Mrs. Clinton's big gains in trading -- so what?



WASHINGTON -- Let's all stand back a few paces, take a deep breath and try to get a little perspective on this story.

We now know that, either through good fortune or extraordinarily good advice, Hillary Rodham Clinton parlayed $1,000 into $100,000 in commodities trading in 1978 and 1979. The next question is: So what?

The story is being presented as the latest "development" in the Whitewater "scandal." But we have yet to establish there was such a scandal or, even if there were, what connection exists between Hillary Clinton's financial dealings 15 or 16 years ago and a speculative real estate venture several years later.

There are, of course, legitimate questions for the press, Congress and the special counsel to pursue about President Clinton. The most obvious is whether he has been guilty of any conduct as president that violated the law or the established standards of ethical conduct.

Thus, it is legitimate to ask whether members of the White House staff working for the president acted improperly and interfered with the investigation of the death of deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster Jr. last summer. If they did, Clinton is responsible.

Similarly, it is legitimate to ask whether contacts between White House officials and the Treasury Department amounted to an attempt to influence federal regulators looking into the Whitewater connection with the Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan. Again, the president is responsible for those who work on his staff. And once Madison Guaranty becomes part of the equation, taxpayer money is involved because deposits in the savings and loan were insured by the federal government and its ultimate collapse cost the taxpayers $60 million.

But the history of Hillary Clinton's trading in cattle futures is in no way connected to questions about Madison. Nor does it have anything to do with public money.

The Whitewater investigation, although forced by politics, also may be said to have some legitimacy to the extent that it deals with questions about whether as governor of Arkansas Clinton used his position improperly to influence state regulators of Madison. But, again, that has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton's commodity trading.

If Clinton is shown to have been cutting sweetheart deals with his cronies as governor, he is surely going to hear about it in the next campaign. But, barring some proof of criminal wrongdoing, the political damage is the only likely result.

It may also be argued -- as many Clinton critics are arguing -- that Hillary Clinton's aggressive financial dealing shows that she and her husband have been hypocritical in disparaging the greed of the 1980s and blaming it on the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan. But is anyone surprised by the discovery of hypocrisy in a politician?

It seems quite possible that the greatest damage will be suffered by the press. Opinion polls already show that most readers and viewers think news media are paying too much attention to the Whitewater story. But even the most responsible newspapers seem incapable of maintaining any perspective on the story.

This is not Watergate, where illegal activities and efforts to cover them up both were directed from the White House and the conduct of the president drove him from office and required him to accept a pardon to protect himself against felony charges. This is not Iran-contra, where the White House deliberately violated an act of Congress and then conspired to lie to Congress about doing so.

By contrast, what in the world do we learn from uncovering the financial history of Hillary Rodham Clinton? Under the darkest scenario, the most we learn is that 15 years ago she may have been given special treatment by a broker because she was the wife of the rising political star in Arkansas. What a shocker.

But those of us in the press seem incapable of drawing any line. If this mania for ferreting out every tiny detail of the Clintons' personal and financial history is carried to its logical extreme, we are soon going to be looking into whether Bill Clinton was given a sweetheart deal on his paper route.

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