Whitewater probe -- a sorry spectacle Senate failure: Politics makes a mockery of any search for truth.

June 20, 1996

HARRY TRUMAN said it well: "In my opinion, the power of investigation is one of the most important powers of Congress. The manner in which that power is exercised will largely determine the position and prestige of the Congress."

The conduct of both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Whitewater Committee has severely damaged "the position and prestige of the Congress." Its dismal record reflects the degree to which the entire Washington Establishment and the Congress in particular have been so politicized that any objective search for truth falls by the wayside.

Just two decades ago, Congress covered itself with honor in the Watergate investigations that led to the ouster of President Richard Nixon. "What was unique about the crisis of 1973-74 was how very much it was divorced from conventional politics," Theodore H. White wrote. "The Democratic Party did not attack, the Republicans Party did not defend."

What proved decisive was the refusal of key Republicans to defend the illegalities of the Nixon White House. GOP Sen. Howard Baker's: "What did the president know and when did he know it?" became a national mantra.

Again in the Iran-contra scandal that erupted in 1987, a bipartisan majority was able to form. It found that President Ronald Reagan, while ostensibly not personally involved in wrongdoing, bore ultimate responsibility for allowing foreign policy to fall in the hands of a "cabal of zealots." GOP Sens. Warren Rudman, William Cohen and Paul Trimble followed in the great Watergate tradition by criticizing a president of their own party.

No such independence was shown by any senator in the Whitewater probe. None dared to break party ranks. Democrats belittled government witnesses who had no ax to grind. Republicans sought the darkest explanations for the actions of White House figures.

Because the Senate committee failed utterly to provide leadership for the American public, it is left to the courts and to history to determine, if possible, whether the Clinton White House abused its powers or obstructed justice.

All this reflects badly on the credibility of Congress, an institution wallowing at record lows in public approval. The primary duty of a legislature is to pass laws, enact budgets and assist the executive in defending national security. But since 1792, Congress has fulfilled an investigative function that, as President Truman observed, has become one of its "most important powers." Some of these investigations have reflected well on the Congress, some badly. The Whitewater probe unquestionably belongs in the latter category.

Pub Date: 6/20/96

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