For the Leader of the World, the Scandals Matter

January 23, 1994|By DANIEL BERGER

Whatever was happening to Bill Clinton's presidency through the first week in January did not matter to the rest of the world. Mr. Clinton had no great reputation out there. The world view of him was still, largely, what have those crazy Americans done this time?

So it hardly mattered that twin scandals were eating away at the Clinton presidency. That just added to the quaint American charm of it.

The difference between the first week in January and now is that, between, Bill Clinton became the leader of the world. His eight-day trip to Brussels, Prague, Minsk, Moscow, Kiev and Geneva was a triumph almost unparalleled in the annals of presidential summitry and theatrics.

We know hardly more about the allegations of Bill Clinton's sexual predations or the Whitewater Development Corp. than we did in 1992.

Both these scandals were packaged and offered for inspection to the American people during the Democratic primaries.

The scandals failed to dissuade Democratic voters from making Bill Clinton the party's nominee for president. (I will admit to surprise at the time.) And they had no effect on the general election. That was a verdict that ought to be respected unless compelling new evidence comes into view.

Yet they are being represented as reasons to hamstring the Clinton presidency. It is hard to imagine that a president could be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors committed before his election. But the furor could easily lead to a failed president who would not get anything done or seek a second term.

The federal grand jury in Arkansas and independent counsel Robert B. Fiske Jr. (named Thursday by Attorney General Janet Reno) are preferable to congressional investigations. Yet they have little ability to exonerate quickly, and some power to overturn the will of the voters.

The Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, for which Hillary Rodham Clinton did legal work, was investigated previously. James McDougal, the Clinton crony who seems a stereotype of the sort of rogue who perverted the Maryland savings and loan industry in the 1980s, was tried on fraud charges in 1990 and acquitted.

But is it possible there was a cover-up while Bill Clinton was governor, and that relentless investigation now would turn up abuse of state powers? Well, we certainly do not know that it is not possible. To engage in regional (similar to ethnic) stereotypes: After all, it was Arkansas.

But compare that rehash with what Mr. Clinton just did on his first European trip as president:

He imposed a palatable compromise called Partnership for Peace on an intractable dispute between NATO members and Eastern European countries about their relationship.

He brokered an agreement by the president of Ukraine to dismantle its strategic nuclear deterrent in cooperation with Russia and the United States.

He inserted himself in Russian domestic politics, winning a pledge from President Boris Yeltsin to maintain economic reform.

He promoted his own and his nation's image with candor and accessibility in a Prague cafe and on Russian television.

He may have failed to impose a common strategy regarding Bosnia on the Western alliance but he wound up chiding allies, as a mentor to proteges, about meaning what they say.

He capped it all by winning President Hafez el Assad's commitment to peace with Israel.

When it was over, Mr. Clinton had a stature far exceeding his modest achievement as host at the Asia-Pacific summit in Seattle in November.

Of course, much of this was theater and manipulation. President Yeltsin's commitment to reform was unraveling as Mr. Clinton left Moscow. Ukraine's nuclear disarmament pledge is not approved its parliament. Mr. Assad's commitment to peace is unproven.

But whichever of these may vanish, Mr. Clinton's achievements abroad, as a supposedly domestic-minded president, were remarkable. His credibility, and the nation's, were greatly enhanced.

Yet the president is gaining respect abroad while losing it at home. The collapse of Bobby Ray Inman's nomination to be secretary of defense, amid self-indictment for paranoia, illustrates the deterioration of presidential authority.

Just before the trip, even congressional Democrats were sniping at him. Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan of New York is representative of those who are not impressed that the occupant of the White House is from their own party.

The attack on the Clinton presidency is undermining American leadership in the world -- just when he was starting to exercise some. That is not in the national interest.

The coziness of Arkansas' political, legal and business establishments might not bear scrutiny against the highest standards of a larger coastal state. The Clintons' flier in Whitewater Development Corp., while Madison Guaranty was bleeding, cannot make Americans comfortable.

Yet no one so far has made a clear accusation of Clintonian wrongdoing. The commentator George F. Will, in one of his more apposite felicities, suggests that White House crisis management may be a cover-up without a crime.

Sen. Bob Dole, as leader of the Republican opposition, keeps asking how Whitewater differs from the Iran-contra scandal. The difference between alleged illegalities by the sitting administration (Iran-contra) and alleged improprieties in an earlier decade elsewhere (Whitewater) is as of night and day.

If this president is to be cut off at the knees, deprived of credibility or turned out to pasture, I would like to see that come for misdeeds committed as president. If allegations of his character deficiencies are correct, given enough time he will commit some.

And if he doesn't, Bill Clinton deserves to retain the respect of the world that for the past two weeks he has started to earn.

Daniel Berger is an editorial writer for The Baltimore Sun.

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