The Whitewater cloud over Clinton

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- If you were a gambler, a bet on the re-election of President Clinton would look pretty good right now. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the presumptive Republican nominee, is running 15 to 20 percentage points behind the president in opinion polls and showing very little early foot as a campaigner.

But the one thing that might give a gambler pause is that persistent cloud thrown over Mr. Clinton's campaign prospects by the Whitewater investigations.


At this point, no one has established any wrongdoing on the part of either the president or first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. On the contrary, the impression conveyed by the inquiries of both special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and the Senate committee led by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York is that they are grasping in all directions to find something that can be used to nail the president.

It is a fact of political life, however, that any politician under investigation seems vulnerable up to a point. Cynicism toward political leaders is so pervasive that many voters always believe there is fire where there is even a whiff of smoke.


It is also a fact of political life that the Republicans intend to rely heavily on the so-called "character issue" in trying to recapture the White House. And that, in turn, means that they will exploit anything that appears to give them an opening.

So it was no surprise when President Clinton's videotaped testimony in the White House evoked a cheap shot from Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour, who called it a "presidential first" for Mr. Clinton. "He's the first president to be deposed on Sunday, then turn around and offer a crime package Monday," he said.

Mr. Clinton is not, of course, the first president to provide such testimony from the White House. Presidents Ford and Carter both did so. Like those predecessors, Mr. Clinton was testifying as a witness in the trial of someone else, not as a defendant himself charged with a crime.

That fact runs contrary to the hint in Mr. Barbour's statement that President Clinton himself is involved in some crime. Making such a case may be a goal of Messrs. Starr and D'Amato but it shouldn't be forgotten that they haven't reached that goal yet. So it may be that the real inference we should draw from Mr. Barbour's rhetoric is that the Republicans are distraught at the way the Democrats have stolen the crime issue away from them.

The partners

Mr. Clinton is clearly politically vulnerable in some respects. The defendants in the case in which he testified on videotape are James and Susan McDougal, with whom the Clintons were partners in the Whitewater real-estate deal. That association is something the president will never escape even if Mr. Starr never makes a case against him.

Secondly, the president's position has been undermined to some degree by a mishandling of the investigations inside the White House. There still has been no sensible explanation offered for the discovery in January inside the White House of legal billing records defining the work Hillary Clinton did for the defunct Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, the thrift the McDougals ran. And now, according to Newsweek magazine, the special prosecutors have found Hillary Clinton's fingerprints on those records, which is not surprising but adds to the questions about where the records had been during the several months they were missing.

The president also has not been helped by the spectacle of so many White House aides and advisers going before Senator D'Amato's committee and suffering extraordinary memory lapses on questions about the aftermath of the suicide death of deputy counsel Vincent Foster Jr., an old and close friend of the Clintons from their days in Arkansas.


So far, none of this appears to have caught the imagination of the electorate. Polls show that many voters believe the Clintons have not been totally forthcoming in these matters, but also many who believe the investigations are politically inspired. So the bottom line is that Whitewater is only a cloud on the horizon -- but one Democrats must watch carefully.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 5/01/96