WASHINGTON — Washington. -- A funny thing happened in the middle of the scandal known as Whitewater. Somehow it became transformed into a day of reckoning for the '80s. Whitewater has fattened on the alleged hypocrisy that Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton made out like the very yuppie bandits they ridiculed during the campaign.
It is true that the Clintons scored valuable points with beleaguered voters with all their talk of helping ''people who work hard and play by the rules'' only to be shafted by the greedheads who profited off the Reagan-Bush '80s. Now Whitewater makes it look like the Clintons might have been two of the greedheads.
Many Whitewater stories have told us less about what's illegal than what's legal. They probe, for example, the powerful and influential friends Mrs. Clinton made while she was a powerful and influential lawyer at Little Rock's powerful and influential Rose law firm, then raise the possibility that such contacts were, while perfectly legal, a little too ethically cute for comfort.
A stunning example is the recent New York Times report that the first lady made about $100,000 in one year in the risky commodities market with the help and advice of a friend who was the top lawyer for Arkansas-based Tyson Foods Inc., the nation's biggest poultry company.
Now all this occurred back in the '70s, before her husband was governor of Arkansas, let alone president. And there's nothing illegal about the commodities market or getting investment advice from a friend connected to the company, unless the advice was of a sort that violated insider-trading rules. That was not alleged.
But the Times reported that critics in Congress and elsewhere have complained that the Clinton administration may be too cozy with Arkansas' chicken agribusiness, particularly Tyson's, possibly giving the company some federal regulatory breaks it doesn't deserve.
Two-plus-two may not equal five, but in the current Whitewater frenzy, the chicken scandal comes close enough. So, ABC's Brit Hume asked during the President's press conference last week about how ''you've been kind of tough at times on people you felt made out during the '80s and didn't pay their fair share. Can you tell us here tonight that you abided by the very high ethical standard . . . to which you've sought to hold others?''
To which the president replied ''absolutely,'' and went on to describe how he spent the '80s as the lowest-paid governor of any state and how his wife ''gave up her portion of partnership income that otherwise came to the firm and instead every year gave an enormous percentage of her time to public-service work, helping children and helping education.
''The fact that we made investments . . . has nothing to do whatever with the indictment that I made about the excesses of the '80s,'' he said.
With that, Bill Clinton seemed to revert to a popular caricature of his wife and himself as Woodstock-generation hippies who shunned wealth to enter public service, save the Earth and pursue a new politics of meaning.
That flower-child caricature helped make George Bush look more tired, but it has been miles from the truth since the day Governor Clinton decided to support the death penalty, right-to-work laws and a number of other centrist, non-Woodstock ideas.
In truth, the Clintons were like so many other members of our generation. They put away their bell-bottoms and granny dresses, donned ''dress for success'' garb and jumped on the success track, taking time to make a few wise investments on the side, sometimes with the help of friends they had met along the way.
Unless some serious violations by the Clintons are uncovered and proved, not just alleged, the extent of the Whitewater scandal may be that they chose friends who, one way or another, let them down. If so, they wouldn't be alone.
I found it rather poignant that Mr. Clinton felt compelled in his press conference to paint a new caricature of his wife as sort of a Mother Teresa of the Ozarks.
It was necessary, I suppose, because Mrs. Clinton has been caricatured more than any other powerful woman since Marie Antoinette. One day, she is Joan of Arc, the next she is Lucretia Borgia. Then she is Dolley Madison, and then Lizzie Borden. Then she's Eleanor Roosevelt, and Nancy Reagan. She is a Rorschach test of our national feelings and the way various friends and enemies want the rest of us to perceive her.
In truth, the Clintons have a record to stand behind that contrasts sharply with the Reagan-Bush policies of the '80s. President Reagan's tax policies benefited the rich. President Clinton's first budgets shifted the tax burden toward the rich and away from the middle-income brackets.
Mr. Reagan's social policy trimmed government action. President Clinton supports more government action on health care, job retraining and other programs to make workers feel more secure in an era of great economic change.
Love it or hate it, Mr. Clinton has a track record of social policy that contrasts sharply with the programs of the '80s. He doesn't need to be defensive about it and he dares not let his critics redefine the terms of the debate.
The enemy of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton is not profit, but greed. They need to state that standard clearly.
Then, they need to live up to it.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.