President could use pause from Whitewater



WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton flew to New York to make a speech the other day, the lead paragraph on a dispatch by the Associated Press read this way:

"NEW YORK -- President Clinton, trying to reach beyond the Whitewater affair, called today for the nation to renew a sense of community, fight crime and 'take back our streets, our schools and our lives.' "

The president probably would have made the crime speech whether or not he was trying to "reach beyond" Whitewater. Crime, after all, is the issue of the month in American politics. But the AP lead demonstrated just how the press now sees everything the White House says or does through the prism of the controversy over Whitewater.

The same night the television network news programs predictably juxtaposed their story on Clinton's visit to New York with filmed reports on the White House officials who went before a grand jury in Washington to talk about the questionable meetings with regulators inside the White House.

Again, the coverage was inevitable. White House staff members being subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury is obviously newsworthy. But the coverage illustrates how difficult it has been for President Clinton to get beyond the preoccupation with Whitewater and reclaim attention for such priorities as health-care reform and crime legislation.

To some degree, the problem is one of the White House's own making. The meetings of Clinton advisers with federal regulators have contributed to the perception of the president's having something to hide, despite his protestations that is not the case. That perception may be reinforced by the charges by Hillary Rodham Clinton that the controversy is largely a product of partisan attempts to discredit her husband and his programs.

But the question now is what can he do to change the subject to something less destructive.

White House strategists have considered -- and, at least for now, rejected -- the idea of putting the president before the cameras to deal with the whole Whitewater affair once and for all. The same is true for any idea of Hillary Clinton's holding a press conference.

Instead, the president and his surrogates are making the case that they are offering full cooperation to independent counsel Robert Fiske and have nothing to hide while reassuring the nation that they now have constructed a "fire wall" to prevent any further questions of improper contacts with regulators.

There is some hope in the White House that some of the issues in the complex case may be settled sometime early this year. It is possible, for example, that the Fiske inquiry before the grand jury here may establish within a matter of weeks that, despite appearances, there was nothing perfidious in those controversial White House meetings.

It is also possible that the fresh investigation into the death of Vincent Foster Jr., the deputy White House counsel who committed suicide last July, can be completed by summer. A finding that the suicide was just that and nothing more would do much to silence the purveyors of conspiracy theories who have spent the last seven months writing complex scenarios about Foster.

The key for the White House, however, is a period when there is no new fuel added to the fire, no fresh reports of shredded documents at the Rose law firm, no new discovery of actions that could be construed as part of a cover-up. If that happens, Clinton could return to talking about crime and health-care and welfare reform without everything being seen through the Whitewater prism.

The overall investigation being run by Fiske, centered in Little Rock, obviously will extend past the 1994 midterm elections and into the earliest stages of the 1996 presidential campaign. The history of these inquiries is that they always take far longer than anyone expected when they were launched, and this one is unusually complex.

Whenever they come, the findings may have much to do with Clinton's prospects for a second term. Meanwhile, the president needs a hiatus long enough so that he can make himself heard over the din.

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