Whitewater hearings leave impression administration has something to hide

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- After 115 hours of proceedings, 6,000 pages of documents, 35 witnesses and 71 questioners, after eight days and nights of gavel-banging, finger-pointing, sound-biting, it's appropriate to ask the question that a congressman posed at the start of the House and Senate's Whitewater hearings:

"What is going on here?"

What went on over the past two weeks -- all of it under hot TV lights -- didn't reveal a smoking gun to bring down a president. It didn't answer questions about the Clintons' Ozarks land deal at the heart of the Whitewater controversy. And with its Beltway babble about "recusals" and "redactions" and who "tasked" whom to give a "heads-up" to whom, it didn't engage the nation.

What it did was leave impressions -- most of them negative -- and afford the public a "peephole," as Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas put it, into the back rooms of the administration, revealing a White House more preoccupied with Whitewater than it ever let on.

CNN, which carried most of the hearings live, as did PBS, reported a 29 percent ratings increase, higher than some expected but still amounting to a limited audience of only about 565,000 households.

"People are a helluva lot more interested in O. J. than in Altman," says David Axelrod, a Chicago political consultant, referring to Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger C. Altman, who spent 15 grueling hours in the hot seat last week. "It's not kitchen table talk."

But if the specifics of the hearings didn't resonate outside Washington, the spectacle did. The image of top White House officials being hammered day after day -- and often responding in contradictory, slippery and obtuse ways -- was enough to persuade even casual observers that there must be something at the root of all the probing.

"The average bear does not know what Whitewater deals with, but they know some people in the Clinton administration are absolutely not telling the truth intentionally," says Claibourne Darden, an Atlanta pollster who has worked for both parties. "Consequently, they're guilty of something and, as a byproduct, the president is probably guilty of something."

Limited scope

The House and Senate banking committee hearings, by design, focused almost entirely on one minuscule, and not very provocative, aspect of the Whitewater affair: the propriety of Treasury officials' alerting the White House to a Resolution Trust Corp. investigation of a failed Arkansas savings and loan that mentioned the Clintons as possible witnesses.

The thrift, Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, was owned by James McDougal, the Clintons' part- ner in the Whitewater land deal.

Strip away the partisan rhetoric, and the issue boils down to a legalistic debate about whether such contacts violated ethical or legal guidelines. Although those mentioned in such criminal referrals, even as witnesses, are generally not privy to such information, the Whitewater special counsel, Robert B. Fiske Jr., who was replaced Friday, found that the contacts were not legally improper. For its part, the Office of Government Ethics reported that, while "troubling," the meetings did not violate the government's standards of ethics.

But by examining the meetings, we learned a lot about an administration that came to Washington vowing to hold itself to a higher ethical standard, and appearing to be doing the same old political jig.

The public got a glimpse of administration officials -- some, like George Stephanopoulos and Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, well-known; some, like the first lady's chief of staff, Margaret A. "Maggie" Williams, very behind-the-scenes -- scrambling to protect the Clintons and control damage from the snowballing Whitewater story.

We saw the former White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum encouraging Mr. Altman, until March the acting RTC chief, to rethink his decision to recuse himself from the RTC's Madison probe. Mr. Altman had intended to step aside from the case because of his friendship with Mr. Clinton.

Joshua Steiner, Treasury chief of staff, described the Nussbaum muscle in his diary as "intense pressure" from a White House worried that, without Mr. Altman at the helm, the RTC probe of Madison would fall into unknown, and perhaps aggressive, hands.

We saw how Hillary Rodham Clinton, who publicly professed to waving off Whitewater like a gnat, was preoccupied with the matter. Although Ms. Williams vehemently denied that the first lady was "paralyzed" by Whitewater, as Mr. Altman's diary states, she was given detailed information about the status of the RTC probe. What's more, Ms. Williams was a key player in many of the 40 or so contacts between White House and Treasury officials.

We saw administration officials scurrying to offer warnings and advice to each other: Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen going to see Mr. Stephanopoulos to urge him to stop stonewalling and get all the facts about Whitewater out to the public; Eugene A. Ludwig, comptroller of the currency, calling Ms. Williams to say, "Disclose everything;" an official from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. calling Mrs. Clinton's press secretary to warn that reporters were asking questions; another FDIC official, upon receiving letters requesting information from the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post, faxing the letters to Mr. Ludwig, who, in turn, faxed them to the White House as another "heads up."

After Mr. Altman testified before the Senate Banking Committee in February, saying there had been only "one substantive contact" between Treasury and White House officials, senior administration officials bolted into action to figure out how to deal with the inaccurate testimony.

With the crux of the Whitewater matter still unexplored, this first set of hearings may not have immediate political impact. With the most damning charges being the usual political gamesmanship and a Treasury official fibbing to Congress, the public is likely to shrug its shoulders.

In fact, if the past two weeks did anything, they reignited for many people the "trust" problems Mr. Clinton brought to the presidency.

But the proceedings cast an equally unflattering light on Congress, confirming, too, the public's worst fears about its elected officials, portraying them as a wasteful crew who never tire of the sound of their own voices.

A 'lose/lose situation'

"It's a lose/lose situation," says political commentator Melissa Line. She believes that, come election time this year, the hearings could haunt Republicans and Democrats alike if it's perceived that the Whitewater talkathon kept lawmakers from tending to health reform, crime and welfare reform.

If Senate Banking Committee member Paul S. Sarbanes is successful at the polls this November, his will most likely be the hand wielding the gavel when the panel takes up the Arkansas aspect of Whitewater.

Having conducted some of the toughest, most surgical questioning of witnesses last week -- even eliciting kudos from his GOP colleagues -- the Maryland senator, a fiercely partisan Democrat, showed he would likely be an evenhanded chairman of the proceedings rather than a mere White House protector.

Friday's appointment of former Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr to replace Mr. Fiske may delay Congress' next move, because Congress agreed to wait until the special prosecutor had finished investigating before holding hearings.

Meanwhile, the first round of hearings may have chipped a little more mystique from the office of the presidency. But the tedium of the whole affair may have also dulled whatever public appetite exists for a Whitewater probe.

Says Mervin Field, a California political pollster: "It's not the kind of thing that's going to tease the public in a positive way to wait for the big show."

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