White House counsel has some repair work to do



WASHINGTON -- In appointing former Carter White House counsel Lloyd Cutler, one of Washington's certified political and legal wise men, to take over the same job from the departing Bernard Nussbaum, President Clinton is seeking to solve an internal White House problem that almost always arises in coping with a real or perceived scandal.

When the trouble starts and intensifies, what usually happens is that the lawyers insist on clamming up and "protecting" the president. At the same time, the political advisers argue for "damage control" by putting out whatever can safely or reasonably be made public.

The lawyers would call that "feeding the monster" -- the monster being a news media that legal minds often see as rapaciously devouring information and spitting it out in the most damaging manner. That seemed to be the attitude of the combative Nussbaum, reflected in his parting shot at "those who do not understand, nor wish to understand, the role and obligations of a lawyer, even one acting as White House counsel."

In Cutler, Clinton has selected a man celebrated widely in Washington as one who has successfully worked both sides of the equation -- the legal and the political -- and has been able to accommodate the two. His style as a politically sensitive lawyer was so much in the minds of White House insiders casting about for the right replacement for Nussbaum that officials took to telling reporters that the president was looking for "a Lloyd Cutler type."

In all the criticism heaped on Nussbaum's handling of the Whitewater case, there was always great praise about his lawyerly talents, but accompanied with chagrin about a woeful lack of political antennae. How could the chief counsel for a president who had imposed the strictest ethical standards ever on a White House staff have attended meetings with a federal agency investigating financial dealings in which the president and his wife had an interest? The Republicans lost no time in seizing on the implication of tampering to cry "cover-up" -- as in their own greatest political disgrace, the Watergate scandal.

This was not the first time the young Clinton administration had demonstrated political deafness. Last year, when the White House improperly orchestrated a report of an FBI investigation into the White House travel office to give credence to its own ill-conceived allegations of abuse, the question of ethics immediately surfaced. The criticism that gaffe generated should have been warning enough to avoid even the appearance of unethical contacts.

By permitting the Whitewater case to get into the White House, )) not on the basis of anything that happened in Arkansas when Bill Clinton was governor but through suspicions that improper influence may have been asserted to protect him as president, a principal political lesson of Watergate was forgotten: Don't say or do anything that smacks of abuse in the conduct of the presidency.

Because the politically lead-footed Clinton White House let the Republicans raise that question, the comparisons with Watergate are rife -- although simply in terms of what has been alleged in the Whitewater deal itself, there is no legitimate comparison.

Watergate involved wanton abuse and undermining of the Constitution by President Richard Nixon and his aides while they were running the country in the White House, for which he faced impeachment and later was given a presidential pardon. Whitewater involves at worst the giving or receiving of financially rewarding special treatment while Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas.

The comment of free-wheeling Republican Sen. Al D'Amato of New York that the Clinton White House "went well beyond what Nixon did in terms of a cover-up" is preposterous on its face. But the fact remains that by failing to recognize the political implications of holding any conversations or meetings with Whitewater investigators, even if the purpose was merely informational, Nussbaum and the others permitted the focus to move from Arkansas in the 1980s to the White House in 1994. That was a blunder that will take all the political as well as lawyerly talents of Lloyd Cutler to overcome.

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