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A Bad Week for Clinton

IT has not been a good week for President Clinton. He is losing his highly regarded treasury secretary, Lloyd Bentsen, to the private sector. The Democratic Leadership Council, the organization of centrist ``new Democrats,'' has blasted him for drifting back into traditional liberalism.

And Webster Hubbell has pleaded guilty to mail fraud and tax evasion.

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He is to receive a reduced sentence in turn for cooperation with Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel investigating the Whitewater affair.

Mr. Hubbell's words in court were not those of an innocent man swallowing hard and accepting a deal out of expediency. They were the words of a man fallen from grace and grasping for a hope of redemption. He did not deny the charges.

It is rightly noted that Hubbell's crimes - essentially, improperly billing the Rose Law Firm and its clients, including the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, for personal expenditures in the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars - have nothing directly to do with Hubbell's service in Washington.

But Hubbell's transgressions cannot be explained away as mere technicalities, as nuances of the tax code or subtleties of the federal election laws, as is sometimes argued when public officials get into trouble. And Hubbell was the No. 3 official in the Justice Department.

Moreover, he was and is a close friend of the Clintons. Most of us would like to feel that we are good enough readers of character to know whether our close friends are capable of the kind of scheme to which Hubbell has pleaded guilty. And we like to feel our presidents are good character readers, too. Thus Hubbell's failing is Clinton's failing.

There are fundamental issues of trust and judgment here, issues critical to a presidency. His opponents can be expected to make quite a lot of hay of all this. This is different even from questions of political judgment, such as whether Hillary Clinton's health-care task force should have met behind closed doors. The president cannot afford to be seen as part of an Arkansas elite above the law. ``Slick Willie'' is the rap he must defend against.

Clinton's tendency is to seek common ground, to build coalitions. This is not a bad thing, but precisely because he must reach out in all directions, he must show he knows the difference between good compromises and bad ones, and that his moral center is sturdy and intact.

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