Decision frees president for bigger things

January 13, 1994|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Somewhat belatedly perhaps, President Clinton has stopped his own political bleeding by yielding on the issue of a special investigation of his relationship with the Whitewater Development Corp.

The president and his White House advisers can now turn away further questions about the controversy on the ground that they don't want to interfere with the special counsel.

The unpalatable alternative would have been for the president to be confronted with persistent questioning when he would prefer to be talking about, for example, policy on Bosnia or health care reform.

And Mr. Clinton is also in a position, at long last, to reinforce his contention that he has nothing to hide from investigations of his business dealings as governor of Arkansas.

Both of these political advantages were obvious to most professionals two or three weeks ago as the White House continued to insist that the whole thing was a partisan Republican assault being helped along by a hostile press.

The argument of partisanship fell apart when a growing chorus of Democratic senators -- including such prominent figures as Daniel P. Moynihan of New York and Bill Bradley of New Jersey -- called for a special investigation.

The timing of the decision raises the obvious question among political strategists.

The findings of two new public opinion polls have shown widespread doubts in the electorate about Whitewater but not yet any rush to judgment against Mr. Clinton.

A CNN-USA Today-Gallup survey found 71 percent of the voters not sure about whether Mr. Clinton had been guilty of any misconduct. An ABC News-Washington Post survey found 61 percent who thought there should be an independent inquiry.

But those same findings obviously were available to the White House through its own polling, which often includes daily tracking of the temperature of the body politic.

That being the case, the puzzling question inside the political community is why the White House has been so adamantly determined to tough it out.

If there is a lesson that has been taught in Washington time after time in the 20 years since Watergate, it is that once one of these issues arises, the facts eventually are pulled out string by string, usually by the press, until the entire pattern is unraveled.

In this case, the intensity of the controversy was heightened by some special circumstances.

One clearly was the disclosure that files containing information on Whitewater were removed from the office of Vincent W. Foster Jr., the deputy White House counsel, after his suicide last summer.

Devotees of conspiracy theories had continued a drumbeat of questions about the reasons for Mr. Foster's death, and the disclosure about the files nourished those theories.

A second factor has been the relationship between Mr. Clinton and the news media ever since candidate Bill Clinton emerged as a leading figure on the national political stage early in 1992.

Reporters found, for example, that the full story of Mr. Clinton's draft evasion during the war in Vietnam came to light only in bits and pieces after prolonged investigation and repeated questions.

Even the question of whether Mr. Clinton had smoked marijuana as a young man was not answered until he was asked precisely the right question -- whether he had done so as a Rhodes scholar in England.

White House political advisers learned during the campaign that their candidate could ride out these controversies, just as has been the case with the allegations last month by Arkansas state troopers that they had facilitated sexual liaisons for then-Governor Clinton.

But the questions about Whitewater and the Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan were always in a different category: They dealt with his integrity as a public official rather than his personal life. Now the president has conceded as much by yielding on the special counsel question and, for the time being, getting the issue out of his way.

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