WASHINGTON -- The White House strategy of going on the attack in the Whitewater Development Co. controversy suggests a White House out of touch with political reality.
On the one hand, it is true, as the president's surrogates insist, that there is not a single allegation of misconduct that has been directed at President Clinton or Hillary Rodham Clinton. But blaming the whole thing on either the partisanship of Republicans or, to use David Gergen's word, the "cannibalism" of the Washington community, including the press, misses the point.
Nor does the White House strengthen its case by complaining so hypocritically about the Republicans repeating their demands for a special prosecutor while the president was in Arkansas for the funeral of his mother Virginia Kelley. Does anyone imagine the demands from Clinton's questioners would be received more warmly if only the timing had been more delicate?
There is probably some validity in the complaint of partisanship by the Republicans, at least as applied to those such as Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole and House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, who have long memories of similar situations when the shoe was on the other foot. But that charge is difficult to sustain against Rep. Jim Leach, the Iowa Republican with a well-deserved reputation as a thoughtful moderate.
Gergen's complaint about "cannibalism" in the Washington political community is particularly hard to swallow coming from a Republican who served in two administrations, those of Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, in which stonewalling on Watergate and Iran-contra contributed so much to the skepticism endemic in the press and political world.
But the central point is that the White House is using a tactic that worked during the 1992 campaign but won't work with a sitting president. The questions about Whitewater and Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, legitimate or not, won't simply die of their own weight.
Such a quick resolution of the controversy might have been possible when it first arose. But the bumbling handling of the issue by the White House and the disclosure that files had been removed from the office of the late Vincent Foster have nourished suspicions that cannot be ignored.
It is equally true, however, that the cries of the extremists that Whitewater is now "Whitewater-gate" are nonsense. Watergate was not simply about a burglary at the Democratic National Committee. It was about the conduct of a sitting president and his staff that sent many of his closest advisers to prison and required him to seek the protection of a pardon against felony charges.
At this point, there is nothing that merits the term "scandal" as applied to Whitewater and the business dealings of the Clintons. There are only questions that cannot be answered with angry political rhetoric. Was that Arkansas savings and loan propped up longer than it should have been because of the governor's actions? Did the delay in closing it down contribute to the cost to the taxpayers of $50 million? Was the Whitewater land project a sweetheart deal for the Clintons?
In hindsight, it is easy to see that the Clintons might have been better off if all the questions about Whitewater had been answered during the 1992 campaign. No one who knows Clinton considers him a man fixated on personal wealth. On the contrary, his interest in advancing his political career has been so all-consuming he has been willing to serve year after year as governor of Arkansas at $35,000 a year when he might have been practicing law at 10 times that much.
But the White House must play the hand it has been dealt, and that means it must deal with the real world today and put the issue to rest once and for all by cooperating in some kind of independent inquiry that can provide a persuasive judgment on the episode.
The anger of the president's advisers and allies is understandable. He is a man trying to change the country and make some sense out of the new world order and he is being picked apart by what they see as trivia.
But they cannot afford to allow that anger to substitute for a sensible political strategy.