Whitewater's Shoals

President Clinton's decision to ask Attorney General Janet Reno to seek a special counsel to look into the Clintons' business and political connections during the 1980s with the owner of a failed savings and loan is the right one. The move is the only politically acceptable way to clear up the legal and ethical ambiguities surrounding the ``Whitewater'' controversy.

Mr. Clinton moved too late to prevent the issue from becoming a high-profile distraction. Perhaps his team resisted the notion of a special counsel partly out of concern that it would compete for media time and space with his first major trip overseas. The controversy did that anyway. And the White House's ``deflect and deny'' responses raises questions, given the benefits the Clintons have seen from past early disclosures.

Clinton's decision on a special counsel - which should be appointed after Congress enacts a special-counsel law - has vindicated Ms. Reno's concern about the perceived independence of anyone she appoints. Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, one of those leading the call for Reno to act, now says that because she is responding to Clinton's request, her independence is in question; presumably, so is that of any appointee. This, she has said, is why she has resisted calls to name a special counsel on her own authority and prefered to wait until Congress had enacted the law.

Yet if Whitewater threatens to obscure Clinton's agenda, it also holds dangers for Republicans. The political haymaking, evident in Mr. Dole's response to Clinton's decision (although Democrats would be just as likely to exploit the situation if the roles were reversed), reinforces a politics-as-usual image - unwelcome in an election year. Two surveys this week give Clinton 54 and 59 percent job-approval ratings. In one poll, 72 percent said that Whitewater had no bearing on their view of Clinton's performance. These numbers can change. But they suggest that, for now, Americans have more-pressing concerns. Let an independent counsel team do its job, and let Congress await the results before deciding whether to conduct its own probe. Meanwhile, the White House and the Congress have a country to govern.

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