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To `Ragin' Cajun,' Whitewater Is More Froth Than Mud

AT the Monitor's 2,653rd session with a public figure in Washington an unprecedented event took place: A tall fellow wearing blue jeans and a yellow sweat shirt burst in on the breakfast group; although I play the role of the moderator at these gatherings, the president's campaign strategist, James Carville, took over the show.

Mr. Carville, who calls himself the ``Ragin' Cajun'' from Louisiana, could have been mistaken for an eccentric who had just by chance wandered into our dining room. But this was the real Carville, a performer of the W. C. Fields mold who was expected to be outrageous and funny. The reporters in attendance just sat back and laughed - and enjoyed every moment.

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But Carville really is a cagey Cajun. He was there to persuade us that we should stop writing about Whitewater before we embarrassed ourselves. Of the allegations about the Clintons' Arkansas dealings he said, ``It's only a figment of your imagination.''

Carville's presence at this breakfast was the result of a meeting a couple of weeks ago where top White House advisers had worked out a plan for dealing with the Whitewater story, which was diverting public attention from the president's principal legislative initiative, his health-care reform program. The decided strategy: No longer sit back and take it but, instead, go on the attack.

Indeed, Carville had called Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers and asked if she could arrange this breakfast. Carville had declined our invitations to come in on several occasions during the last year. I asked why he had changed his mind. ``This time,'' he said, ``I had something to say.''

Carville had brought along a chart showing his (and probably the administration's) view of how the traditional mass media cover Whitewater and other controversies. It depicted a media food chain, suggesting that the ``mainstream American press'' was being fed Whitewater material from tabloid and talk show hosts who were getting their information from people like Genifer Flowers, Sally Perdue, and David Hale.

Carville gave this explanation of the origin of the Whitewater story and why ``it has legs'': It was being pushed by Republicans and others ``who just don't accept'' the verdict of the last presidential election.

Has this move by White House strategists to deflate Whitewater by sending out some of its most persuasive people - including David Gergen, Mack McLarty, and Pat Griffin as well as Carville - been effective?

There appears to be a lessening of front-page or TV newsmagazine stories about Whitewater. Also, the president's town hall meetings with the public seem to be attracting more attention to and, perhaps, more support for his health plan. And a recent Gallup Poll headlines its findings about Whitewater: ``Little Damage So Far to Clinton Image.''

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But should we then conclude that media stories are fed or stifled through manipulation - by the people cited in Carville's chart or by Carville himself, in his mocking effort to punch holes in the Whitewater story and discredit those who write about it?

It could look that way. But I don't think there's much, if any, truth in it. For weeks reporters had been writing about the Clintons' business dealings that held possibilities of revealing something about their character. That story simply was running out of gas. So the media have been holding much of their fire, waiting on potential new disclosures from the current probe by the Whitewater special counsel.

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