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Still Time to Clear the Air on Whitewater

SPECIAL United States Trade Representative Mickey Kantor may have expected questions related solely to his area of responsibility. But reporters at a Monitor breakfast wanted Mr. Kantor, a close associate and adviser to President Clinton, to talk about about the Whitewater affair.

The first query was about the appearance of improper White House interference in the probe: ``Can the president put the fire out?''

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``Yes, of course,'' Kantor said. ``From time to time in this fair city there is a burst of hysteria on one issue or another.'' These words are from a Clinton loyalist and must be weighed in that light. The Republicans are making the most out of recent appearances of interference in the investigation of the failed Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan and its possible ties with the Clintons. I am reminded of the early days of the Watergate scandal: Republican leaders kept describing the charges against President Richard Nixon as ``politics - Democratic politics.''

But the public found that there was real wrongdoing on the part of the president and of many of those around him. Watergate turned out to be the biggest scandal since Teapot Dome, but as Mr. Clinton says, Whitewater is no Watergate and we must be careful not to draw too close a parallel between the two.

Watergate was an unlawful break-in of Democratic Committee headquarters in an attempt to steal political information. That's a felony. Yet in my younger days as a reporter covering the politics of a number of states, I would often hear of rough-and-tumble political activity of this nature. In a period when buying votes or purposeful miscounting often was accepted practice, slipping into an opponent's headquarters to pick up some information might not have gone far beyond the accepted norm.

In fact, when Barry Goldwater was running against Lyndon Johnson in 1964, there were charges from within the Goldwater camp that Johnson people had broken into their headquarters and swiped some important confidential papers. No one paid much attention to those complaints. I do not mean to make light of a serious crime. But I do think the Watergate break-in was a kind of ``political crime'' that Mr. Nixon might have been able to survive had he faced it head-on. A quick and open admission of this act would doubtless have caused a firestorm. But Nixon was popular enough then to have at least saved his presidency, though it would have been badly tarnished.

But Nixon and those around him ``stonewalled,'' involving themselves deeply in trying to cover up the crime. It was Nixon's words on tape, showing him directly playing a part in the coverup, that became the smoking gun that led to the move to impeach him and to his decision to resign.

The Whitewater affair, which involves some business dealings of the Clintons and their relations with the failed Arkansas' savings and loan institution, is exceedingly complex. The legal presumption is that the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton are innocent. But they have hurt their case and raised suspicions by their reluctance to provide information about Whitewater and by acts of aides that possibly interfered with the probe by the Justice Department into the affair.

No doubt about it: Clinton should have learned from Nixon's failure to come right out and tell all from the very beginning. He now promises to be fully cooperative with the probe. We will have to see.

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At a recent Monitor breakfast, Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana had a solution for the president's Whitewater problem. He said one way to put it all behind him would be to ``sit down with you reporters at this table and candidly lay out everything he and Hillary have done in connection with all this.'' Though it might be embarrassing, Senator Lugar said, it could very well clear the air.

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