Clintonian Credibility

March 05, 1994

President Clinton remarked the other day that he was stunned, stunned by the "incredible cynicism" he encounters in Washington. There's an assumption, he went on, that "on the most minor matters you're not telling the truth."

About his own administration, he said: "There's not one single shred of evidence that anybody here has tried to abuse the authority of the presidency . . . Not me, not any of my top aides. There have been no scandals in this administration."

This from a president whose White House staff was engulfed in its travel office scandal hardly before bags were unpacked in D.C.

This from a president who blandly described his trip to Chicago last week to boost the re-election of House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski as non-political -- a designation that allowed the trip to be charged to the taxpayers.

This from a president who has just had to rebuke his White House counsel and the deputy Treasury secretary for improper intervention with a federal finance agency on behalf of the Clintons in the Whitewater mess. It follows repeated White House attempts to obstruct the investigation.

Mr. Clinton's tendency to treat facts rather casually is not unusual in the political fraternity. The public has been trained to accept a dose of hyperbole, circumlocution, straddling and little white lies as part of the game. But a president loses credibility when he professes a purity that isn't there and gets downright unsubtle in his prevarications.

The Rostenkowski caper is revealing. It would have been refreshing if Mr. Clinton had forthrightly said he was endorsing the veteran congressman, even though the threat of indictment in the House Post Office scandal hangs over him, because his presence as Ways and Means chairman is essential to passage of health care reform legislation.

This is not Bill Clinton's style. He is a tough politician but seeks cover in an unctuous mien.

Actually, the only justification for the Rostenkowski trip was politics. If the congressman is indicted, he will have to step down from his chairmanship and leave his committee in shambles. Federal prosecutors promise decisions in the Post Office case "in the near future." But "near future" could save health reform if it means December, or kill it in March or April. The Chicago visit was a message to prosecutors to go slow lest the legislation is undermined. That may be too raw an objective for any president to acknowledge, but the aftertaste would have been sweeter had Mr. Clinton put a political label on the trip and sent the bill to the Democratic National Committee.

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