The White House E-mails: Too Little, Too Late

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The "White House e-mails" affair took another halting step toward its climax (or, more likely, its anticlimax) Tuesday when U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth gave the White House 20 days to produce e-mails turned up by searches like "Katherine Willey" in Clinton's in-box and "Tripp," "arrest record," "background report" and "FBI files" in the hard drives of 31 present and former White House employees. President Clinton's term is just four months from its effective end in November, but apparently there's always time for one more scandal. Just not much appetite for it.

The order is part of a civil suit by conservative pit bull Judicial Watch, which is looking for evidence of a cover-up by staffers of improper use of background files to smear political enemies (or, like Willey, political liabilities). The White House, following its standard "-gate" drill, is claiming that there was no cover-up, only a screw-up, and that Judicial Watch's suit is just another right-wing political hit that wastes the people's time and money (the White House loudly estimates the searches will cost $300,000 in staff time). Clinton-haters, meanwhile, are gratified that Janet Reno's Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation along the same lines. But they're incensed that with the exception of the Washington Times, nobody seems to much care.

"There have been so many dead-end scandals, so many accusations that haven't panned out, that Washington's a little tired of it," says TIME White House correspondent Jay Branegan. "This probably won't touch Gore, and the press has really moved on at this point to him and the coming election." Judicial Watch, says Branegan, is "notorious" for time-consuming lawsuits with little in the way of payoff, and though the entrance of the Justice Department raised some eyebrows among the cynical, not many journalists' pulses are quickening at Lamberth's order or what it may turn up in the way of blood trails. Once a president's survived sex in the Oval Office and made it to the seven-and-a-half-year point, it's going to take quite a bit to arouse the next Woodward and Bernstein.