The lament of White House aides that no more than Republican politics is involved in the call for a special counsel to investigate the Clintons' involvement in the Whitewater real estate deal is a classic case of whose ox is being gored.
All through the Iran-contra investigations, the Republicans in power likewise dismissed as partisan politics the demand of the Democrats for an independent counsel. And while Iran-contra went directly to the matter of abuse of power in the presidency, the Whitewater case raises serious questions about possible abuse of a state governor's influence -- and possible cover-up from the White House.
The White House has said that all of the available papers of the Clintons relating to the case will be turned over to the Justice Department, where Attorney General Janet Reno has already assigned a new team of career investigators to review the matter, under investigation by federal savings-and-loan regulators for more than a year. But after having said the papers had already been submitted, the word now is that they must be properly catalogued first, a process that may take another couple of weeks.
The statute that authorized the independent counsel in the Iran-contra investigation is no longer on the books, in part due to the opposition of congressional Republicans. That fact, White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers says, proves that the Republicans' "motivations are clearly political" in calling for a special counsel to be appointed now by Reno -- the option that remains.
White House political adviser Paul Begala has labeled the call for a special counsel "a Republican witch hunt" born of the GOP's frustration over Clinton's election, his policies approved by Congress in 1993 and his "popularity" -- although the polls say the jury is still out on the latter.
Begala got into a verbal wrestling match on CNN the other day when Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the House Banking Committee who has been most vocal in pressing for a special counsel, denied Begala's charge of partisan motivation. Leach said the demand resulted from "a series of events the president has brought on himself." Then Leach added: "After all, the Republicans didn't bring about the suicide of a top presidential adviser."
Leach was referring to the death of White House lawyer Vince Foster, the close personal Arkansas friend of the Clintons who had been handling the Whitewater legal matters for them and from whose office certain Whitewater papers were taken by other White House aides upon news of his suicide last July.
Begala erupted: "I can't let go uncommented that you would try to politicize the tragic death of a talented public servant who took his own life in a great tragedy. To try to somehow use that to tar the president is beneath you and it's beneath your party."
Leach's remark was uncharacteristically insensitive from a moderate Republican who is widely regarded as among the most temperate and usually least partisan members of his party in Congress. The fact that it was Leach who was the point Republican in calling for a special counsel itself weakened the White House cry of sheer partisanship behind the demand -- one that has now been joined by such non-Republican voices as the Washington Post and New York Times.
It may well be that the Clintons have nothing to hide or fear from an independent review of the case. In it, a failing Arkansas savings and loan is accused of having received unwarranted favorable state consideration to remain in business, and of diverting depositors' funds to the 1984 Clinton gubernatorial campaign and to the Whitewater real estate enterprise, in which the Clintons had an interest.
But some pointed questions remain open, including why the Clintons, who have said they lost as much as $69,000 in the deal, never claimed the loss on their income tax returns and instead reported a $1,000 capital gain. If there is one lesson the Clinton White House should have learned from Watergate and Iran-contra, it is that letting it all hang out is the safest course. Perhaps that is what it intends to do. If so, balking at the appointment of a special counsel certainly sends the wrong signal.