Clinton muffs play again on first family's finances



WASHINGTON -- The White House handling of the business of the personal finances of President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton is a classic case of making things worse than they otherwise would have been. The pattern was never clearer than in the disclosure that the Clintons failed to pay enough taxes 14 years ago.

On the face of it, the tax delinquency is no big deal. Anyone with even minimally complex sources of income can make such a mistake and find himself obliged to pay interest and penalties. There is no reason to question the Clintons' assertion their failure to pay taxes on a $6,500 short-term capital gain was an honest oversight. And they have corrected the situation by paying $14,615 in taxes and interest.

Moreover, the tax returns released by the Clintons two weeks ago showed they had remarkably few deductions and paid a heavier tax bill than they might have with a more shrewd use of shelters that were available at the time.

But now comes this disclosure about the delinquency -- fortuitously revealed just as millions of Americans are filing their own tax returns. And most of them have much simpler tax situations -- income largely from a single employer and perhaps some interest. The notion of a delinquency that would cost them $14,615 sometime down the road is beyond the understanding of many.

The result is that Clinton's critics on the right have been handed new ammunition to support their thesis that the president and his wife are classic hypocrites who presented themselves as ordinary middle-class Americans when they were really part of the elite who profited in the decade of greed during the rule of Ronald Reagan.

They have been handed this ammunition at a time when both the evidence of opinion polls has been that voters are growing tired of the whole Whitewater controversy and want to see the government focused on the important issues of today rather than 15 years ago.

It has also become apparent that the preoccupation with the personal finances of the Clintons back in Arkansas has essentially nothing to do with Whitewater or the taxpayer-insured Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan and certainly nothing to do with the president's conduct in office.

Nor is there any apparent precedent for prying into the personal finances of a politician so far into the past. Even Richard Nixon, unquestionably the most investigated president of our time, was never the subject of such an inquiry into the details of his personal finances.

But whether or not the inquiries are legitimate, they are now a fact of life. And the way the president and his staff have handled them has contributed to the picture he projected during the 1992 campaign of a politician only grudgingly owning up to information that could be politically damaging. He was the one DTC who admitted he smoked marijuana only when he was asked precise question about whether he had done so abroad rather than within the United States. He was the one whose history of avoiding the draft was elicited in pieces over a period of months.

With that background, the dribs and drabs of information about the Clinton's financial history can be depicted as part of a pattern that encourages doubts about the president's credibility even among those who believe the whole Whitewater affair is overblown. There is little question those doubts would have been lessened if the Clintons had revealed whatever they had to reveal about their finances all at once.

Viewed as a matter of logic, the questions about the president's candor should have nothing to do with his success or failure in promulgating his domestic program. But selling something as radical and complex as health care reform obviously would be easier if Clinton had a deep reservoir of good will in the electorate on which he could draw.

The president may be justified in believing he is being held to a different standard than his predecessors on the question of his personal finances. He also may be justified in being angry about it. But the die is cast, and the sooner he deals with all the questions, the sooner he can get on with what he considers the critical agenda for the nation.

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