Political clumsiness feeds the Whitewater issue



WASHINGTON -- The controversy over the White House handling of the Whitewater investigation is supposed to be about a failure to observe ethical standards. But the most serious failure has been in the political judgment shown by President Clinton and his staff.

Anyone with a memory of Watergate -- and that was only 20 years ago -- would have known that the White House should have established from the outset that there should be no unofficial contact between agents of the president and either regulators or prosecutors. That is the policy -- the so-called fire wall -- now being erected too late to matter.

But this is a White House infected with hubris from the outset, one in which they have been quick to return to the "war room" campaign mode to do combat with the Republicans. In this case, the last thing the president needed was to give the Republicans the kind of partisan opportunity they have been handed.

That, of course, is just what has happened, as Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos made clear in a weekend television appearance. "The Republicans can't run on the economy," he said. "They can't run on health care. They can't run on welfare, and they can't run on crime, so they're trying to exploit this issue." But, he added, "We shouldn't help them by making mistakes. That's our fault."

The fact is that the Whitewater case seemed to have little political edge until the White House blundered. Polls showed that outside the Beltway there was little interest in or concern about Clinton's real estate dealings when he was governor more than 10 years ago.

The prospect seemed to be for an investigation by the independent counsel Robert Fiske that would be completed sometime late this year or early next year and would answer these questions. And no one would have been surprised to find that the Clintons may have received some friendly special treatment in Arkansas; that has been known to happen in politics and not just in small Southern states.

But there hardly seemed to be explosive material that would lead to criminal charges against the Clintons and threaten the presidency.

But now the three meetings in the White House have given the controversy an entirely different dimension -- the specter of an attempt by the president's agents to influence the course of the inquiries or to cover up the results. In fact, there is no evidence that any such thing happened in those meetings. Instead, they seem to have been attempts by Bernard Nussbaum, the deposed White House counsel, and other participants to gather information they could pass back to the principals on the status of the investigations.

To expect the Republicans to quietly accept such a benign explanation of the meetings would be naive. For 12 years they have been on the defensive in one ethics case after another in the Reagan and Bush administrations, and they are not about to let an opportunity, however flimsy, to slip away.

Beyond that, the Republicans recognize -- as do many Democratic professionals -- that although the president is riding high in the opinion polls right now, there are still reservations in the electorate about his personal integrity. The picture of a coverup, valid or not, can nourish those reservations.

The comparisons of the Whitewater affair and Watergate are laughable on their face. Watergate involved a systematic coverup of crimes that reached the Oval Office, crimes serious enough so that the deposed President Richard M. Nixon felt he required a pardon from his successor, Gerald Ford.

Nor is Whitewater in any way comparable to the Iran-contra affair. That involved a concerted White House policy of violating federal law on aid to the contras and of systematically lying to Congress about what had transpired.

But the political clumsiness of the White House has fed the purveyors of conspiracy theories and put President Clinton on the defensive when he would rather be using his strength in the polls to make his case for health care reform. It wouldn't have happened if someone on the White House staff had shown even minimal political smarts.

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