Senators Tell Why They Finally Lined Up Against Clinton

IT was Sunday morning, and Vice President Albert Gore Jr. was talking tough on CBS's ``Face the Nation,'' defending his boss in the Whitewater case. He blamed the political fallout from Whitewater entirely on the Republicans.

``The president and the First Lady have done nothing wrong,'' he complained last week. ``The day that President Clinton was burying his mother in Arkansas, the opposition was on the airwaves attacking ferociously...''

It was classic Washington ``spin.'' When criticized, go after your opponent. Yet just across town at almost the same hour, it was another Democrat, Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D) of New York, who began the process that finally forced the White House decision to appoint a special Whitewater prosecutor.

Senator Moynihan, speaking on NBC's ``Meet the Press,'' delivered his message gently, and with humor. He recalled a movie where a ``little short fellow'' fails to pay a $2 parking ticket.

``His lawyer says, `I'm going to fight this,' and he said, `Pay the $2.''' At his lawyer's insistence, the ticket isn't paid, and the last thing you see is the little man ``going into the electric chair, saying, `Pay the $2!' ''

The message from Senator Moynihan was clear: Come clean. Have an investigation. As he put it: ``Get it out. No holding back.... Why isn't this all out in the open?''

The Moynihan message was heard, both in Washington by fellow Democratic senators, and in Europe, where Clinton was meeting with heads of state.

By Wednesday, newspaper headlines reported that nine Democratic senators were calling for a special prosecutor to probe the Clintons' investment in the Whitewater real estate firm.

The arguments from the White House - that it was all a partisan Republican attack, that Clinton had done nothing wrong - collapsed.

What led to the Democratic turnaround?

Sen. Robert Kerrey (D) of Nebraska says he was prompted to favor a special counsel to investigate Whitewater when he discovered that the White House had arranged a subpoena that would have slowed the release of information about the case.

``The longer the administration waited [to tell all], the more likely that they would have a serious domestic issue [on their hands], the senator said in a telephone interview from Omaha. ``It would have dragged on and gotten worse. The trend line was up, [indicating] this was serious.''

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, another of the nine, explained that it was time to move Whitewater off the front pages -

an argument later echoed by the White House.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin says he favored the special counsel because of the need to reassure the public. He said: ``Public confidence in elected officials and government in general is at an all time low. Obviously, a special counsel cannot be appointed every time some allegation is made against a public official ... But there have been some mistakes [by the White House].''

Senator Feingold pointed specifically to what happened after Vincent Foster Jr., deputy White House counsel, committed suicide. The White House removed the Whitewater files from his office before they could be examined by investigators.

Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey expressed similar sentiments. He was also one of the nine senators calling for a special counsel ``to get all the facts out.''

A number of the senators noted that they would have preferred an independent counsel, appointed by three federal judges, as was possible under a law which expired in December 1992. In lieu of that, a counsel chosen by Attorney General Janet Reno appears to be the best alternative, they indicated.

One aspect that clearly worried some lawmakers, such as Senator Lieberman, was that the press is holding onto the Whitewater story like a bulldog.

With major issues like health care reform, campaign finance reform, and the balanced budget amendment pending in Congress, this is no time for the White House to be distracted by bad publicity, senators indicated.

The president also acknowledged that newspaper editorials seemed to sway political opinions in Washington against him.

As he said in a TV interview: ``Basically, the press has editorialized and pressured the politicians into saying, `Here's a guy that as far as we know hasn't done anything wrong. Nobody's ever accused him of doing anything wrong. There's no evidence that he's done anything wrong, but we think the presumption of guilt, almost, should be on him.'''

Mr. Clinton called this ``bizarre.''

Editorialists have seemed unrelenting. The New York Times said White House efforts at damage control had turned into ``damage creation.'' The Times pointed to a direct conflict of interest in the Attorney General's office - a key Reno aide, Webster Hubbell, was Mrs. Clinton's law partner in Arkansas - as the best reason to move the investigation out of Justice. The Washington Post argued that the immediate need was for an investigator who was ``independent of the administration.'' The same step was taken during the Watergate investigation, the Post noted.

The mood now on Capitol Hill, at least among the majority Democrats, appeared to be summed up again by Moynihan. With a new prosecutor coming on line, he said: ``Enough is enough. There is no reason for Congress to distract itself [any more] with this matter.''

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