A Friend of the Presidency

March 08, 1994

When Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, raises the possibility on national television that President Clinton may not get to serve out his term, and links "Whitewater" to "Watergate," it is obvious that raw politics is at work. Same thing when Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., says that Whitewater could be a "greater" scandal than Watergate. President Clinton has a right to object, as he did yesterday, to such partisans' "careless use of the language."

But theirs are not the only voices expressing concern about this developing story. You don't have to be a partisan gut fighter to suspect that something seriously improper has occurred.

FBI agents walking into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with subpoenas for individuals and documents is a disturbing image to everyone. Independent Counsel Robert B. Fiske Jr. would not have sent them there unless he thought there was at least a possibility of lawbreaking. Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, is no Phil Gramm or Alfonse D'Amato. He is widely respected on Capitol Hill as thoughtful and fair. He says there have been "implications of obstruction of justice." He wants congressional hearings. Even Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., a very loyal Democrat, says his committee may probe the meetings of White House aides with Treasury officials looking into the Clintons' roles in those Arkansas real estate and banking deals.

Some Democrats say that because there were hearings whenever Republicans were brushed with scandal in the 1980s, it would look bad if there were no hearings now. That is true, but it is also true, as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., says: "We have a legal process in place. It is not a circus and not a witch hunt, and we'll get to the facts. Let Bob Fiske do his job." If Congress must get into the act now, it should recall the Iran-contra hearings as a cautionary tale. Mr. Fiske clearly remembers them as such, which is why he asked Congress yesterday not to hold hearings yet, and especially not to grant witnesses immunity.

What has occurred in the White House might have been avoided if ousted White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum had done a little recalling of his own. He was a lawyer for the House Judiciary Committee when it held its Watergate-related impeachment hearings. He has a photograph of the old staff on the wall of his White House office. One lawyer in the picture is Hillary Rodham Clinton. He, and perhaps she, helped get the president into his present predicament by forgetting Watergate, by having a tin ear for political considerations, or by being arrogant. Or all of the above.

The president must make absolutely sure that the next White House counsel has perfect pitch for Washington politics and ethics. That is more important than the exalted legal skills Mr. Nussbaum was so proud of. And to quote Senator Moynihan again, the new counsel, unlike Mr. Nussbaum, should be "someone who is not a friend of anyone working there now, but is a friend of the institution of the presidency."

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