WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton was agonizing over keeping Attorney General Janet Reno into his second term, it was widely speculated that her best job insurance was her refusal to seek an independent counsel to look into his 1996 re-election campaign fund-raising excesses.
Because such an appointment requires by statute alleged criminal wrongdoing by a high-ranking official and specific and credible information supporting the charge, the Justice Department steadfastly contended that grounds did not exist to take that step.
It's hard now to hold to that line of argument, in light of White House documents showing Mr. Clinton's personal involvement in handing out White House perks to political high rollers.
The president says flatly that ''the Lincoln bedroom was never sold.'' He's right; it was only rented out, at astonishing nightly rates that would put New York's most posh hotels to shame. Mr. Clinton's handwritten notation on a memo from chief fund-raiser Terry McAuliffe that he was ''ready to start overnights right away'' and his order to ''get other names'' of $50,000 and $100,000 donors ought to be more than enough basis for Ms. Reno to act with no further delay.
The defense by Mr. Clinton and White House aides is both brazen and pathetic. His alibi that he was merely trying to stroke old 1992 supporters who ''thought they had gotten estranged'' rather than trying to coax more big bucks from them is ludicrous on its face.
And the depth to which this White House is willing to stoop is the comment of aide Ann Lewis that one college friend of Mr. Clinton's was invited to an overnight because he was ''dying of cancer.'' If that was true, fine, but using the fact in this political context? Pathetic.
After months of stonewalling, the White House obviously has released these documents in the hope of minimizing the damage. Former White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes had already turned them over to House investigators. But their release removes any defensible reason for Ms. Reno to balk at asking for an independent prosecutor.
It also shatters the fiction that the Democratic National Committee was acting as a separate entity from the White House in raising millions of dollars in ''soft'' money not limited by federal law, ostensibly to be used for voter turnout, issue discussion and other non-candidate-related activities.
Who owns the White House?
In insisting that his overnight guests were good folks who were doing nothing illegal in contributing to the Democratic Party, President Clinton, was, as is his penchant, dodging the real issue. It is illegal to raise political money on federal property, which the White House still is.
The president and his alibi-artists like to point out that the Republicans have almost always raised more campaign money than the Democrats, and to argue that they have simply been obliged to try to stay up with them. It's true that Republican congressional leaders routinely give special access to GOP fat-cats, but they don't do it in the White House. No evidence has come to light yet that use of White House overnight stays and invitations to coffees, breakfasts, lunches and dinners were ever dispatched on this scale by previous Republican presidents.
In the Democratic fund-raising, the dark shadow of former Clinton political strategist Dick Morris was a constant motivator. According to his book, ''Behind the Oval Office,'' he pressed for a hugely expensive, very early television advertising campaign after the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress.
From early July 1995, he wrote, until election day ''we bombarded the public with [television] ads . . . that reached 125 million Americans three times a week in key states . . . [and] created the first fully advertised presidency in U.S. history'' at an astounding cost of $85 million, twice what the Democrats had spent in 1992.
It was this huge appetite for campaign funds that Mr. Clinton was feeding with his use of the White House as a lure -- a use that now more than ever demands that Ms. Reno call for appointment of a special prosecutor.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 2/28/97