Controversial Appointments

THIS is not a good time for the president and his appointments. Attorney General Janet Reno's recommendation that an independent counsel investigate Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros is the latest chapter in the saga.

What's Mr. Clinton to do?

He needs to take one thing at a time. He needs to take care not to be rushed, either in making appointments or in responding to controversies when they arise. The thought that John Deutch may have won Cabinet status for himself as intelligence chief -- something not everyone thinks a good idea -- because the president needed a nominee, and quick, after the Michael Carns nomination self-destructed, is troubling. Clinton needs to continue his efforts to improve the efficiency and the efficacy of his staff work -- and to remember where the buck stops. And most of all, he and the public need to trust in due process to work.

The changes in party control of both the legislative (1994) and executive (1992) branches are healthy. They will afford a chance to see whether the rules the Democrats adopted for Congress are good for Congress, or just good for Democrats in Congress. Similarly, we will see whether the ethics-control apparatus imposed on the executive branch over the years is appropriate and effective whoever has the White House.

Fitness for office is not to be determined just by a checklist that identifies only negatives. There remains a place for subjective judgment about a nominee's moral center and capacity to make positive contributions. We must take care not to move the goalposts on a president trying to get nominees confirmed -- as seems to have happened to Henry Foster, Clinton's nominee for surgeon general. And with both a ''cleaner-than-clean'' standard for public service and a system where mere investigation equals guilt, we may end up with public servants who do all right on the checklist but not in office.

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