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Gergen Fears Whitewater Could Derail Clinton Agenda : Presidency: In an interview, he says new 'full disclosure' strategy is helping. He lashes out at 'Clinton haters,' capital's 'overheated atmosphere.'

March 18, 1994|JACK NELSON | TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON — Presidential Counselor David Gergen expressed serious concern Thursday that the continuing Whitewater controversy could undermine President Clinton's ability to carry out his domestic agenda--including health care.

But he said that a new White House strategy emphasizing "full disclosure" has finally enabled the White House to turn "a significant page" in its efforts to keep controversy over the failed Arkansas land deal from shifting the focus away from health care reform and other issues.

For months, the Clintons had turned aside many Whitewater questions, declaring that they had done nothing wrong and did not need to discuss the matter. More recently, under pressure from Republicans and jarred by repeated press disclosures, the President shifted his approach.

He supported the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the controversy, endorsed a new White House memo forbidding any unauthorized contacts between officials and regulators looking into the matter and promised full cooperation with the special counsel and any congressional hearing that may occur.

Clinton and the First Lady also began to give interviews and conduct lengthy press conferences to field questions about their involvement in the development and their handling of it so far.

Gergen, discussing Whitewater during a breakfast session with the Times Washington Bureau, emphasized the need for the White House to be open about Whitewater. But at the same time, he lashed out at "Clinton haters" and an "overheated atmosphere" in Washington in which political enemies circulate false rumors.

Gergen said one of the things that the White House has been trying to combat is "an element of Clinton haters out there who have been trying to stir up things and make trouble for a very long period of time. Some of that started before he became President."

Such attitudes have caused serious concern among prominent Democrats, including Robert S. Strauss, former party chairman. Strauss recently said that he believes disdain for the Clintons has been even more intense than the well-known enmity that extremists aimed at President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, more than half a century ago.

Gergen suggested that, in today's modern political arena, people like Clinton who are "charismatic on television stir people up more." The vehemence of some of Clinton's critics, he said, reflects in part a historical pattern of presidents arousing intense hatred--even violence--when they advocate the kind of sweeping changes that Clinton has proposed.

"I don't think it's totally coincidental that the two (recent) presidents who have been shot--(John F.) Kennedy and then (Ronald) Reagan--were both charismatic figures on television," he said. "I think that they somehow draw people out in a different way. . . . And people have been out in Arkansas to 'get' Bill Clinton for a long, long time, and we all know that."

Gergen, a former Reagan aide who served as an aide to President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, rejected GOP comparisons of Whitewater with Watergate. He pointed out that so far there have been no charges of wrongdoing in the Whitewater controversy, whereas in Watergate numerous laws were violated, and there were abuses of the FBI, the CIA and the IRS after Nixon's Committee for the Reelection of the President burglarized and placed electronic eavesdropping devices in Democratic Party offices in 1972.

Watergate, said Gergen, who was not involved in the scandal, "was a very traumatic period in the lives of a lot of us there, and we made some egregious mistakes, as you all know, some of which involved the use of institutions in violation of the law." In Whitewater, he said, there has been "no credible allegation of wrongdoing."

Gergen said that, until the Whitewater controversy flared, the White House had hoped for the kind of bipartisanship that helped win passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement to provide a foundation for action this year on the crime bill. And the House's handling of that legislation, he said, will be the first real test of whether the two parties can work together on important issues in the current political climate.

He said he senses a deep-seated feeling across the country that it is "time to put aside a lot of the partisan bickering" that has been "paralyzing us as a city, as a society."

And he cited Los Angeles and its Republican mayor, Richard Riordan, as an example of a city where people have rejected partisanship in their efforts to deal with major problems.

"Mayor Riordan indicates that people are not anxious . . . to let the partisanship get in the way of trying to get some things done," Gergen said. "That's a good example of the new kind of politics people want to practice."

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