WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Now that the spreading stain of Whitewater has oozed into the White House, no one can say for sure how this affair will end.
But let's make one thing perfectly clear: Whitewater is no Watergate.
Certainly, there are parallels, superficial and otherwise, between the scandal that ended Richard M. Nixon's presidency and the mess Bill Clinton's in.
Echoes of Watergate can be heard in the cries alleging a White House cover-up and potential abuses of power, in the growing demands for hearings on Capitol Hill and the spectacle of White House aides dragged before a grand jury by a vigorous special prosecutor.
Comparisons have been drawn between Tricky Dick Nixon and Slick Willie Clinton, two master politicians who came to be mistrusted by many Americans because of questions about their character.
In perhaps the ultimate Whitewater wallow, there have even been a few snippets of impeachment talk.
If President Clinton "wants to serve this term out," advised Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, now running hard for the 1996 Republican nomination, "he's going to have to begin by leveling with the American people. . . . Let's not forget that Richard Nixon turned a third-rate burglary into a constitutional crisis by not leveling, by interfering with the investigation."
Another Republican, Sen. Alphonse D'Amato of New York, saw Whitewater as having "the potential of being as great if not
greater than Watergate."
Mr. Clinton got drawn into the debate last week. He found "no analogy" with Watergate, arguing, "We're not covering up or anything; we are opening up. We are disclosing. We are giving you information." In fact, the latest White House damage-control tactic has been to give the impression that Mr. Clinton and his aides are holding nothing back.
And yet it has been White House stonewalling on a host of Whitewater-related issues, including withholding the official report on the death of White House aide Vincent W. Foster Jr. and refusing to release any financial documents related to the Whitewater land deal itself, that continues to feed suspicions that the Clintons have something big to hide.
In spite of all that, however, Mr. Clinton is correct when he says that there is "a huge difference" between Whitewater and Watergate.
Watergate began with an attempt to manipulate a presidential election and came to include a host of abuses, including illegal break-ins, wiretapping and obstruction of justice by the president.
The June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee's offices at the Watergate office complex in Washington was carried out by men working for the Nixon re-election campaign. Once the crime was discovered, President Nixon directed the attempt to conceal it, ordering hush money paid to the burglars, attempting to use the Central Intelligence Agency, the FBI and the Justice Department to cover it up, doctoring transcripts and coaching others to lie.
The final report of the House Judiciary Committee, approved by a near-unanimous vote of 412 to 3, found "clear and convincing evidence" that the president had obstructed justice 36 times and abused his office by attempting to use agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service to punish his enemies.
An unindicted co-conspirator in Watergate who faced certain impeachment, Mr. Nixon resigned; his successor gave him a blanket presidential pardon, sparing him from any criminal charges.
Whitewater, by contrast, has been a scandal in search of a crime, or at least a serious one.
It began, not with the actions of a sitting president, but of Mr. Clinton as Arkansas attorney general and governor, years before he moved into the White House. It involved a real estate investment in which the Clintons apparently hoped to make a lot of money at little risk and which led them to take questionable tax deductions of several thousand dollars.
It grew to include questions about apparent conflicts of interest involving Hillary Rodham Clinton's work as a lawyer and suggestions that money from a troubled savings and loan, which was owned by their partner in the land deal, found its way into Mr. Clinton's pockets as a campaign contribution or real estate investment subsidy.
"There are not too many governors in our history -- Spiro Agnew comes to mind -- who can withstand this kind of scrutiny," says Stephen E. Ambrose, a Nixon biographer and professor of history at the University of New Orleans, who finds it "silly" to equate the scandals or to talk about impeaching Mr. Clinton.
What has given Whitewater its allure as a news story are two elements: first, the involvement of Mrs. Clinton, a modern, super-achieving professional woman whose own work created perhaps inevitable conflicts with her husband's career. And, second, the mysterious suicide of one of the players in the drama, White House aide Vince Foster, a close friend of the Clintons who had a hand in everything from the books of the Whitewater land company to the management of the law firm where he and Mrs. Clinton worked.