Unanswered Whitewater Questions

March 26, 1994

You've got to hand it to Bill Clinton: When the going gets tough, he gets going. Put him in a hostile, campaign-like environment, and he displays a master's touch.

Take his press conference performance Thursday night. It came in the wake of very serious Whitewater-related charges made on the House floor by Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa. The Washington press corps focused like a laser beam on Whitewater (17 of the 22 questions were about it). The president's popularity has been falling as fast as it did on the primary campaign trail two years ago in the wake of the Gennifer Flowers and draft-dodging allegations. Now as then he handled the crisis with great political skill.

Even his critics agreed on that. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole said he was "credible." House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich said, "I watch[ed] him with admiration just for the sheer technical skill with which he points things out on his terms." Representative Leach said, "I thought the president did an absolutely fabulous job in terms of his presentation."

Nevertheless, the Leach charges still need to be examined more fully than he and the press have been able to do so far. Especially two of them.

* He says the Whitewater enterprise, half of which was owned by Bill and Hillary Clinton, was involved in "skimming" and "check-kiting" at a federally insured savings and loan, Madison Guaranty. Probably more than $100,000 in unauthorized loans went from the S&L to Whitewater. Is that true? If it is, did the Clintons know of it at the time?

* Resolution Trust Corporation field investigators responsible for picking up the pieces of Madison Guaranty (which cost taxpayers over $40 million) believe they were pressured from Washington ("people at the top of the RTC") not to link Madison's losses to Whitewater. Is that so? If it is, did the president or any of his senior aides or appointees apply such pressure or become aware that it had been applied?

Special prosecutor Robert Fiske is looking into those allegations. It is his job to determine if such things happened and if they were against the law. Congress, meanwhile, goaded by Representative Leach and public opinion, is also planning to look into the charges against the Clintons and the Clinton administration. Both House and Senate have voted overwhelmingly for some sort of probe.

Such would presumably focus on improprieties embarrassing but not criminal. It is an idea whose time has come -- or will, once it won't interfere with Mr. Fiske's work. We say that not so much because we think it is a good idea, but because we think it is inevitable. Politics is politics. It is politically impossible for Republicans not to insist on hearings; and it is politically impossible for Democrats, who conducted so many somewhat similar probes during the Reagan-Bush era, to deny them.

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