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The Billy affair: heat or light?

As President Carter's political problems mount, the American people and the news media will have to resist any temptation to view the "Billy affair" as titillating summer entertainment. The need on all fronts will be to keep political emotions in check and maintain a dispassionate objectivity while the full facts are being sought. No one -- Republicans or Democrats -- can take comfort from the sight of still another US president battling for his political life against a backdrop of suspicion of his credibility and integrity.

A spirit of bipartisanship and national interest must govern the Senate panel formed to investigate the question if the public is not to become more cynical of government than it already is. As bits and pieces of the drama emerge each day, it already is difficult to know whether a genuine search for the truth or partisan politics is driving the disclosures. The interest many Republicans and anti-Carter Democrats have in stirring up a storm is obvious. This is why it will be important to withhold judgment until the full picture is clear. The purpose of the congressional inquiry should not be to witch-hunt, to use Sen. Birch Bayh's word, but to serve the national interest in bringing to light the facts as fairly and as expeditiously as possible.

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This, admittedly, is a difficult task. Senator Bayh says the panel cannot find expert counsel and prepare thoroughly in time for an early appearance of the President. Yet Mr. Carter clearly would like to present his case before the Democratic convention meets, both to assure the American public and to frustrate the gathering momentum for an open convention and, possibly, for a new Democratic nominee. Although early testimony could pose risks for the President as well, it does seem that the presidential nominating process would be better served and fairer to Mr. Carter if the Billy-Libya affair were aired beforehand. if the panel inquiry cannot serve as the forum for this -- and one would hope otherwise -- perhaps the promised presidential press conference can.

At stake for the President is his reputation for honesty and candor. Nothing so far persuades us that he himself has lied in this whole unfortunate business. But the White House has not come out looking very good. The most disturbing development was learning that Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, contrary to earlier statements, had in fact discussed the Justice Department investigation of Billy Carter with the President. Why had he denied this? Other elements of the affair raise questions more of judgment and competence than illegality -- the use of Billy Carter (at Rosalynn Carter's suggestion?) to mediate with the Libyans in the hostage issue and the President's discussion with his brother of classified government cables regarding a Libyan trip. At the heart of the inquiry will be the question of how much advantage Billy Carter may have gained because of his White House connection or what role he himself may have played in US policy.

There is no denying the seriousness of these and other issues. How well the President explains them may in fact determine how the public and politicians end up viewing his "competence," already judged low in the polls. But the spirit in which the investigation is conducted will say much about the competence -- and motives -- of those doing the investigating. The American people ought calmly and critically to watch them, too.

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