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Whitewater's Powerful Undertow : Clinton's Agenda May Be Imperiled

March 13, 1994|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

WASHINGTON — "I do not believe that the politics of personal destruction is what the American people are interested in," President Bill Clinton said at his news conference Tuesday. He's right. Unlike his institutional critics--the GOP and the press--most Americans give a sitting President the benefit of the doubt. They will continue to do so until they are confronted with irrefutable evidence of wrongdoing.

No such evidence has surfaced. So let's be fair to the President and give him the benefit of the doubt. Whitewater is not Watergate. Clinton, personally, may not be in any trouble. But one conclusion is inescapable: his agenda is.

Remember, the Administration has two tough issues at the top of its domestic agenda this year: health care and welfare reform. Plus the continuing struggle to reinvent government. Plus deteriorating situations in Russia, the Middle East and Bosnia. Plus the possibility of a trade war with Japan. And now Whitewater? They don't need the aggravation.

Whitewater creates collateral damage. It makes the White House--and by implication, the entire federal government--look foolish and incompetent. That's Clinton's defense, after all. As presidential adviser David R. Gergen put it Monday, "There was no cover-up. There was a screw-up."

The impression that the federal government screws everything up has been building for 30 years. The number of Americans who say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right--one in five--is already at an all-time low. That view has consequences. Anything that undermines trust in government undermines the Clinton agenda. Why? Because Clinton is out to prove that smart Democrats like him can do something a lot of people don't think is possible: Make government work.

To which critics reply, "Make government work? They can't make the White House work." The percentage of Americans who describe Clinton as an "effective manager" has dropped nine points since January, according to last week's CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll. Almost 60% of the public say that, when it comes to corruption, they see little difference between this Administration and previous Administrations over the last 25 years.

Whitewater is also taking a toll on White House morale. Just when the economic recovery was under way and the President started moving up in the polls--kaboom! Whitewater lands a blow upside the head. White House staffers are under orders not to empty burn bags and trash baskets until it is determined that the contents do not relate to Whitewater.

Then there's the diversion effect. "I'm trying to minimize how much time I have to spend on this," the President said. "This is not what I was hired to do." Maybe not, but in last week's poll, a majority of Americans said they considered Whitewater an important issue.

The problem is that the White House has only limited control over the Whitewater agenda. The special prosecutor has a lot more control--as he demonstrated on March 4, by issuing subpoenas to six high-level White House officials. The prospect of testifying before a grand jury concentrates the mind wonderfully. The White House quickly switched into full-cooperation mode.

Republicans and the press also have an agenda. And theirs, even more than the special prosecutor's, is in conflict with that of the White House.

For Republicans and the press, it's pay-back time. Republicans remember how congressional Democrats never lost an opportunity to embarrass Ronald Reagan and George Bush--Iran-Contra, Clarence Thomas, Edwin Meese III. The Democrats even held hearings to look into Neil Bush's financial affairs. So the Republicans are now threatening to hold up presidential appointments and turn Whitewater into a campaign issue unless the Democrats agree to hold public hearings.

There's an irony here. Back in January, Republicans were clamoring for Clinton to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Whitewater. But Monday, the special prosecutor warned that congressional hearings would "pose a severe risk to the integrity" of his investigation. Witnesses might offer "premature disclosures." They could demand immunity in return for their testimony. Oliver L. North got just such a congressional grant of immunity during the Iran-Contra hearings. That's why his conviction on criminal charges was ultimately set aside, enabling him to run for the U.S. Senate today.

Last week, it was the President--he who originally resisted appointing the special prosecutor--who said, "The whole idea was that we would lodge this inquiry in the special counsel so that the rest of us could go on with our business. The special counsel requested yesterday that (congressional) hearings not be held. I think that is a request entitled to respect."

It's pay-back time for the press, too. They couldn't get Clinton on Gennifer Flowers. Or the draft. Or drug use. Or even Whitewater, when it first came up in the 1992 campaign. Now, maybe they've got something on Clinton--and on his wife, too.

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