WHEN THE Senate Banking Committee begins its...


WHEN THE Senate Banking Committee begins its Whitewater hearings tomorrow, the "Stealth senator" will be visible on national TV.

He'll be the guy sitting next to the chairman on the Democratic side of the table. He's No. 2 ranking Democrat on the committee. Next year he'll be No. 1, and, if the Democrats retain control of the Senate, chairman of Banking.

Some Democrats wish he were chairman now. He's not only stealthy but healthy, ethically speaking. The Democrats want to bury this Whitewater stuff, get it off the tube, out of the newspapers. It would look better if a squeaky-clean Chairman Sarbanes were seen in charge of doing the deed instead of the current chairman, Sen. Don Riegle Jr. of Michigan.

Riegle, 56, is taking early retirement from the Senate this year because he was "besmirched" (as the "Almanac of American Politics" put it) by his dealings with and on behalf of Charles Keating, the most notorious of the S&L; sleazos.

Sarbanes and Riegle were elected to the Senate the same year -- 1976. But Riegle is senior. He was sworn in on Dec. 26 that year, after the incumbent senator died. Sarbanes was sworn in when the new Congress convened on Jan. 4, 1977.

Actually, Riegle would have been senior to Sarbanes anyway. Riegle served in the House of Representatives longer than Sarbanes, and in the case of ties, Senate seniority is based on things like that.

What's a "stealth senator"? It's a senator that no one ever sees or hears. Like the bomber that radar can't pick up. Sarbanes got tagged with that moniker by Lawrence Hogan, his Republican opponent in 1982, when he ran for re-election to the Senate the first time. Then as now Sarbanes kept a low profile.

But not as low as some senators. Professor Richard McKenzie of the University of California studied 108 U.S. newspapers from Jan. 1, 1993 through April 8, 1994. These are major national and regional papers (including The Sun) whose contents are computerized for easy searching in DataTimes Information Network. He counted the number of times every senator's name appeared.

Sarbanes' did 1,517 times. That's fewer than Barbara Mikulski (2,208) and far fewer than George Mitchell, the least stealthy Democrat (11,741), and far, far, far fewer than the overall champ, Bob Dole (26,794!).

But 41 senators got fewer mentions than Sarbanes. Among them: Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, Wendell Ford of Kentucky, William Roth of Delaware and Ted Stevens of Alaska, all senior to Sarbanes.

In addition to counting names, Professor McKenzie and his research assistants analyzed the context of the stories to see if, as has long been taken for granted, there is a Democratic and liberal bias in the media. His conclusion:

"This study finds no systematic, statistically significant media bias, in either political or ideological terms."

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