WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's decision to drop White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum and issue strict orders against further back-channel contacts with the Whitewater investigation came only after a belated realization that the growing appearance of a cover-up might prove more damaging than the ill-starred real estate deal itself.
Late last week, as criticism mounted in the wake of disclosures that Mr. Nussbaum had participated in a series of improper meetings on Whitewater with officials of the Treasury Department, an angry Mr. Clinton exploded at his staff, demanding an end to self-inflicted wounds.
"His anger," said one aide, "was over the fact that the way we were handling Whitewater was being perceived as a Watergate cover-up, and he and all of us here know we operate on a different level of integrity."
Yet it was Mr. Clinton himself -- as well as first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton -- who for months brushed aside warnings that Mr. Nussbaum's actions, along with some by the Clintons themselves, were fueling the controversy.
As a result, Mr. Clinton has run afoul of one of the most clearly marked pitfalls in Washington -- the Watergate trap, in which efforts to minimize or cover up a potentially damaging situation can become politically and even legally more dangerous than the original situation.
"Whitewater is not Watergate, but we've been acting like it is," an exasperated senior Clinton aide said shortly before Mr. Nussbaum's resignation. "The siege mentality here is dumb. We ought to learn from the past and not repeat it. We should get all the facts out."
That assessment was echoed by seasoned political operatives and legal experts outside the government.
"It is kind of baffling how very smart people and supposedly smart lawyers come to Washington and think they can manage the news," said Henry Ruth Jr., a special prosecutor during the Watergate scandal, referring to the tendency of officials such as Mr. Nussbaum to try to prevent public disclosure of embarrassing information. "They invariably find out they can't and in trying to unsuccessfully manage the news, they do a great disservice to their bosses."
In the case of Watergate, President Nixon was forced to resign and several of his top aides went to prison, not because of direct involvement in what Mr. Nixon called the "third-rate burglary" of Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate building in 1972 but because of actions taken to shield the White House afterward.
The Watergate effort, which amounted to criminal obstruction of justice, added the word "cover-up" to the Washington lexicon. Today, the term applies to any ill-conceived attempt to suppress damaging or embarrassing information -- even if no criminal activity is involved.
Indeed, Mr. Ruth and others note that in many of the scandals since Watergate, stupidity and poor judgment rather than evil wrongdoing have led to problems. "In most cases we are involved in things that if revealed up front would not be so serious," Mr. Ruth said.
White House aides insist that is exactly the situation with Whitewater, the failed Arkansas real estate development in which the Clintons invested during the 1970s and 1980s.
Mr. Clinton himself has said in repeated public statements that he wants nothing done that would interfere with the various investigations of the real estate venture and the events and individuals surrounding it -- including the inquiry of Whitewater special counsel Robert B. Fiske Jr.
Yet whether because of inattention, bad judgment or some other reason, the Clinton White House has often seemed bent on creating the opposite impression.
"[Mr. Nussbaum's] incompetence deserves a large share of the credit," one senior administration official said, but he added: "I think the atmosphere existed there that created this behavior in a general way."