Whitewater as Image: That's What the Cover-up Seems to Be About

March 10, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- One Whitewater puzzle is this: Why have the Clintons been so ruinously resistant to revealing everything about what probably are, at worst, dealings too minor and complicated to arrest the nation's attention, and concerning which a political statute of limitations has expired because an election has intervened?

The answer may be: Revelation would disarm an administration dependent on sowing moral disdain for opponents. That is, Whitewater may be trivial, other than as a deflator of moral pretensions.

The Clintons regard disparagement of the 1980s as a means of dominating the 1990s. Their problem was to justify ''reversing Reaganism'' in spite of Reaganism's results -- 93 consecutive months of growth, 19 million more jobs, surging exports, declining inflation and interest rates.

Statistical criticism would not suffice. It was said the new jobs were low-skill jobs, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics disagreed.

It was said the Reagan years widened income inequalities, but the widening began in the 1970s, slowed after growth resumed in 1983, and was mostly an effect of education differentials in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

So statistical criticism of Reagan's years yielded to moral disdain for ''the decade of greed.''

The sensibility of the 1960s, the Clintons' formative years, featured intellectual conceit and moral vanity. Both are on display in the Clintons' health care plan, a huge act of condescension that presupposes that personal freedom must be severely restricted to produce rationality and punish avarice.

Vanity is what children of the 1960s learned in college, when professors and other adults who liked the younger generation's politics said it was a singularly moral generation. Taught that their sincerity legitimized their intentions, the children of the 1960s grew up convinced they could not do wrong.

Hence the Clinton administration's genuine bewilderment when accused of ethical lapses. It is a theoretical impossibility for people in ''the party of compassion'' to behave badly because good behavior is whatever they do. Bad behavior is whatever Ed Meese did.

Whitewater may involve unseemly grasping and corner-cutting and indifference to proprieties while pursuing money. Hence the intense resistance to revelation: It threatens the politics of moral preening, a political style increasingly problematic for the Clintons.

Webster Hubbell, formerly Mrs. Clinton's law partner and currently the third-ranking official in the Justice Department, is under investigation concerning possible overbilling of clients, such as the federal government.

Moralists trained by Mrs. Clinton to sniff the faintest whiff of greed may worry about Mr. Hubbell's bill for 180 hours of work for one agency in August 1990, including work on 20 consecutive pTC days, including weekends.

Suspicious people, their suspicions attuned to Mrs. Clinton's example as a greed-detector, may recall the acceleration of her payout from her law firm, from January 1993 -- which would have been the firm's normal payout -- back into December 1992. Was she evading the tax increase her husband had not yet publicly discovered was necessary?

People watching Mrs. Clinton worry about the greed of pharmaceutical companies may -- their moral senses quickened by her example -- worry about her participation in ValuePartners. That investment group suddenly and sharply increased its ''selling short'' -- betting on the decline of -- stocks in pharmaceutical companies when President and Mrs. Clinton were castigating, and threatening to punish, such companies.

People inspired by Mrs. Clinton's denunciation of other people's motives may wonder why the Clintons did not put their assets in a blind trust until July 1993. Other recent presidents did so before taking office.

Ascribing base financial motives to other people has become, thanks partly to the Clintons, evidence of moral vigor, so some will suspect that the person handling the Clintons' affairs had trouble getting the numbers about their holdings to square with tax filings and other disclosures made during the Arkansas years. That person was Vince Foster.

Now, all these suspicions may be unfair but they are condign punishment for the Clintons. Such suspicions flourish in the accusatory climate the Clintons have cultivated by ascribing disreputable motives to their opponents.

Mrs. Clinton is still hard at it, telling Elle magazine that her critics' motives are political or personal or ''financial.'' Of course. There can be no honorable disagreement with a child of the 1960s.

Her husband told the slowly resigning -- next month -- Bernard Nussbaum that this is a time when ''serving is hard.'' Democrats control the executive branch and Congress, which on Jan. 20 last year experienced a sudden reduction of interest in oversight of the executive branch. What, then, is so hard?

Perhaps it is hard serving in a climate of moral posturing of the sort that fueled the Clintons' rise to power. If the outcome of Whitewater is a diminution of their moral vanity, the episode will have been a blessing.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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