THE White House seems to be outdoing Sen. Alfonse D'Amato and columnist William Safire at keeping Whitewater going.
The stonewalling and, at best, inadequate search for subpoenaed documents by the president's staff have ensured that Whitewater will be an issue into the presidential campaign. Hillary Rodham Clinton's credibility has been damaged just when the White House was working hard to refurbish her image. We shall now see whether President Clinton's considerable persuasive powers can subdue public and media doubts.
Last week Mr. Clinton's staff suddenly found documents from the Rose law firm in Little Rock that Whitewater prosecutors subpoenaed two years ago. Previously the White House said the documents - the firm's billing records - could not be located.
The records suggest that Mrs. Clinton was much more involved with the troubled Madison Guaranty savings and loan and the failed Whitewater land deal - in which the Clintons were partners with Madison President James McDougal - than she has admitted. Mrs. Clinton calls the work she did for Madison ''minimal.'' According to the records, it involved 68 phone calls/meetings and $7,000 in billings over 15 months.
The records also indicate that Mrs. Clinton worked on an option document related to what regulators charge was a fraudulent Madison land deal. Investigators assert that the transaction, involving a 1,000-acre parcel known at Castle Grande, was designed to evade state laws limiting the amount of money an S&L could invest in real estate. They say its collapse cost the government $4 million.
None of this proves Mrs. Clinton knew there was anything wrong with the deal. But the long delay in locating the files, coupled with previous White House maneuvering to avoid turning over embarrassing records to the special prosecutor and congressional investigators, raises new questions about what she did know and when she knew it. Mr. D'Amato, Senate Whitewater committee chairman, charges the files may have been among those allegedly removed from White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster's office after his suicide to hide them from investigators.
The Clintons' credibility has not been helped by a flap over the White House travel office. In 1993, that office's staff was fired, allegedly to make room for Clinton friends. The White House told Congress's General Accounting Office in 1994 that Mrs. Clinton had no role in the firings. But newly released documents written by White House aides indicate Mrs. Clinton herself ordered the dismissals. The latest revelations caused New York Times essayist Safire to label Mrs. Clinton a ''congenital liar'' in his column, drawing an angry White House reaction.
Compounding the president's problems is a federal appeals court decision this week that Paula Jones may pursue her Arkansas sexual-harassment case against Mr. Clinton while he is in office.
It would be naive to suggest that the congressional committees investigating these matters have no partisan motives. But time after time the White House has insisted nothing is there, only to spill out documents later that suggest otherwise. If Whitewater is still an issue, the president and his staff have only themselves to blame.
If Whitewater remains an issue, Clinton and his staff have only themselves to blame.