Whitewater: Clinton As Presidential Hero

THE challenges that come to us may appear to be intrusive, alien. But they also may be ``appropriate'' to our particular mission. And we have the resources to meet them - the wherewithal of wisdom, energy, and healing, given by the great source of spiritual being. So observed the late Joseph Campbell, interpreter of myths, art, and religion.

What kind of challenge is Whitewater?

It is not an ordeal of the American people or of the Western world. It is not a constitutional crisis. And it's not Washington and the media being their usual crabby selves. It is a testing of Bill Clinton's leadership character, of his staff's alertness, and of the probity of his and Hillary Rodham Clinton's professional relationship - of which too much was made.

We can note how other recent presidents had been challenged precisely where they perceived their strengths to lie. Jimmy Carter's self-confidence, for example, as a presidential candidate in 1975, when he was still ``Jimmy Who'' to everyone else, was simply extraordinary. By mid-1979, with public confidence in him plummeting, he was blaming the American people and not himself for the country's mood, and he invited a parade of wise men to Camp David for talks on how to restart his leadership program.

Had Richard Nixon allowed that he was, perhaps, a little bit of a crook, he might not have been crushed by Watergate. Irangate for Ronald Reagan and George Bush may have come about because Reagan's strength - broad, largely nonprogrammatic ideas - had been penetrated by what some of his team thought to be a clever operational ploy.

The quest for the presidency is America's major mythological endeavor, bigger even than sports championships and spacewalks. Are people born to be president? We try to find out, reading backward from their nomination/election through their education and childhood for the intimations of greatness.

The presidency is a leadership quest that continues after election rivals are defeated to the last day of office. The antagonists are institutional (Congress, the other party, factions in his own party) and political (today health-care plan opponents, for instance). At times the opposition is a specific evil - slavery for Lincoln, economic hopelessness for FDR. But generally we watch presidents miss or engage less stupendous challenges.

It is interesting that, with Whitewater, a White House counsel has been sacked to appease appearances. It was sad that another White House lawyer had earlier taken his life, for possibly Whitewater-related reasons. It was ironic to observe President Clinton defending his wife's character the other day, much as she had stood by him after infidelity disclosures during the campaign. An intramural skirmish is going on over whether a special inquiry or a congressional inquiry should take precedence. And the President's chief defender on Capitol Hill, Sen. George Mitchell (D) of Maine, has said he will not run for reelection (does Senator Mitchell sense a presidential opening in 1996?).

Breakwaters, such as the hiring of experienced White House hand David Gergen, have not been enough to keep Clinton out of trouble. It would be unfair to expect otherwise. But the Clinton team is making the right effort to keep a focus on his agenda.

We do not yet really know how much if any fire lies behind the smoke regarding the Clintons' pre-White House investment and legal dealings. The inquiries will tell us.

Partnership presidencies are not a good idea. The proposed Reagan-Ford alliance at the Republican convention in 1980 in Detroit, a kind of dual presidency, fortunately died on the spot. First ladies like Eleanor Roosevelt and Lady Bird Johnson have done important things. But family and friends in even pseudo-official roles can mean trouble. Hillary's public role, lacking a constitutional base, has to be a distance from her husband's.

It is interesting to watch the president's efforts to keep attention on initiatives such as the G-7 jobs summit in Detroit while the dramatic focus of his presidency keeps reverting to Whitewater. How he deals with this tension is the immediate challenge of his presidency.

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