Convictions in Little Rock

The convictions in Little Rock of Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, James McDougal, and his former wife, Susan, are a firm rebuke to those who have insisted that the Whitewater investigation is but a substanceless political attack. President Clinton's and Hillary Rodham Clinton's former close friends and business associates were found guilty of fraudulent loan dealings, not by a bunch of Republican carpetbaggers, but by a jury of average Arkansans. The result is a vindication of independent counsel Kenneth Starr, recently the subject of partisan attack. Democrats would now do well to abandon that effort.

It's important to remember that President Clinton was not on trial in this case. Indeed, he was dragged into it by the defendants, not the prosecutor. His role was to refute former Judge David Hale's testimony that Clinton pressured him to make an improper loan to Mrs. McDougal, a loan later used to pay expenses for the Whitewater company in which the Clintons were partners. The jury did not need to decide between Hale and the president: The prosecution had a stack of documents to back up the charges. While Hale's allegations were not new, now both he and Clinton have repeated their stories under oath.

The convictions are nevertheless bad news for the White House. If nothing else, they bring up the character issue that has dogged Clinton since his original presidential campaign. At worst, the McDougals and Governor Tucker are under heavy pressure before sentencing to cooperate with investigators. Any new allegations they might make could cost the Clintons politically.

In the meantime, the president will have to testify in another trial in Little Rock, this one having to do with allegations of improper fund-raising in his 1990 gubernatorial campaign. Clinton then appointed one of the bankers involved to the state highway commission. Also, Mr. Clinton got bad publicity last week when his lawyers attempted to assert his immunity as commander in chief of the armed forces while asking the Supreme Court to postpone Paula Jones's sexual-harassment suit against the president. Clinton has wisely ordered that assertion withdrawn.

The biggest problems for the president and Mrs. Clinton, however, are not the Whitewater land deal itself, but questions about Mrs. Clinton's work at the Rose Law Firm on the McDougals' behalf; the degree of her involvement in their Castle Grande development; and, most of all, the behavior of the Clintons, White House staffers, and outside friends in dealing with the investigations of Whitewater, the Vincent Foster suicide, and the travel-office firings. While pledging cooperation, the White House has consistently given the impression that it has something to hide. Only under heavy pressure has it released requested documents.

Richard Nixon was not undone by the break-in at the Watergate office complex. He was undone by the coverup and obstruction of justice that followed. It is best that the independent counsel's and Senate Whitewater Committee's investigations proceed. If the Clintons are innocent, as must be presumed, those inquiries can only clear the air.

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