Mildew in the tub

March 14, 1994|By Myriam Marquez

IN THE first year of his presidency, Bill Clinton's crisis-management style could be forgiven as a temporary condition that would be solved with a little time and experience.

Mr. Clinton, after all, was coming from the innocuous governorship of a small state to serve as the first U.S. president elected in the post-Cold War era. And his agenda -- from health-care reform to welfare reform -- was as maverick as it was mammoth.

With so much on the president's political plate, the president's supporters were willing to excuse his mishandling of events in his first year -- from the recurring and embarrassing Nannygate lTC episodes to the overblown presidential haircut that never did stop air traffic as initially misreported.

When Mr. Clinton brought in David Gergen, who had worked in the Reagan White House, to help rev up the presidency and stop the White House misfires, there was a sense that this baby-boomer president was coming of age.

Then came the news around Christmas that federal investigators were looking into the dealings of an Arkansas businessman and savings-and-loan operator with ties to the Clintons.

Back to crisis mismanagement.

Republicans called for a special prosecutor. The White House said none was needed, that federal investigators were doing a fine job. That was the first political misfire. It made Mr. Clinton seem like he had something to hide.

Now, it seems, even an independent prosecutor isn't good enough for Republicans, who would like to see Whitewater turn into Watergate. They want a congressional investigation, even though such an investigation might damage the independent counsel's probe by making prosecution in the courts extremely difficult, if not worthless.

Calls for a congressional investigation followed news reports that some of Mr. Clinton's top aides were briefed at least three times by Treasury Department investigators looking into the failed savings and loan. Then, there were reports claiming that Hillary Rodham Clinton ordered documents shredded back in the spring 1992, though no one ever said that the documents involved James McDougal, the Clintons' partner in the Whitewater land deal.

So out the White House door went White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum, who should have seen the briefings as unethical interference from the top.

Not good enough, said the Republicans. They cried "obstruction of justice," called the Democratic Party the "paper-shredding party" and pressed again last week for congressional hearings.

This Whitewater scandal seems to grow weekly like mildew left unattended in a tub.

Whether there was criminal wrongdoing or simply bad judgment displayed by the Clintons is still unknown. But Americans' sense is that Whitewater is a "serious matter," according to a poll conducted for ABC News. Forty-nine percent believe that's so.

Yet even a greater percentage of those polled -- 58 percent -- weren't too pleased with the Republican leadership's frothing over Whitewater. Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed said the Republicans are simply out to score political points against Mr. Clinton.

That much is clear.

What's still unclear is why Mr. Clinton has allowed Whitewater to consume the first three months of his second year in office with more crisis mismanagement and plain dumb calls of misjudgment. That answer will come, though, but it won't be found in a congressional inquiry inspired by Republican revenge.

Myriam Marquez is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

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