Clinton Wavers on the Ethics High Wire

THE president's long-time vulnerability on his ``character problem'' now is surfacing and eroding public support.

Of this vulnerability the New York Times editorializes: ``Clinton aides behave as if their president had deep deposits of public trust. In fact, that account was pretty slim when Mr. Clinton got to Washington, and it is just about tapped out now.''

The Times was reacting to the appearance that Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman had improperly interfered in a case that directly affects the Clintons: the probe into the failure of Arkansas' Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan.

Mr. Altman, acting chief of the independent federal agency that is to pursue civil and criminal cases against those associated with S&L failures, was stung by criticism of what was charged to be conflict-of-interest conduct; he now has recused from all matters regarding the investigation of the Madison Guaranty S&L. Altman claimed his briefing of White House aides, which caused this ruckus, was an innocent recital of procedural information. But the Times observes that there was reason to suspect that the meeting aimed to control political damage or compromise the investigation.

Following the Altman incident came the news that there were two other White House meetings where other Treasury officials discussed the case with Bernard Nussbaum, the president's counsel, and other White House officials. President Clinton now says he has put up a fire wall to prevent such meetings in the future. And he brought about the resignation of Mr. Nussbaum. But some criticize Mr. Clinton for, as one pundit put it, ``Locking the barn door after the horse has been stolen.''

The early and continuing Times criticism of what it sees as White House insensitivity to ``the common-sense rules of conflict of interest'' bears special weight: The influential newspaper supported Clinton in the election and, by and large, has backed his initiatives and programs. Other leading members of the media are falling in line.

But the president for too long seemed unconcerned in the face of this questioning. In the midst of the furor he let it be known that he would not be deterred from a visit to Chicago in support of House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski. Mr. Rostenkowski has been under investigation for almost two years on charges related to the House Post Office investigation and other charges of misuse of federal funds.

Attorney General Janet Reno's department is expected to announce soon whether it will seek an indictment against Rostenkowski. Ms. Reno left no doubt at a news conference that she was less than amused over Clinton's trip to Chicago - even though Clinton seemed to see no problem there, citing ``presumption of innocence'' of the congressman.

Rostenkowski clearly has been there for Clinton when he's needed him, particularly on the budget and the North American Free Trade Agreement. The president now wants Rostenkowski's help in putting over his health-care program. Clinton apparently weighed the political damage of the Chicago trip against his need to keep Rostenkowski as a strong ally, carrying out a trip that could well make the difference in a close primary election.

Meanwhile, accusations relating to the president's personal conduct continue to swirl around him. Most Americans, according to polls, say such charges, even if true, have no effect on their overall opinion of Clinton. Yet they do chip away at the president, particularly when added to actions by him or his close aides that are or appear to be wrong.

As I've written before, I see Bill Clinton as a big risk-taker. Even running for president was risky for him. He had been warned that he ``carried too much baggage'' to be a successful candidate -

that charges concerning why and how he had avoided the draft, his business dealings, and his personal conduct would surely sink him.

But he prevailed. In the face of this new adversity, will the president do so once again? Washington opinion seems to be that Clinton will get through this, but not without the kind of damage that could lose him a reelection bid.

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