Double-talk and double-think D.C. politics: Of independent counsels, Whitewater sentences and document dumps.

April 16, 1997

POLITICS SPAWNS perversity. Nowhere on the Washington scene is this more apparent than in Attorney General Janet Reno's refusal to appoint an independent counsel to investigate fund-raising irregularities of the Clinton-Gore campaign.

Republicans are screaming so loudly they miss the point that Ms. Reno's decision plays right into their hand. And the White House, seeking comfort wherever it can be found, fails to see that the attorney general has put the Democrats in a tight box.

Consider: By insisting that prosecutors in the Justice Department are quite capable of handling what has become a very large probe, the attorney general is virtually committed to come up with evidence damaging to her own administration. Her reputation is at stake.

Consider: By avoiding the inhibitions on congressional hearings the appointment of an independent counsel would bring, Republican legislators can investigate with less fear of disrupting a future prosecution. The stage is set for some high-stakes entertainment.

One of the ironies in this situation is that Ms. Reno was so lenient in dumping four administration scandals into the hands of independent counsels that she succeeded in discrediting an already questionable process.

Kenneth Starr's interminable pursuit of Arkansas skulduggery in the Whitewater land deals, plus his abortive attempt to retreat to academe, has done little to make the case for going outside Justice Department channels. Yet Republicans find themselves championing a procedure initiated to nail Watergate figures.

Monday was a banner day for Potomac politics. First was Mr. Starr's plea for a light sentence and freedom-during-appeal for Whitewater entrepreneur James B. McDougal, now a witness who has turned against the Clintons. Second was Ms. Reno's refusal to name an independent counsel. And third was the White House attempt to smother such unpleasant news through a "document dump" of 10,000 pages revealing some, but hardly all, of the secrets of a campaign gone haywire.

What lies ahead is so steeped in partisanship that we are forced to conclude (1) that Ms. Reno would have done herself and the president a favor by naming an independent counsel and (2) that such a decision would have put constraints they really don't want on Republican probers on Capitol Hill.

Pub Date: 4/16/97

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