WASHINGTON -- For the White House, special prosecutor Robert Fiske's first report demonstrates that, as they sometimes say back in Arkansas, even an old blind sow will find an acorn once in a while.
On the face of it, Fiske's findings are unremarkable. There never was any sound reason to believe that Vincent Foster's death was anything but the tragic suicide it appeared to be. Nor was there any reason to believe that the contacts between White House officials and regulators involved in the Whitewater affair were criminal, even if they were inappropriate and world-class stupid.
But for President Clinton, the generally exculpatory report from Fiske is the first positive development since the whole Whitewater controversy erupted more than a year ago. It doesn't deal with the core issue of the relationship between the Clintons, Whitewater and the federally insured Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, but it does serve to throw some cold water on the most bizarre conspiracy theories about what happened to Foster and inside the White House.
The conspiracy nuts will not be satisfied, of course. There could be a dozen investigations and some of them will continue to insist that Foster was murdered because he "knew too much" about Whitewater or that he had been killed in some secret apartment in Virginia and his body moved to Fort Marcy Park to stage the suicide. The White House counsel, Lloyd Cutler, said the report should put to rest "irresponsible speculations" about "something more sinister" having happened, but that is a vain hope.
Moreover, the way the media operate these days, some of those nuts will be given ample opportunity to describe their theories for radio and television audiences. After all, we live in a society and a time in which many people doubt whether there was ever a Holocaust and will swear up and down that nobody ever landed on the moon.
On the issue of the more than 20 conversations between administration officials and regulators, Fiske found the "evidence insufficient" to warrant the conclusion they were acting as a "corrupting influence" on the process and thus subject to criminal prosecution. Fiske finessed the question of the propriety of the contacts, but Clinton himself already has conceded they should not have been made.
In political terms, the important thing is that Clinton now has independent judgment to support his insistence all along that there was nothing there worth investigating. That won't be enough for the extremists, or even for some Republicans in Congress licking their chops over the prospect of hearings in both the House and Senate later this month. But it does give the president's defenders ammunition of their own -- and from an independent counsel who is a highly respected Republican.
None of this suggests that Clinton is home free on Whitewater, not by a long shot. The principal questions -- whether he was given preferential treatment because he was governor of Arkansas and whether he interfered with the normal regulatory practices there -- won't be answered until Fiske completes his inquiries. That won't happen before sometime next year, which means after the midterm elections and just at the point at which everything will be seen through the prism of the 1996 presidential campaign.
The president also can expect to take some lumps, however partisan they may be, from the hearings in Congress on these initial phases of the Fiske investigation. The Republicans may claim they are only interested in the facts, but both sides know that what they are really after is political ammunition -- meaning in this instance a lot of attention from the television cameras that may have wearied of the O. J. Simpson story by that point.
But Clinton has been taking his lumps all through the spring and early summer -- on Whitewater, on foreign policy, on health care reform. The latest opinion polls show his approval rating has dropped under 50 percent. The election outlook is grim. Other Democrats are trying to put a little distance between themselves and their president.
So the Fiske report, predictable though it may have been, is good news for a president who has been finding that commodity extremely rare these days.