On Whitewater, D'Amato holds Clintons' feet to fire


WASHINGTON -- At a recent luncheon meeting of the 44 Republican senators, Bob Dole, the Senate minority leader, presented Alfonse M. D'Amato with a bottle of Whitewater cologne.

Mr. Dole's gag gift prompted hearty applause and cheers. The brash and combative senator from New York has helped escalate the complex business of the Clintons' involvement with the failed Whitewater land deal into an issue with potentially disastrous implications for the Democrats.

Mr. D'Amato's high-pitched reminders on the Senate floor, day after day, have kept the issue alive. His questioning of administration witnesses at a Senate hearing yielded information that resulted in a flurry of grand jury subpoenas to Clinton aides. It was Mr. D'Amato who got Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman to acknowledge that he had briefed White House officials about an investigation related to the Whitewater case.

Although some of Mr. D'Amato's fellow Republicans are squeamish about the senator's own history of questionable ethics, they are delighted with the results of his efforts.

"Whitewater was kind of fizzling out, but D'Amato really got it going," said William J. Feltus, staff director for the Senate Republican conference.

For Mr. D'Amato, described by Democrats during his 1992 re-election race as "the most investigated U.S. senator in the history of this country," this is a battle of personal revenge.

"I'm not going to be taken off to the side" and distracted by attacks on his own history, the senator says. "That's exactly what their strategy is. They've played this the wrong way with me."

The Republicans, who were humiliated during the Watergate and Iran-contra scandals, are determined to see that turnabout is fair play. As the party out of power, they have the responsibility to keep the White House honest -- and the right to revel in the joy of doing so.

"Of course there's politics involved, Mr. D'Amato acknowledged yesterday at a breakfast meeting with reporters. "That is the process of governance under which we live. For me to say there would be no politics and no political motivation would be silly. But we have an undertaking and a calling."

Few are more eager to answer that calling than Mr. D'Amato, who has been dogged by allegations of corruption since his days as a local official on Long Island in the 1970s. Those accusations culminated with an official slap by the Senate Ethics Committee in 1991, when Mr. D'Amato's colleagues rebuked him for running his office in "an inappropriate and improper manner."

The committee concluded that Mr. D'Amato had allowed his brother, Armand, to use the senator's office and stationery while acting as a lobbyist for a defense contractor. In November, Armand D'Amato was sentenced to five months in jail for mail fraud.

Under attack

In distress, the Democrats are reminding Americans of those findings. It is a defense that Mr. D'Amato calls attacking "the messenger."

"Being attacked on ethics by Al D'Amato is like being called ugly by a frog," David Wilhelm, the Democratic Party chief, declared last weekend in a speech to the Democratic National Committee.

Mr. D'Amato makes such an easy target for the Democrats that Republicans were relieved when he was joined at a recent meeting with the Whitewater special prosecutor, Robert B. Fiske Jr., by Sen. William S. Cohen, a Maine Republican. Mr. Cohen, a veteran of both the Watergate and Iran-contra hearings, is respected as squeaky-clean by senators on both sides of the aisle.

"D'Amato is very much a street fighter -- that doesn't always make people feel comfortable around here," said a top aide to another Republican senator. "I think a lot of his colleagues feel more comfortable with Bill Cohen at his side."

Keen instincts

Mr. D'Amato is admired by his fellow Republicans for keen political instincts. He personifies the metamorphosis of urban ethnics into suburban conservatives who retain their streetwise edge.

Last year, he seized on Senator Dole's characterization of Mr. Clinton's economic program as a "Taxasaurus." Mr. D'Amato had his staff create a monster-like creature, and then he came to the Senate floor and slew the creature with a giant pencil. That got a spot on network news.

His daily reminders in January and February that the statute of limitations was running out on offenses related to the Whitewater case featured a giant calendar. The Senate extended the deadline.

"There's a general feeling of admiration for his willingness to take this one," said David Beckwith, press secretary to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican. "The multifaceted nature and many strands of this require someone who is able to react quickly. Not every senator is as nimble as he is."

In the House, the Republican charge on Whitewater has been led by the ranking Republican on the Banking Committee, Jim Leach of Iowa, a bookish lawmaker.

Vulnerable to questions

While Mr. D'Amato's own ethics record is troublesome, he is hardly alone in the Senate. Among Republicans and Democrats are many who have been tarred by allegations of financial, sexual or other missteps.

But because of his urgings for full public disclosure by the Clintons, Senator D'Amato is vulnerable to questions about why he has never allowed the records of his own case before the Senate Ethics Committee to be opened.

"I think it's just a total diversion, to say, 'Senator why don't you make these available?' " he said. "That's not the issue. Then you would say that anybody who's ever had any matter before the Ethics Committee should no longer ever be permitted to raise any question about government conduct until or unless he is willing to have all the questions that have ever been asked of him and their answers put on the record."

In any case, Mr. D'Amato says, his mother approves of what he is doing. Sort of.

"She went to the beauty shop the other day, and they were all talking about [Whitewater]," he reported. "She felt there would be hearings."

But Mrs. D'Amato also advised her son to back off.

"She said: 'You're always doing these things. Why don't you take it easy for awhile? You just got elected. Enjoy yourself.' " He is.

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