Cooperation may help Clinton clear the air



WASHINGTON -- Now that President Clinton has pledged his White House to cooperate fully not only with the Whitewater special investigator but with Congress as well if it deems to hold hearings of its own, the clamor for the latter predictably will get louder.

Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole and that stout guardian of ethics, Sen. Al D'Amato of New York, are not likely to be turned aside by Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell's complaint that all they want is to conduct "a political circus. . . to throw up a lot of dust and embarrass the president."

But there are serious questions posed by the prospect of congressional hearings that the special Whitewater investigator, Robert Fiske, recognized in urging Congress to await the work of his own team. Memory is fresh concerning the way Congress' headlong plunge into hearings on the Iran-contra affair effectively sabotaged the work of the special investigator in that case, Lawrence Walsh.

Convictions of Reagan White House national security staffers John Poindexter and Oliver North were thrown out on appeal on grounds that testimony used was "tainted" by the fact that it previously had been given to Congress under grants of immunity from prosecution. The action not only let Poindexter and North walk but enabled North, now running for a Senate seat in Virginia, to make the preposterous claim of exoneration, after having admitted in open hearing that he had lied to Congress.

President Clinton, while saying that Fiske's request to Congress to lay off was "entitled to respect," added that if congressional hearings were held, "my inclination would be to obviously participate." This attitude reflects an apparent victory for political aides favoring full disclosure over White House lawyers, like the departing White House counsel, Bernard Nussbaum, to cooperate only with Fiske, where material submitted ostensibly will be protected from public scrutiny.

Just as truth often comes from the mouths of babes, wisdom -- perhaps unwittingly -- is coming from the hyperactive mouth of D'Amato, who after complaining of a Clinton "cover-up" beyond anything Richard Nixon did in Watergate, is now suggesting that White House witnesses testify to Congress only after they have talked to Fiske and without any grant of immunity.

In light of the Iran-contra experience, this would be the only sensible way to proceed, if indeed congressional hearings are held at all. A House Banking Committee semi-annual review of the savings-and-loan bailout is tentatively scheduled for March 24, to which Republicans led by ranking minority committee member Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa want to call 40 Whitewater witnesses, including White House aides.

The House committee has a policy of never granting immunity. The Republicans want to subpoena the White House staffers but it's questionable at best that the controlling Democrats will go along. Committee Chairman Henry Gonzalez replied to Leach's request yesterday by saying "it will get the due consideration it merits." Clinton's remarks suggest, however, he may tell them to appear voluntarily.

In light of the fiasco that Congress made of the Iran-contra investigation, Fiske has solid precedent for asking Capitol Hill to leave the investigation to him. But by the same token, if the president and his staff have nothing to hide, it might be prudent to let the staffers answer congressional questions.

The Republicans so far have fed and capitalized on public confusion about what is involved in the Whitewater case as compared with Watergate. They doubtless will try in any hearings to compound that confusion. But in Watergate, stonewalling was the basic tactic. By fully cooperating, even with a GOP fishing expedition, the Clinton White House can make a strong case that Whitewater indeed is not another Watergate.

If crimes were committed, it would be better to let the criminal investigation explore it. But in the struggle for public opinion, what the Nixonites might have called an unmodified, unlimited hangout may be the wisest way for this administration to clear the air.

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