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First Lady Assails Whitewater Critics

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Scorning her critics, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday gave her most detailed explanation in more than a year of her role in a questionable Arkansas land deal and accused Republicans of mounting a dishonest, politically motivated investigation.

“This is an investigation in search of a scandal . . . ,” the first lady said in a 45-minute interview with The Times. “This is not about finding out the truth. And I regret it very much.”

She acknowledged that some of her earlier recollections of Whitewater details and related issues might have been faulty, and said that she understands why Americans might question her integrity after seeing her under nonstop attack.

“For four years on a regular basis I’ve been accused or criticized or attacked for all different kinds of things,” she said. “So that with every step forward that people might take in getting to know me, inevitably there comes some kind of counterattack, starting with the Republican convention in 1992.”

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Among the accusations are claims that she misled authorities about the extent of her work for Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, the failed thrift at the heart of the Whitewater controversy, and that she withheld documents that might have been incriminating.

But in the interview she dismissed the idea of calling a press conference to answer Whitewater questions or of appearing before the Senate committee investigating Whitewater. The committee, she said, would not be a fair forum.

“The questions keep changing . . . ,” she complained. “The people asking them don’t want to know the facts, especially if they don’t support their accusations.”

The first lady talked about the complicated Whitewater events even though the interview was scheduled to promote her new book, “It Takes a Village, and Other Lessons Children Teach Us,” drawn from her 25-year involvement with children and families.

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The first lady moved from subjects such as her hopes for American families to missing Whitewater documents and the way she has conducted herself as first lady. She even balked at the notion that her deep involvement in her husband’s work is different from her predecessors, citing President Woodrow Wilson’s wife, Edith, and President William Howard Taft’s wife, Helen “Nellie” Taft.

Those women, she said, wielded power “behind the scenes” while she has been more “direct than had been the case in the past.”

As for Whitewater, she said:

* She is alternately angry and sad about the human toll from the controversy--a onetime law partner in jail, friends and staff facing criminal charges and mounting legal fees, and perhaps even the suicide of another former law partner, Vincent Foster, the deputy White House counsel found dead in July 1993. She recalled sobbing during conversations with friends after his death.

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* She firmly believes law firm billing records that the White House says it just discovered last week support her previous statements that Madison Guaranty was not a legal client that got significant amounts of her time. She acknowledged that people “quibble with my definition of significant.”

The records show that Mrs. Clinton, then a partner at the Rose Law Firm, worked on Madison Guaranty matters a total of 60 hours over 15 months--or about an hour a week. “This was not a major undertaking on behalf of anyone, including myself,” she said.

*

Asked about the belated discovery of a copy of the law firm’s billing records--two years after they were subpoenaed--she said: “I cannot answer for where that box has been . . . because I don’t know. But the important thing is, when it was found, it was immediately turned over and it does support what I have been saying for four years.”

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What would a young Hillary Rodham, who worked eight months on the House Judiciary Committee that investigated President Richard Nixon’s involvement in Watergate, have thought if a box of records had turned up in the White House?

“We would have thought, ‘Hurray, they have finally turned over documents which they have withheld for years.’ But there is no comparison between what this White House has done and what happened in the past.”

In fact, the first lady rejected comparisons being made by her political opponents between Watergate and Whitewater, and said there will never be an Oliver Stone movie called “Rodham.”

“That will never happen,” she said.

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The first lady has been assailed by such critics as Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato (R-N.Y.), chairman of the Senate Whitewater Committee and a strong supporter of the presidential campaign of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), and New York Times columnist William Safire, who this week called her a “congenital liar” in his newspaper column.

She associated Safire with Republicans faithful to the late President Nixon, who cannot forget the Watergate scandal that led to the president’s resignation.

“I cannot take Mr. Safire seriously,” she said. “I worked with the committee that impeached President Nixon. Safire worked for President Nixon. The best I can tell, he is still working for President Nixon.”

She said she thought it was “pretty funny” that her husband reportedly suggested this week that Safire deserved a punch in the nose for his comment.

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The first lady was interviewed in the Map Room of the White House. She had scheduled a series of interviews months ago to promote her book, published by Simon & Schuster.

When she talked about Whitewater and other controversies, she seemed to yield to emotion only when describing conversations between herself, her friend Susan Thomases and her chief of staff, Margaret Williams, during the days after Foster’s death.

Leaning forward on a red satin divan, she said: “We were talking about our grief, about his family, about how this could happen. . . . Sometimes we were just sobbing on the phone. I remember very well.”

*

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She also showed passion when she was asked how someone who is always hailed as a brilliant political strategist could have stumbled politically in Washington over such matters as health care, Whitewater and the controversial firing of seven White House travel office staff members in 1993.

“I think I did not understand Washington,” she said. “I didn’t understand how it’s a city that thrives on rumor and gossip and innuendo. That had not been my experience up until now, and I have learned a lot. But I guess I see it a little bit differently.”

Her Republican attackers were never far from her thoughts: “I think it’s part of someone else’s political strategy to continue to raise questions about my husband, about me, about people associated with us.”

Even as she talked about the criticism, some House Republicans were raising new questions about her conduct--suggesting that she should not use an Air Force jet on her book tour.

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Some representatives “have concerns about the possible misuse of taxpayer dollars in connection with her book tour,” said Brian Sansoni, spokesman for Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.).

The first lady will fly on an Air Force executive jet for the first leg of her tour for security reasons, according to her spokesman, Neel Lattimore. Simon & Schuster will reimburse the government at the rate of first-class tickets and pay for her accommodations, he said.

“We certainly regret that, but we accept the recommendations of the Secret Service,” Lattimore said. “It is an unfortunate reflection of the times.”

When Mrs. Clinton talked about her book and her role as first lady, she seemed more spontaneous than when she was talking about Whitewater. She said of her evolving role:

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“I’m making decisions about how to conduct myself in ways that may appear to be different than the way other women have,” she said. “But you know what I have learned is that nothing I have done in this position is new. Everything I’ve done was done by a former first lady. . . .

“My goodness, Mrs. Wilson ran the country when her husband had his stroke. Mrs. Taft used to go in and tell Cabinet officers and Supreme Court justices what they should do.”

She said she doesn’t have a problem with her image as the first lady. American women have many faces, she said, but there is a demand for her to have just one. She added that at a time of gross media simplification, she will stand up for complexity.

“I take much of what is said of me with a grain of salt,” she said.

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