WASHINGTON -- There is a long bipartisan tradition of congressional hearings being used for the most partisan purposes. There has rarely been a more obvious example than the current hearings being conducted by the Senate's special committee on the Whitewater affair.
Such hearings are supposed to have some serious purpose. They are intended to elicit information that will help Congress write better laws. Or they are intended to let Congress better carry out its oversight function by examining the performance of agencies whose budget it provides.
But the Whitewater hearings being conducted by the newly ascendant Republicans have neither intention. Instead, they are designed to feed conspiracy theories about the death of Vincent Foster and to suggest the White House was engaged in some dark plot to bury materials that would reflect on President Clinton.
In fact, there never has been a shred of evidence to suggest that the suicide of Foster, then a deputy counsel to the president, was anything more than what it appeared to be at the time -- a tragedy that, by definition, defied logical explanations.
But this is an age in which there is pervasive suspicion of government and other institutions of the establishment. And that suspicion frequently gives birth to wild theories about conspiracies.
Thus, in this case, there is the theory that Foster was murdered, and that there is a massive cover-up of that fact related somehow to Clinton's involvement in the Whitewater land deal in Arkansas. Then there is the added refinement of that theory to the effect that Foster was killed in some other place -- a "secret apartment" he or the White House maintained in suburban Virginia for some illicit purpose -- and his body transported to Fort Marcy Park, where it was discovered.
These are the theories of the kind of nutcakes who always surface in such cases. But Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, chairman of the committee, and his fellow Republicans are following a line that is clearly intended to nourish them -- and, of course, to suggest there is something rotten in the Clinton White House.
The White House has provided an opening for the committee. By all accounts, the handling of the aftermath of Foster's death -- particularly by Bernard Nussbaum, then the White House counsel -- was clumsy and inept. In the hours immediately after the suicide, nobody had the good sense to seal off Foster's office and allow investigators to search for a possible suicide note, while limiting their access to other materials that weren't relevant.
Then there is the added fillip of a telephone call or calls from Susan Thomases to Nussbaum, information that sets off the alarm bells because Thomases, although she has no official position, is known to be an intimate of Hillary Clinton. No one can imagine that Thomases would call Nussbaum about how he was handling the files question without acting as Hillary Clinton's agent.
If the White House ineptitude is viewed as not just ineptitude but as an attempt to thwart the investigation, then other inferences may be drawn. The most important, of course, is the suggestion that the Foster files contained sensitive, politically explosive documents.
In fact, there is no reason to believe Foster's files contained such materials; he dealt largely with relatively minor issues during his service in the White House.
However, once you suggest that there was a deliberate effort to thwart the investigators, it is only a short leap for the conspiracy theorists to become convinced they have the ultimate proof that Foster's death was not what it appeared to be. And the next step down that road is the theory that the Clintons or their agents were responsible.
The conspiracy theories are the most patent nonsense. But that doesn't mean the hearings by a Senate committee can be dismissed as patent nonsense. On the contrary, these seemingly endless investigations of the Clintons and Whitewater inevitably lead some voters to wonder if there must not be something a little wrong.
They may not know that D'Amato and his cohorts are making their contribution to the Republican campaign for president in 1996.