Of Whitewater and Travelgate Hillary Clinton's troubles: First lady's mishandling of probes could hurt the president.


REMEMBER? It wasn't Watergate; it was the coverup. And Richard Nixon could fire H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman in a failed effort to save himself. Now history repeats. It really isn't Whitewater; it's the coverup. And Bill Clinton, you can be sure, cannot fire his wife Hillary.

So what to do? Week after week, despite a White House effort in lawyerly stonewalling, the impression grows that the first lady has a selective memory, an active past in litigious matters affecting her husband, an imperious attitude toward possible conflicts of interest and a tendency to drag close associates into the controversies over Travelgate, Whitewater, Madison S&L;, Castle Grande, Vince Foster's death and other matters that have congressional committees on the prowl.

If it were not for presidential inhibition, says White House press spokesman Michael McCurry, Mr. Clinton would like to give a columnist a punch in the nose for writing that the first lady is a "congenital liar." But the administration's problem lies not so much with journalists as with Republican legislators who sniff political pay dirt and special prosecutors whose probes into the Clintons' affairs seem endless.

Perhaps, if the piling-on becomes excessive, there will be a groundswell of support for Mrs. Clinton. But such times are not now. Twice within a three-day period last week, the White House came up with long-sought documents that were damaging to the first lady.

In the Travel Office matter, the memo of a former White House aide said it was at the "insistence" of Mrs. Clinton that efforts were made to replace long-standing employees with cronies and friends. Mrs. Clinton has asserted she had "no role" in the imbroglio. On Whitewater land deals, other documents showed that she billed the Madison S&L; $6,000 for her legal work despite previous contentions that her involvement was "very limited."

The first lady's troubles have reached a new high just as she begins a tour to promote her book defending the interests of children -- a long-standing cause for Mrs. Clinton. If the aim was to soften her image, the new allegations could have the opposite effect.

Americans will put up with a lot of political shenanigans and insider business deals by people in high places. But they have little tolerance for cover-up, obfuscation, dodging and worse when prosecutors or congressional probers (even those with obvious political axes to grind) are demanding information. The Clintons have handled this whole business badly. Richard Nixon could have told them that.

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