Parting the Whitewaters

When I was going up the stair

I met a man who wasn't there

He wasn't there again today

I wish, I wish he'd go away.

WHITEWATER has been described as a ``scandal,'' a ``crisis,'' an ``affair.'' Since so far it is a major story without substance, it ought perhaps to be called a phenomenon.

The case seems one of media perception creating reality, partisan Republicans on the hunt, and White House overreaction. If you aren't mentioning Whitewater on Page 1 you aren't in the news. Everyone wants to talk about Whitewater: Is it as bad as Watergate or Iran-contra?

Yet aside from ``hints'' of ``possible wrongdoing,'' and rumors of maybe, no one seems to know what it is. There is yet no hard evidence of White House illegal activity. The president appointed a special prosecutor to investigate whether or not his gubernatorial campaign in Arkansas eight years ago profited from a savings and loan to which he had ties and which later failed.

The White House counsel stepped down over the appearance of impropriety when it was discovered that Treasury officials briefed White House aides (not a crime, actually).

The vagueness of the Whitewater matter makes it difficult to evaluate. Certainly compared with a situation like Iran-contra - an arms-for-hostages swap with dollars channeled to paramilitary units in Central America and the creation of a hidden stratum of government under CIA director William Casey (now euphemistically called ``a policy difference'') - Whitewater is small potatoes.

Unless more substantial wrongdoing is uncovered, the talk about Whitewater may do the country a disservice. Should the president's effectiveness on foreign and domestic issues be diminished?

Problems of crime, brutality, poor education, and health care are serious; nationalism and nuclear proliferation make the current period a dangerous one overseas. Did Clinton even get credit for smooth handling of the budget this week?

Partisan Republicans ought to consider the larger effect of their approach. Their media strategy is simple: Keep the story in the news no matter what. Talk about Mr. Clinton ``stepping down.'' Where does all this end?

As for hearings: We seem to remember Republicans keeping track of every dime spent on Iran-contra. Where's that fiduciary zeal now?

One healthy sign: so far the American people seem not ready to prejudge the White House. Whitewater requires attention. Just not so much.

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