversial that the Administration and congressional leadership, which have been so supportive of other witnesses, have carefully distanced themselves from Altman throughout the hearings, acknowledging in interviews that Altman needs to publicly explain his conduct.

The contrast will be obvious when Altman steps to the witness table. While White House aides, led by senior adviser George Stephanopoulos and former chief of staff Thomas (Mack) McLarty, have been allowed to testify en masse, Altman will be all by himself.

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Meanwhile, Administration officials have generated press reports in recent days of a looming shake-up in the Treasury Department. Altman said again on Monday that he will fight on, but it doesn’t take a Kremlinologist to figure out that Altman could be rapidly turning into the Administration’s sacrificial lamb.

“A lot of people think I’m going to be” the fall guy, Altman admitted Monday. It probably only makes it worse for Altman that he is smart and savvy enough to understand the political theater behind his looming demise. In an interview earlier this year, he claimed that D’Amato called him the night before a critical hearing in February, and warned him that he would be tough on him the next day. During that hearing, D’Amato occasionally winked at him, Altman said, as if to signal that it was all just politics and show.

Given their desultory pace and the poor reviews the nationally televised hearings are receiving, they may ultimately disappoint observers who relish in one of Washington’s favorite spectator sports: observing how people drawn into the glare of celebrity respond to the pressure. From Watergate to Iran-Contra, such characters are often best remembered long after the scandal has faded from the headlines.

Whitewater’s pickings are slim in that regard. A few minor figures have received some notice: Clifford Sloan, a junior White House attorney, came under intense questioning from House Republicans for his involvement in meetings between Treasury and White House aides last fall, while Cheryl Braun and John Rolla, who investigated Foster’s death for the U.S. Park Police, got off a few good lines in testimony before the Senate committee, especially in respon se to questioning from Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), who seemed singularly uninformed about the details of the case.

Still, don’t look for the next Fawn Hall or Oliver North to emerge from the Whitewater hearings.

And don’t bother checking the Nielsen ratings.


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