WASHINGTON -- Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, the Republican who is most vocal in calling for a special counsel to investigate Bill and Hillary Clinton's Arkansas land investments, seems an unlikely type to be going after the scalp of a president. Indeed, he denies emphatically that he has any such intent.
Leach, the ranking Republican on the House Banking Committee, is about as far removed from the stereotype of a vindictive right-wing fanatic -- as the White House tries to cast those who want a special counsel -- as is his fellow Iowan and unvarnished Democratic liberal, Sen. Tom Harkin.
Leach is, in fact, one of the last old moderate Republicans of the Nelson Rockefeller stripe with a personal moderation of manner to boot.
He is a founder of a group of fellow moderates known as the Republican Mainstream Committee, whose membership could almost be stuffed into a phone booth and hardly represents the mainstream of a party that has gone the way of Ronald Reagan.
Leach has been a longtime supporter of George Bush, and, although he clearly was disappointed at Bush's defeat at Clinton's hands in 1992, he insists that it is distinctly not his intention to topple the new president.
He says he just wants to hold him publicly accountable for misuse of gubernatorial power in the Whitewater Development Co. if the facts warrant it, as he believes they probably do.
He says a "time bomb" of sorts is ticking regarding the applicable statute of limitations. One of three years for charges of negligence has already passed, and a second of five years for willful misconduct will expire in two months. That leaves only a 10-year statute of limitations on criminal conduct.
"I've not called for this and have argued that a criminal procedure is not appropriate," Leach says. With such action, he says, Clinton "would face the most awesome word in American politics, impeachment, which I have not supported . . . because it would hamstring the government for more than a small length of time."
He somewhat jestingly does refer to the case as "Whitewatergate" but acknowledges that nothing so immense as Richard M. Nixon's crimes against the Constitution seem to be involved here.
However, he says, the evidence is strong that Clinton as governor benefited financially, both for his 1984 gubernatorial campaign and person ally as a part owner of the Whitewater Development Co. to which the failed Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan allegedly fed depositors' money.
"One clear distinction is that Watergate had abuse of the public trust by a president in office," Leach says, "while this is possible abuse by a president prior to taking office."
But in deciding to turn over to Clinton's own Justice Department and not make public pertinent papers found in the office of White House lawyer Vince Foster after his mysterious suicide in July, the congressman says, Clinton in effect is "using the department as a shield."
Leach observes that most of any material regarding the case that could be seriously damaging or embarrassing to the president is probably "long since lost in Arkansas."
At first it was his understanding that all Foster had was a "file," but the White House is now creating the image of something much bigger, he says, by talking about voluminous papers that need to be cataloged prior to being turned over to Justice.
"The White House has whetted the public appetite for this material," he says, "but quite possibly it's not very serious."
Nevertheless, he says, the principle that presidents are accountable must be sustained by taking some civil action against Clinton if the facts warrant, such as fining his 1984 campaign committee or the president himself.
"If there is shown to be wrongdoing," Leach says, "there ought to be civil penalties and get on with it," as in most cases of white-collar crime.
"President-toppling is uncalled for in this case," Leach repeats.
There have been many other examples of wrongdoing by presidents before they entered the White House "of far greater jTC magnitude than this," he says, but if there has been wrongdoing here some "symbolic" action should be taken to underscore that no one -- and especially the president -- is above the law.