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A Matter of Honesty: Bill Clinton and Whitewater

July 17, 1994|Carl Bernstein | Carl Bernstein, co-author of "All the President's Men," is author, more recently, of "Loyalties: A Son's Memoir." He is now working on a book about Pope John Paul II

ROME — If anyone doubts that self-interest, not the national interest, is the coin of the realm in Washington, Whitewater is ample confirmation. It is the inevitable culmination of a quarter-century of hypocrisy, lying and posturing by Presidents, press and partisan hacks alike. This time, the result may be tragic: to take a seemingly insignificant series of questions that should have been settled in the 1992 campaign--and turn them into the diminution and possible ruin of the first presidency in a generation to deal seriously with the nation's problems.

On Whitewater, I have read far too much and learned far too little from the effort. But failing a whole new conspiracy unearthed by the special prosecutor or Congress or the press, Whitewater is not Watergate--or anything like it.

Bill Clinton hasn't abused his presiden- tial authority, as Richard M. Nixon--or even Ronald Reagan--did. He has not promulgated illegal, unconstitutional schemes to bring about desired political goals, judging from the facts thus far revealed. But the distinction may be meaningless in today's atmosphere of rabid partisanship and media stampede.

The most significant fact known about Whitewater to date is that it occurred 15 years ago. Clinton, as President, is being prosecuted for his ethical standards as governor. Moreover, he is being judged wanting by members of a congressional political class who, in many cases, fed at the same statehouse troughs that he apparently fattened at and who, according to PAC reports, have continued their bottom-feeding on the Potomac.

But it is Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton's own lack of candor that has ensured this sordid story is going to go on, and on. Congressional hearings begin on July 26; the special prosecutor will be at work for at least another year. The Clintons' truth trimming has guaranteed that the press and Congress will continue down predictable paths--reducing the whole sorry business to a high-stakes game of liar's poker, where only the Clintons can lose. They are heading toward a credibility problem that, in today's talk-show nation, could achieve Nixonian and Johnsonian proportions. Worse, unlike Reagan, who had his own troubles with the truth, Clinton is now perceived as a less-than-strong leader.

This is something quite apart from obstruction of justice, as practiced by Nixon and documented on his tapes, or the Iran-Contra cover-up. George Stephanopoulus sounding off at the Treasury Department about the appointment of an official investigator who is an acknowledged political opponent of the President would seem, under the circumstances, reasonable. And, indeed, the special prosecutor reported June 30 that White House aides had not acted illegally in their contacts with investigators.

If Clinton has conspired with his aides to lie to grand juries or pay off colleagues for their silence ("I don't give a shit what you do. Lie, stonewall, whatever you have to do to get past the grand jury," Nixon said into his microphones), the press has uncovered no shred of evidence.

But the Clintons and this presidency have a special burden. Unlike Nixon, the Clintons came to Washington riding the engine of political reform and change. Indeed, they have brought substantive change to the swamp of inertia and indifference that is Washington.

But it is impossible to accomplish genuine political reform while practicing the same old tricks without bringing new values--some might say spiritual or moral values--to Washington. That was the promise of this Administration, that the breeze of truth--about our politics, our national condition, ourselves--would blow through the denial and pathology about America's difficulties. The "new politics" would be reality-based.

For that to happen, our President could not be a part-time truth teller. He had to break the pattern of deception that for a generation has informed what passes for political debate in Washington: a pattern in which posture passes for principle, process is valued more highly than policy and the most urgent national business goes untended.

Thus, for the Clinton presidency to succeed on the terms it aspired to office--honesty about our problems and the means available for their solution, beginning with the country's economic health--a new pattern of presidential candor had to be established, especially after Lyndon B. Johnson's falsehoods on Vietnam, Nixon's on Watergate, Reagan and George Bush's disingenuousness on Iran-Contra and the arming of Iraq.

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