Boston -- WHEN ROBERT B. Fiske Jr., the independent counsel on Whitewater, reported that there was nothing to the horror stories about the death of Vincent Foster, that Foster had indeed committed suicide, I expected that those who had spread the stories would be called to account.
The Rev. Pat Robertson, for example, the leader of the Christian coalition, had luridly suggested that Foster, deputy White House counsel, was murdered and the crime covered up by the Clinton administration.
Rush Limbaugh, the talk-show host, broadcast a report that Foster died in an administration "safe house" and his body was then spirited to the park where it was found.
After the Fiske report did Mr. Robertson or Mr. Limbaugh apologize for having spread ugly fantasies? Not that I know of. Nor, to my knowledge, did others who had spread such theories about Foster.
More important, did the press hold the spreaders of dirt to account? Did reporters telephone Pat Robertson or Rush Limbaugh and ask whether they would now withdraw their charges? Not to my knowledge.
The point is not a narrow one. For this episode is indicative of inadequate press attention to a real center of power in this country, the talk-show hosts and political preachers who carry their right-wing assaults on President Clinton so far that they breed a corrupting cynicism about the very idea of government.
That is Mr. Limbaugh's game: to throw dirt on government and anyone who believes that society needs government. In his hateful talk about President Clinton and others in office, he is really trying to destroy public faith in our institutions. And so are the others like him.
The essentially anarchist nature of the right-wing talkers was inadvertently confirmed the other day in an article defending them. It was a piece on the New York Times Op-Ed page by Michael Harrison, editor of the magazine Talkers.
"We are hearing the infant voice of a movement that is disgusted with the kind of president the system continues to serve up," Mr. Harrison wrote. Down with the system.
"The voice of talk radio . . . wants to put an end to ruling-class aristocracy." Aristocracy like the son of a poor Arkansas widow.
The right-wing voices have made significant headway in their campaign to destroy Mr. Clinton. Andthose who survey public opinion are startled, these days, by the extent to which the larger effort to turn Americans against the whole idea of government has succeeded. A dangerous cynicism is spreading.
The U.S. press regards it as a vital function to scrutinize power, question it, hold it accountable. That is its proper explanation for giving the White House a hard time.
But power does not reside only in the White House or government anymore. Those who seek to destroy faith in the political system have considerable power now. Indeed, it is especially important to watch, and hold accountable, those who seek power without responsibility.
Recent events do not give us much confidence that the press will do the job. For even some respectable press institutions have played the game of savaging the Clinton White House and then failing to admit their mistakes.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page made Foster a target in 1993 as a way of smearing Mr. Clinton. When it could not get a photograph of Foster, it took out its petty revenge in an editorial entitled "Who is Vincent Foster?" There were two further nasty references to him before he committed suicide -- leaving a note that mentioned his distress at the Journal editorials.
After the Fiske report the Journal wrote in its own defense that "depression is a disease," not caused by press criticism. True. But depression might conceivably be intensified by cruel, irresponsible attacks. And in any event an honorable editor might express regret at having printed mean-minded attacks on someone who turned out to have been ill.
Anthony Lewis is a syndicated columnist.