These days are not merry and bright in Washington

December 23, 1996|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- It may be Christmas, but this is a season of discontent in the nation's capital. The air is full of menace.

Downtown, the Justice Department is issuing subpoenas to the White House and the Democratic National Committee in the first stages of an investigation of fund-raising for the 1996 campaign and the legal expenses of President Clinton.

Downtown, the city waits to see what will come from special prosecutor Kenneth Starr's investigation of Whitewater that has saddled Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton with more than $2 million in legal fees.

On Capitol Hill, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is facing a serious question about whether he has given false information to the House Ethics Committee. There is the unseemly picture of a Gingrich ally trying to put the blame for an ''erroneous statement'' on a highly regarded Republican lawyer, Jan Baran, who now has stepped aside as the speaker's lawyer.

The leaders of both political parties could be seriously compromised in their ability to lead over the next two to four years. Speculation among the political players centers on whether either or both might be forced from office.

Meanwhile, President Clinton is patching together a Cabinet for his second term by trying to balance competing claims of Democratic constituency groups with obvious ploys. If Federico Pena was not good enough for another term as secretary of transportation, why has he been chosen for secretary of energy? Would it have happened if there had not been such a hot reaction among Hispanic leaders to the prospect of Hispanic-Americans losing one of their places in the administration hierarchy? Of course not.

The whole messy picture is the kind of thing that makes Americans so disgusted with politics that they pay little or no attention to their government or elections -- as was demonstrated so clearly in the 48.4 percent turnout in the election last month, the lowest since 1924.

At the outset, the investigation of Speaker Gingrich was focused on a complex and arcane question of the legality of financing for a college course he taught. Conventional wisdom held that even Mr. Gingrich had misused political funds, the transgression would be seen as largely technical and not threaten his position as speaker.

Did he lie under oath?

But last fall the committee voted to investigate whether Mr. Gingrich had provided ''accurate, reliable and full information'' to the committee -- or, put more directly, whether he had lied under oath in replying to the committee. That is a far more serious matter and much easier for laymen to understand.

Now Mr. Gingrich seems to be saying through surrogates that his lawyer mishandled the reply to the committee. The matter eventually is likely to become the topic of House hearings, and effectively paralyze the Congress while the speaker's fate is up in the air.

President Clinton also seemed insulated from direct harm in the first disclosures about the fund-raising of the Democratic National Committee. He clearly was aware that huge amounts of FTC so-called soft money were being raised for his campaign, but there was no reason to believe, first, that he was aware of particular illicit contributions or, second, that any of the contributors gained anything as a result.

But now there are almost daily disclosures about how his old friend from Little Rock, Charles Yah Lin Trie, used his position as a significant money-raiser to get himself and his friends into the White House, even after it had been determined that he was involved in contributions to both the party and the legal fund that had to be returned.

None of these disclosures amounts to a smoking gun, but they raise enough questions that there is certain to be new pressure on Attorney General Janet Reno to change her mind and seek an independent counsel to examine the fund-raising controversy.

The history of stories such as these is that they take a lot longer than we expect to play themselves out -- and that they leave a lot of bodies on the field. That is why the air here is full of menace this Christmas.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 12/23/96

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