Clinton moves to dodge another political bullet



WASHINGTON -- Now that the dust has begun to settle, it appears that President Clinton is going to ride out the storm caused by the state troopers in Arkansas who claimed he used them to facilitate extramarital dalliances while he was governor.

Lacking any confirmation from the women allegedly involved or any further and persuasive particulars from the troopers, the story has faded off the front pages and remains alive only on a few talk shows. As was the case with the Gennifer Flowers episode early in the 1992 campaign, the voters seem to have decided the accusations are either insubstantial or irrelevant.

When the troopers first surfaced, Hillary Rodham Clinton complained bitterly about such allegations being made during the Christmas season. In fact, however, the timing seems to have been fortuitous for Clinton. Because he has been on vacation, the president has been somewhat insulated from the daily badgering of the White House press corps. And because of the holidays, most Americans have been far more concerned with their own lives than with another round of bickering over Clinton's sex life.

And now the president is about to take off on a trip to Europe and Russia on which the issues will be quite different from anything dealing with his personal life.

The White House strategy in dealing with the charges has been both clever and effective. The accusations were denied heatedly by both Mrs. Clinton and Bruce Lindsey, the personal adviser closest to the president. Then Clinton himself took the position -- that the questions all had been answered and avoided dealing with specifics -- except to deny that he had offered troopers federal jobs in exchange for their silence, the one charge that might have involved violation of law on his part.

Meanwhile, lacking any fresh nourishment, the story began to fade, particularly after it became clear that the troopers were working with Little Rock lawyer Cliff Jackson, whose long-standing personal enmity toward his one-time friend Clinton has been well established. The result was that many of the most salacious details never were passed on by most of the press, which has become increasingly sensitive to complaints about how it decides what to print or air.

The White House also has been helped by the reluctance of the Republicans to try to exploit the personal charges. They, too, have learned the lesson of the 1992 campaign -- that is, that voters are far more concerned with such issues as the future of their jobs and health care than personal peccadilloes of their leaders.

The same reluctance does not apply, however, to the questions about the Whitewater real estate deal in which the Clintons were involved with a friend who ran a savings and loan that later went belly up and cost the taxpayers some $60 million. And the questions are legitimate enough that the press is not likely to be afflicted with the ambivalence evident in its handling of the troopers' charges.

One question is whether state regulators were too lax in overseeing the savings and loan and, as a result, too late to head off the collapse and consequent public cost. Another is whether the company was involved in helping finance a Clinton campaign for re-election. And another, perhaps the central issue, is whether Whitewater was a sweetheart deal for the Clintons, who -- to the contrary -- have reported the failure of the real estate venture cost them $60,000.

None of this suggests, however, that Clinton has totally escaped political damage from the state troopers' charges about his personal life. It is apparent, for example, that some voters haven't entirely swallowed the denials. Clinton has had something of a credibility problem, and this case is not going to make it any easier for him to resolve doubts in the electorate that may have formed with his handling of the issue of his draft history or as a result of his abandoned campaign promises.

It also would be naive to believe that his Republican challengers in 1996 won't be using the "family values" issue as a way of recalling the controversies over the president's personal life.

But, for the moment, Clinton seems to have dodged another political bullet.

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