President might be helped by congressional hearings



WASHINGTON -- The White House resistance to congressional hearings on Whitewater was no surprise. There are visions of President Clinton trying to negotiate a health care reform bill while the cameras are all focused on some committee poking through his financial history.

But the capitulation to Republican demands by the Democratic leadership was inevitable, if only because the political consequences would have been so intolerable -- accusations in Senate and House campaigns all across the country that Democratic incumbents were involved in covering for the president.

Senate or House hearings do not have to be an unalloyed disaster for the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton. This assumes that they have been telling the truth when they say the Whitewater affair isn't worth so much attention from investigators, the Republicans and the press.

Indeed, it is even possible that there could be a politically positive result from such hearings, if the timing proves right.

The Senate could deal first with the two matters in the Whitewater brouhaha that relate to Clinton's behavior since he has occupied the Oval Office.

The first, of course, is the issue, if any, of the death of Vincent W. Foster Jr., the White House deputy counsel and longtime Clinton friend, who committed suicide last summer.

If the hearings can establish that the suicide was just what it appeared to be, the process can thwart the conspiracy theorists now peddling their bizarre stories.

And the hearings can establish that the poking around in Foster's files after his death may have been monumentally stupid and legally questionable but not venal.

The second issue developed since Clinton became president is the question of those White House meetings that involved federal regulators.

If there is no evidence of pressure on the regulators, the White House staff members may be judged terminally clumsy. But, again, that would not constitute evidence of any wrongdoing by the president since he took office.

The questions most pertinent for Congress should be the official conduct of the president while he has been in office.

That doesn't mean, of course, that there may not be political tinder in investigations into the Clintons' financial dealings and official conduct while he was governor of Arkansas and she was a partner in the Rose Law Firm. It is already apparent that there are enough hostile witnesses back home in Little Rock to give the Republicans some nourishment for their complaints.

But the fact is that if there are going to be damaging disclosures about the Clintons' getting sweetheart deals or about state regulators' being lax in their oversight of those with Clinton connections, those facts are going to come to the forefront eventually through the efforts of independent counsel Robert B. Fiske Jr., if not through the congressional process.

The political question then will be whether that history is something damaging enough to put the president on the defensive going into the 1996 presidential campaign.

The Clintons have insisted all along that there is a lot more smoke than fire in the whole controversy.

But they have managed to make it appear that they have something serious to hide by resisting, then yielding, on the special counsel and resisting, then yielding, on the question of a congressional inquiry.

Nor have they been as forthcoming as they might have been with details of their financial history during those early years in Little Rock.

The president and first lady also have raised the stakes by their angry outbursts at the Republicans leading the charge against them.

There is some validity to their complaint that some Republicans are being driven by pure partisanship, both here and in Little Rock.

But it is also true that most of the questions raised about them have resulted not from some devious plot to undermine the Clinton presidency but from the routine functioning of the press.

All things being equal, the president clearly would have been happier if there had been no special counsel and no congressional investigation.

But that was never a realistic option, so the most he can hope for now is that the hearings will be expeditious -- always assuming, of course, that there is nothing serious to be discovered.

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