Continued Openness Will Keep Clinton Above Whitewater

DEAR Mr. President:

It seems quite likely that after noting the applause you received for your TV press conference, two of your top hands, Mack McLarty and David Gergen, realized that you were on a roll and decided to keep it going by meeting with the print press at a Monitor breakfast. And so they did, bringing your assistant for legislative affairs, Pat Griffin, along with them.

They scored well. More than 50 reporters crowded into the Sheraton Carlton's Chandelier Room - it was almost as if you had dropped by. With their candor these guests did what they had come to do: They gave Whitewater a further shove out of the spotlight.

Most of the questions were directed at Mr. McLarty, although the others got their fair share of opportunities to weigh in with their views. If Mr. Gergen has ever been slow on defending your role in Whitewater, he is making up for lost time. You now couldn't have a more fervent advocate. And Mr. Griffin was most persuasive in his assertion that Whitewater wasn't slowing down your legislative agenda.

Some of us there, including myself, were seeing your chief of staff in action for the first time. After the breakfast, several reporters commented on how ``impressive'' McLarty had been that morning. He is indeed an effective advocate for your cause. In his low-keyed, rather gentle way, he made it seem credible that any inappropriateness on your or your aides' part in keeping a hold on Whitewater-related information had come about by poor judgment, not stonewalling.

McLarty pointed out that there have been ``no specific charges'' lodged against you. And he emphasized that the business dealings involved in Whitewater happened several years ago: It has nothing to do with what you have done as president. McLarty put it all in needed perspective.

At the end of the breakfast I asked the three guests whether the president, with his TV press conference (95 percent of which was devoted to Whitewater) and release of information since then, had ``put Whitewater behind him.'' There was a pause before Gergen gave an answer, one with which the others seemed to agree: ``It will come and go,'' he said, indicating that he thought press interest and the work of the special counsel are likely to keep the subject from disappearing - even though, as of now, you appear to have it somewhat on the run.

I came to the breakfast after just returning from the Deep South, where I found that just about everyone I met up with had Whitewater on his or her mind. A woman behind us as my wife and I waited in line to enter Bellingrath Gardens, near Mobile, Ala., said that she and her husband had voted for you but wouldn't next time ``because of Whitewater.'' Even your press conference, as persuasive as you were, didn't go over with everyone. ``He's too glib,'' a New Orleans lawyer commented after seeing you that night on television. His wife agreed.

Polls now show that more than half of the public approves of the way you are handling Whitewater. That is up from the 35 percent that was recorded just before your press conference. But on the other hand, nearly half of the public isn't pleased with what they think you did or didn't do in that Arkansas land deal - and on other related matters. Further, my own limited, private findings indicate that at least some of those who feel this way aren't going to vote for you again.

So you must continue to deal with Whitewater with openness and with willingness to be questioned - again and again. That's the price you must pay to overcome especially intricate challenges such as this.

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