WASHINGTON -- The morning after the latest story broke about the investigation of Dan Rostenkowski, President Clinton made a point of having his picture taken side by side with the embattled chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Considering that Clinton has presented himself as the champion of ethical purity in Washington, this would seem to be dumb politics. On the contrary, however, it was smart politics. And that home truth, in turn, speaks volumes about how convoluted the politics of the Rostenkowski case can be.
The president's willingness to show the flag was the preferred option of two bad ones. If he had avoided that picture, Clinton would have been accused in the political community of cravenly caving in to public pressure. Instead, he sent a message of party loyalty to Democrats in Congress from whom he is asking similar loyalty.
More to the point, however, Clinton demonstrated that whatever his legal exposure at the moment, Rostenkowski is essential to him on his first priority -- getting an agreement on the economic plan before Congress leaves for vacation two weeks from now. That is the kind of political pragmatism most admired here.
The same spirit of rallying around Rostenkowski was evident when the House voted 244-183, with only 11 Democratic defections, to keep a lid on the records of its own investigation of the House post office. The chairman of Ways and Means may be in deep trouble, but the operative fact is that he is still the chairman of Ways and Means, and don't you forget it.
This is, of course, just the kind of attitude in Congress that has incited such widespread condemnation from voters who see the powerful there as arrogant and unresponsive. And these are voters not inclined to quibble over whether Rostenkowski actually has been formally accused of anything beyond playing golf on the tab of some lobbyists.
But both Clinton and House leaders are going to have to face the issue more squarely somewhere down the road. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the Republicans have the bit in their teeth and fully intend to run with the issue all the way to the finish line. The potential rewards are enormous.
One prime target will be those Ross Perot voters. When the Democratic Leadership Council commissioned a detailed study of such voters, one central finding was that they were far more concerned about the arrogance, ineffectuality and corruption of Congress than about such issues as the deficit and taxes.
As is so often the case in politics, the timing of the Rostenkowski saga is what matters most, both to the president and to his party. If Rostenkowski is indicted, House rules require him to surrender his chairmanship pending the outcome of his case. That is clearly unlikely to happen in time to affect the bargaining on the economic plan in the next 10 days, but it could mean a different chairman by the time the House begins to consider such other Clinton priorities as health care reform and the North American Free Trade Agreement, both issues that would go through Ways and Means.
On the other hand, prosecutors often proceed at a measured pace, and some politicians here have visions of the worst possible scenario for the president and Democrats in the House -- a long delay that would leave Rostenkowski in place while leaks to the press about the case against him and the chorus of condemnation from the Republicans continue unabated.
That would mean a president forced to pose for many more such pictures while the electorate seethes, and it would mean Democratic incumbents forced to run for re-election with the added burden of appearing unresponsive to public demand. At the moment, the odds are heavily against the Republicans winning the House next year, but the first rule of politics is never say never.
The obvious solution would be for the Democratic leaders of the House to ask Rostenkowski to step aside as chairman until the situation is resolved. But Rosty is one of the boys, and no one wants to be in the position of prejudging his guilt or innocence.
Such a prejudgment is what the president sought to avoid the other day.
Rosty was helping on the plan and, Clinton said as the cameras clicked, he didn't "know anything about the rest of it." The voters may not be so judicious, however.