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Whitewater's political form overshadows its substance


WASHINGTON -- If there ever was a case to illustrate the

difference between form and substance -- between perception and reality -- in politics, it is the House inquiry into the role of the White House and Treasury Department staffs in the Whitewater case.

The hearings have nothing to do with the central question in the controversy, which is whether President Clinton as governor of Arkansas benefited from a sweetheart deal on some real estate and then used his state office to influence the regulation of the federally insured savings and loan involved in that deal.

Because that savings and loan, Madison Guaranty, failed at a cost to the taxpayers of some $60 million, there is a legitimate federal interest in finding out how it happened.

But at this point the congressional investigation is centered on the extremely narrow question of whether presidential appointees were guilty of trying to thwart that federal interest. The independent counsel, Robert B. Fiske Jr., already has found that there is no evidence of criminal conduct.

And Lloyd N. Cutler, the Washington graybeard brought in to give the White House some credibility, has argued that there were no breaches of ethical standards but conceded there were some errors in judgment -- meaning essentially that some of the people on the White House and Treasury staffs were guilty of gross political stupidity.

The Republicans in Congress have recognized from the outset that the investigation itself is a rare political opportunity to exploit suspicions in the electorate about Clinton and those around him.

And the pictures coming from the Rayburn House Office Building -- this huge House Banking Committee apparently doing serious work -- inevitably will do the job for them.

If there wasn't something fishy, why are all these putatively serious people spending so much time picking the episode apart?

Democratic leaders in Congress, worried about their own skins, are similarly attuned to the politics of the issue.

That is why they had to yield to the Republican demand for public hearings in both houses of Congress this summer.

To have refused would have invited a more serious political backlash as the Republicans complained of a cover-up, perhaps the most feared word in politics in the 20 years since Watergate.

For Clinton, this inquiry is going to get worse before it gets better.

There already have been enough leaks from the diaries and notes of two Treasury Department officials, Deputy Secretary Roger Altman and chief of staff Joshua Steiner, to assure some juicy viewing in the next few days.

Judging by the leaks already reaching the public prints, for example, Hillary Rodham Clinton went ballistic at the very notion of congressional hearings, which may not be surprising but is still an intriguing peek into the White House.

fTC You have to wonder why those diaries and notes were written and, once written, why they weren't buried under the outhouse long ago.

There also will be well-founded speculation about whether the White House is looking for a fall guy -- Altman is the favored candidate -- to give the appearance that the errors in judgment could not be repeated in another, similar situation later in President Clinton's stewardship.

The problem for the president is, of course, the political context in which the public inquiry is being conducted.

Clinton already is suffering politically from the perception that his White House has been staffed by boobs and that the president himself has been ineffectual in dealing with issues both foreign and domestic.

Those perceptions may be overdrawn, but the evidence in the public opinion polls makes it clear that they are widespread.

Moreover, if the House hearings are not enough of a problem, there is the prospect within a few days of the parallel inquiry by the Senate Banking Committee. If someone misses the story of Joshua Steiner's bizarre diary on one channel, it soon will be repeated on another.

There is, of course, a great deal of serious business before Congress -- the crime bill, campaign finance reform, welfare reform and most obviously health care reform. But in terms of Clinton's political position going into a re-election campaign that begins immediately after the Nov. 8 election, the first priority for the White House must be neutralizing the damage from these hearings.

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