Overtaken by Facts

March 31, 1994|By TRB

HAVRE DE GRACE — Washington. -- This is getting ridiculous.

George Stephanopolous called his pal at the Treasury Department to ask why Jay Stephens -- a partisan Republican with a special grudge against President Clinton -- had been appointed to investigate the failure of Whitewater-connected Madison Savings & Loan.

Mr. Stephanopolous says he was just ''blowing off steam.'' But suppose the worst that has been alleged in anonymous leaks: that he asked whether Mr. Stephens could be gotten rid of. He was told that the Resolution Trust Corporation, which appointed Mr. Stephens, is an independent agency whose decisions cannot be overruled. And, by all accounts, the ''attempt'' to ''interfere'' with the RTC investigation ended there.

A White House official is told the rules and obeys them. Maybe that is man-bites-dog, but where is the scandal? Isn't that exactly what is supposed to happen?

The effort to gin up a scandal over a second phone call the same day is even more absurd. This call was by Mr. Stephanopolous and another White House aide, Harold Ickes, to Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman. Messrs. Stephanopolous and Ickes complained that Mr. Altman had failed to alert the White House, before telling the press, that he was going to recuse himself from Whitewater-related matters.

Note how many levels we are now removed from what might normally be seen as an impropriety. What is the accusation here? It's not that Mr. Altman, as acting head of the RTC, has actually interfered with the Whitewater investigation. It's not that he has failed to recuse himself anyway. It's not that the White House has opposed his decision to recuse himself. It's not even that Mr. Altman has told the White House in advance of his decision to recuse himself (though what on earth would be wrong with that?). It's that a couple of White House aides complained about not being told in advance.

Yet these two phone calls dominated the headlines over the last weekend in March. By midweek, it's true, the follow-up articles had drifted back to page five or six, and a certain note of sheepish uncertainty about the episode's actual gravity had replaced the previous breathless outrage. But the Wall Street Journal editorial page could toss off ominous references to ''newly revealed interventions by George Stephanopolous and Harold Ickes.'' And the requirements of concision will henceforth prevent even honest journalists from doing much better than that, as the Stephanopolous episode adds another layer to this complicated story.

The Clintonites, meanwhile, were reduced to grateful thanks for the partial absolution being offered by Representative Jim Leach, their chief Republican tormentor. Mr. Leach declared that ''it would be premature to draw any extraordinary conclusions'' from reports of these phone calls. Bless you, congressman.

Jim Leach may be about to learn -- as Jimmy Carter and Dan Rather did before him -- that a fuzzy sweater alone cannot indefinitely preserve one's reputation for high-mindedness (though it certainly helps).

Mr. Leach asserted point-blank on the floor of the House that ''the family of the former governor of Arkansas received value from Whitewater in excess of the resources invested,'' which is his fulsome way of saying that the Clintons made money on the deal. That night at his press conference, President Clinton asserted that he had lost money on the deal -- though less than he had previously claimed -- and released tax returns which seemed to prove it.

This is a pretty clear conflict. So where is Mr. Leach's evidence? What, even, is his argument? The documents he released the day of his speech don't begin to make the case.

Mr. Leach says he cannot produce all the relevant documents because that might hamper the special prosecutor's investigation. This is rich. The Clintons have been accused, and accused correctly, of cowering behind the special prosecutor as an excuse not to come clean.

But surely it is worse to use the special prosecutor as a shield for making accusations against others without producing the evidence than it is to use the special prosecutor as a shield for the defense against such accusations.

That zany Wall Street Journal editorial page says, regarding Whitewater, that we need more ''publications willing to report what they learn even at the risk that now and then some of it may be overtaken by other facts.''

Overtaken by other facts? What a spectacular euphemism for getting it wrong! I hope that saner media remain just a bit afraid of being overtaken by other facts.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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