Treading Whitewater

THIS is the second week of Whitewater hearings that have not brought out the best in any party involved. The case is choked with partisanship, with some Republicans calling Whitewater an ``apocalypse,'' and with Democrats on the Banking Committee confining the scope of the House hearings through rules that rigidly limit questioning.

Americans tuning in to the hearings could not have been impressed. A low point for Republicans came when one compared the case, luridly, to the O.J. Simpson trial. The Democratic low ebb had to be Rep. Maxine Waters of California telling a colleague to ``shut up.''

Not surprisingly, the House hearings were inconclusive. Testimony was given by White House staffers and political appointees aware of the Resolution Trust Corporation's investigation into Madison Guaranty Savings, and by police who investigated the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster.

So far, no criminal laws or federal ethics have been shown to have been breached in this case. Both special counsel Robert Fiske, a Republican, and a nonpartisan federal ethics committee this week, found no evidence of violations. However, the stonewalling of the investigation at every turn by the White House, and the central still-to-be answered question of whether funds from Madison Guaranty were used in either the Whitewater land deal or a Clinton gubernatorial campaign in Arkansas, still leaves a certain ``smell of fire'' on President Clinton that can't help the Democrats.

This week the Senate holds hearings with many of the same administration officials, notably Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman.

We agree Whitewater must be delved into. But with no evidence so far, the question ought to be raised: Is this process ``restoring American's faith in their system,'' as some on the GOP side of the aisle have asked? Or is it merely feeding cynicism and doubt, and detracting attention from larger issues to be dealt with?

Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, the Republican point man on Whitewater, conceded last week that the hearings were a ``bump'' compared with Watergate or Iran-Contra. But he argued that they were revealing about the ``public ethics'' of the ``Me Generation'' and the ``single-party control of certain states.'' That may be. But so far, it is questionable whether the cost of this lesson is commensurate with the effect on the nation's civic business.

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