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Whitewater: the Insiders Game

Allegations about president's finances don't yet concern public, but play big in capital

PERHAPS the most striking aspect of the so-called Whitewater affair is the range of reactions to it.

For some, the probe into the Clintons' Whitewater real-estate venture with the owner of a failed Arkansas savings and loan has the potential to reveal a scandal with a capital ``S'' - maybe not the stuff of presidential impeachment, but something pretty close.

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One old-time journalist in town, who thinks the story has huge potential, opines ominously: ``Remember, it took us a while to understand how serious Watergate was.''

And for any investigative reporter seeking to tap into the Bob Woodward within, Whitewater affords a golden opportunity. Finding the smoking gun in this deal would be a major journalistic coup.

But for other political observers, there's simply ``no there there'' with Whitewater. President Clinton has not been accused of any wrongdoing, and the only reason anyone is pursuing the allegations is that they tangentially involve the president of the United States, such observers say.

In a nutshell, the Justice Department is - and soon, a special prosecutor appointed by the attorney general will be - investigating whether S&L owner James McDougal improperly funneled money to a real-estate venture he and his wife had with Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and whether any money from the failed thrift went to retire Clinton's gubernatorial campaign debts from 1984.

The apparent nonimpact the story has had on Clinton's national approval rating shows that it's an inside-the-Beltway story, a Democratic consultant says. ``Our focus groups confirm this,'' the consultant adds. ``Clinton is at one of the strongest points in his presidency. [Whitewater] is a big story only in Washington.''

This week, a Washington Post poll found that 59 percent of those surveyed approved of Clinton's overall performance as president, while 36 percent disapproved.

In mid-December, before Whitewater became a daily front-page story, he was at 58 percent approval, 40 percent disapproval.

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Even though 61 percent of those surveyed supported appointment of a special prosecutor, the consultant maintains that most Americans haven't focused on the issue. ``Americans view it as a distraction from what's important - jobs, health-care reform, crime,'' the consultant says. ``And because these issues are so important, they want Clinton to succeed. They don't want to see the president go down.''

For weeks, Attorney General Janet Reno resisted Republican demands that she appoint a special prosecutor, citing the lack of a ``reason to investigate.'' What appeared to tip the scales was the growing list of Democratic senators calling for a special prosecutor, a group that began as a trickle and turned into a flood by midweek.

The White House appeared to be a couple of days behind the curve in seeing that the only way to stop the repeated questioning by the press about Whitewater - a barrage that threatened to overshadow Clinton's European trip - was to concede and call for a prosecutor.

But Hal Bruff, who worked in the White House counsel's office under President Carter and now teaches law at George Washington University, says this degenerated into a typical institutional fight of executive branch versus outsiders, with outsiders being Congress and the press. ``People inside the White House get an us versus them mentality,'' Professor Bruff says.

He also points out that with the death of Clinton's mother last week, any aide would be loath to tell Clinton more bad news - that he ought to call for a special prosecutor, a term that implies serious wrongdoing, in a case in which the president and his wife maintain complete innocence.

On Wednesday, presidential adviser George Stephanopoulos announced that the White House was calling on the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to look into the Clintons' Whitewater investment and its connections to Mr. McDougal's Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan. The extent of the probe was unclear.

Senate minority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas reacted by saying the fact that Ms. Reno would appoint a prosecutor only after the White House asked her to showed that Clinton is ``calling the shots.'' He and House minority leader Robert Michel (R) of Illinois also called for the convening of special congressional investigative committees to conduct parallel probes.

Democrats accused Republicans of ``piling on'' and suggested that so many probes - the Justice Department has one under way - could wind up undermining one another. Speaker of the House Thomas Foley (D) of Washington said the White House decision to request a special prosecutor was enough to show that Clinton is being forthcoming about the situation.

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