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Public Weariness of Whitewater May Start to Help Clinton

Many think the controversy is distracting government; the president's news conference earns him some support

THE Whitewater issue has created a high-stress atmosphere inside the White House and is not going to fade into the woodwork any time soon, White House officials acknowledge. But the public may be increasingly impatient with the matter.

``They kind of equate Whitewater with gridlock,'' said White House Chief of Staff Thomas (Mack) McLarty at a Monitor breakfast yesterday.

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``People are much more focused on things that affect their lives,'' he said, and the constant Washington attention to Whitewater adds to their pessimism over whether government can make things happen.

Recent surveys back up this view. A Times-Mirror poll recently showed 4 of 5 Americans are concerned that Whitewater is disrupting government. A Washington Post-ABC Poll taken last weekend showed more than two-thirds think that the issue is preventing the government from doing important work.

The Clintons made a strategic shift on Whitewater a week ago to take an open posture of fuller disclosure. The surveys are coming in now, and the strategy is working.

Up to that point, opinion polls were showing that Whitewater was beginning to wear down President Clinton's approval rating. A week ago, he held only the second prime-time televised news conference of his presidency to announce that he would release his tax returns for the years 1977 to 1979.

Public impatience

Polls taken after the press conference reflect a public impatience coming through concerning Whitewater. Well over two-thirds of Americans believe that news media are paying too much attention to Whitewater. The public, in general, has never followed Whitewater closely. But if a resignation and subpoenas of top Clinton aides were beginning to raise new doubts about Mr. Clinton, he seemed to dispel them with his press conference.

Between March 7 and March 27, Washington Post-ABC News polls show that public approval of Clinton's handling of Whitewater increased from 32 percent to 54 percent. A Gallup survey found an increase of 11 points on the same question after the Clinton press conference.

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Yet Clinton changed few minds. The vast majority of his new approval comes from the ranks of those who previously had no opinion.

The public is still far more polarized in their views of both Clintons than in January. A majority of Americans now guesses that neither did anything illegal in Whitewater. Yet the number who believe the Clintons did cross a legal line - at least one-third in each case - has not changed.

The most telling view: 56 percent of those surveyed in the Post-ABC News poll said that Whitewater was not an important issue.

The message that the White House is working hard to convey now, says Mr. McLarty, is that ``we are very concentrated and committed to moving the agenda forward.'' As David Gergen, a counselor to the president who also attended the Monitor breakfast, put it: ``This president is very much on track despite Whitewater.'' Mr. Gergen acknowledges that the issue has caused ``a lot of stress in the last few weeks'' in the White House.

The openness strategy is limited. The Clintons released their old tax returns only after reporters had unearthed the most pertinent information - Hillary Rodham Clinton's windfall in commodity futures. The Whitewater files removed last year from the office of former White House lawyer Vincent Foster remain entirely out of public view.

The Whitewater issue continues to turn out news. On Tuesday, the White House announced that the $100,000 Mrs. Clinton had made in nine months of commodities trading in the late 1970s began with a $1,000 initial investment.

High-stakes episode

This episode of high-stakes speculation based on advice from a well-connected friend has merely added a less idealistic aspect to Mrs. Clinton's biography. But Gergen argues that it is not emblematic of Mrs. Clinton's values. Her salary at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, Ark., was consistently ``quite a bit'' lower than those of her partners because of her extensive volunteer work.

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