Starr treks Whitewater: Independent counsel departing, focus shifting to campaign fund abuse.

February 19, 1997

WHITE HOUSE aides would be wise to temper their exultation over the decision of Whitewater counsel Kenneth Starr to step down this summer to take over a law school deanship on the West Coast. While there is little reason to quarrel with the widely held assumption that President and Mrs. Clinton will not be indicted for their financial dealings in Arkansas a decade ago, the exploding scandal over fund raising for his 1996 re-election campaign could be a lot more pertinent and a lot more damning.

But for the persistence of Mr. Starr, whose impartiality has been directly challenged by Mr. Clinton, the Whitewater probe might have gurgled away long ago in a miasma of Ozark politics. The case against the president is said to hang on the testimony of two convicted felons, David Hale and James McDougal, and what secrets Mr. McDougal's convicted ex-wife Susan refuses to divulge.

This is hardly in the category of paramount national interest, suggestions of presidential perjury notwithstanding. But what does affect the nation's vital interests are the revelations, emerging almost daily, of Clinton campaign fund-raising tactics that seem to range from the questionable to the illegal. What is potentially most damaging is the allegation that U.S. foreign policy was somehow fiddled to fit the wishes of big contributors, some of whom were given a chance to lobby the president.

Administration officials have adamantly denied that foreign policy decisions have been tainted by politics. But some of these officials were also purveying the myth that Vice President Al Gore did not know his visit to a Buddhist temple was a fund-raising affair when, in fact, the National Security Council had warned his office to be wary. Too many of Mr. Clinton's Asian-American supporters, or their patrons in China, Taiwan and Indonesia, appear to have had a personal stake in decisions affecting economic projects or policy directions.

Nothing that has emerged so far reaches even close to the abuse-of-power level associated with the Watergate scandal. But the instinct within the Clinton administration to stonewall, to mislead, to give ground grudgingly bit by bit as the press reports new examples of campaign abuse, is getting to be uncomfortably reminiscent of Nixonian coverup.

Let Mr. Clinton beware not so much of Kenneth Starr, who still could cause him plenty of grief, but of Sen. Fred Thompson, the intrepid prosecutor-actor from Tennessee who is issuing subpoenas for what could be spectacular hearings on the campaign funding scandals.

Pub Date: 2/19/97

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