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Clinton Takes a Bold Step to Sway Skeptics : Analysis: He makes a spirited defense of his actions in order to stem his eroding credibility.

March 25, 1994|JACK NELSON | TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON — President Clinton, his credibility beginning to sag under the weight of the Whitewater controversy, decided earlier this week that a rare full-dress press conference was his best chance to convince a skeptical public that he has nothing to hide--and that he is still moving forward on health care, crime and other issues close to voters' hearts.

And in 35 minutes of nationally televised give-and-take with reporters gathered at the White House, the President unleashed his considerable skills as a communicator to build a fire wall between himself and the apparent ethical shortcomings of his former business partners and many of his other associates during the years when Clinton was governor of Arkansas.

Whether that fire wall will hold, however, remains a question.

By asserting emphatically that he had nothing to do with managing the Whitewater real estate venture and knew nothing about any wrongdoing by his business partner, James B. McDougal, operator of the failed Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, Clinton has taken a position that requires his critics to prove not only that improper or illegal acts occurred but that he himself had guilty knowledge. That is a difficult standard--one that none of his Republican attackers have yet come close to meeting.

At the same time, the unqualified nature of Clinton's denials could magnify his vulnerability if hard evidence should emerge.

And, as other presidents using similar defenses have discovered, the public may come to its own conclusions if the evidence of misconduct and ethical lapses by those around Clinton becomes too voluminous.

For now, however, White House strategists believed that they had no choice but to take a bold step.

"Because of the steady drumbeat of daily Whitewater stories," declared a senior Clinton aide shortly before the press conference, "we haven't been able to break through to the national audience and convince them we are cooperating with the special counsel."

Clinton scheduled the press conference as new polls found the Whitewater controversy seriously eroding his popular support. A Times Mirror poll released Thursday showed that about two-thirds of Americans of all political stripes--73% of Republicans, 67% of Independents and 59% of Democrats--believe the Clintons are guilty of at least some wrongdoing. Only 15% believe they are guilty of serious offenses, while 52% said they think the Clintons are guilty of only minor offenses.

The survey, which a senior Clinton aide called stunning, also showed that 52% believe the White House has covered up information damaging to the Clintons.

The President insisted more than once that he has fully cooperated in the Whitewater investigation and said that he and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton are prepared to answer all questions posed by the special counsel, Robert B. Fiske Jr.

Already, Clinton declared, he has provided Fiske with tax returns and 14,000 documents and made available every Administration witness that the special counsel has sought. However, opinion polls show that continuing reports of alleged Whitewater improprieties and the President's efforts in the past to divert attention from the controversy have left a strong public impression of a cover-up that his assurances may have done little to dispel.

Clinton complained that the public has not been aware that he is cooperating fully. He seemed resigned to seeing Whitewater continue as a major controversy that he will have to confront while going "back to work doing what I was hired to do."

Rarely has a sitting President been questioned in a criminal investigation, but Clinton said that he would cooperate with Fiske "in whatever way he decides is appropriate." Administration sources suggested that Fiske would take a deposition from both Clintons.

Clinton, hoping to stabilize his shaken presidency, also insisted at his press conference that despite all the media attention, the controversy has not interfered with the Administration's pursuit of a heavy domestic and foreign agenda.

He suggested that, away from the media spotlight, it's business as usual for health care reform and other issues and that "our Administration is preoccupied with the business we were sent here to do for the American people."

Indeed, the White House has continued to work on health care and other major issues. But the Times Mirror poll, conducted March 16-21 among 2,001 adults, showed that 81% of Americans think the controversy is disrupting the government's effectiveness. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

And Clinton aides privately acknowledged that Whitewater has demoralized the President's staff, absorbed much of its time and energy and distracted it from work on health care reform and other major issues.

"It's not a happy place to be these days and it's not just political, it's personal," said one aide. "People are getting hurt and seeing their friends subpoenaed and put on the griddle."

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