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Fiske likely to unravel a big ball of nothing


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton probably spoke for millions of Americans when he complained the other day that the special investigation of Whitewater "is going to cost the taxpayers millions of dollars" before it is over.

On the face of it, the inquiry being run by independent counsel Robert B. Fiske Jr. looks like a case of swatting a fly with a sledgehammer. Fiske has convened a special grand jury in Little Rock for the next 18 months and is recruiting a platoon of lawyers and opening offices in New York and Washington as well as Little Rock.

But this case is not Watergate, which involved a sitting president breaking the law and then trying to cover it up. Nor is it the Iran-contra affair, which involved an executive branch defiance of the law and lying to Congress. Instead, the central question is whether Clinton as governor gave favored treatment to a troubled savings and loan in exchange for favored treatment in a real estate deal.

These days, however, nothing can be simple. The level of distrust in government among the voters is so extraordinary that anything other than an investigation that touches every possible base would be dismissed as a cover-up. Thus, Fiske must look into not just the real estate deal that involved the Clintons, but also the treatment given to the Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan and the suicide death of deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr., the longtime Clinton friend from Arkansas whose files included some materials on Whitewater.

All this obviously is going to take some time. As the president pointed out, Fiske has shut down the earlier grand jury looking at the savings and loan aspect of the case, and the new team now has to "go over all that ground."

Clinton, of course, is the one who ordered Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint a special counsel in the case. But the fact is that the clamor for an independent investigation was so loud there was no way the president could ignore it. "The reason I thought it was a good idea to do the special counsel was so I wouldn't have to fool with it anymore, and I'm not spending any time on it," the president told a group of reporters.

The expectation that the investigation will take forever is well founded in recent experience.

It has been more than a year, for example, since the special counsel was named to look into the relatively simple question of whether the White House and George Bush re-election managers ordered the pass port files of candidate Bill Clinton to be examined during the campaign of 1992 in search of politically damaging material.

Nor is this kind of timing peculiar to the executive branch. It also has been more than a year since the Senate Select Committee on Ethics began its investigation of whether Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon has been guilty of sexual misconduct in office.

In the Clinton case, there are potentially important political implications from the timetable for the case.

It now appears unlikely that the investigation will be completed rTC until sometime after the 1994 midterm congressional elections.

And that, in turn, means the Fiske report will come just as the opening maneuvering in the 1996 presidential campaign begins.

The widespread assumption in the political community is that there will be no evidence of Clinton having broken the law in the Whitewater case.

Even many of his Republican critics in Arkansas say they have never seen any reason to believe he was a politician trying to enrich himself. He was always more interested in politics than money.

But even lacking any suggestion of criminality, the investigation might find evidence that the young governor was allowed to join what appeared at the moment to be a sweetheart deal. That kind of thing happens with politicians in power all the time. In this case, nonetheless, such a finding would be political gold for Republicans trying to find an opening to exploit doubts about Clinton's personal conduct.

None of this may happen. The report may well exonerate the Clintons and find nothing unusual in the suicide of Vincent Foster. The campaign of 1996 probably will turn on the condition of the economy and the president's success or failure on issues such as health care reform.

But Clinton had no choice except to order the independent Whitewater investigation. And now it is going to have to run out its string, whatever the cost.

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