Trust Is Still an Issue

He stands up for schoolchildren, he stands up for clean air, he stands up for racial harmony, he stands up like no previous president for regulating the tobacco industry. Surely someday President Clinton will stand up for full and prompt disclosure in all the ethical and legal storms surrounding him.

Put aside the question of whether it's wise to have White House coffee parties for a motley crew of potential political contributors. But why does it have to seem a reluctant disclosure that, yes, the president did expect some appreciation for his valuable time? No, the president did not ask for money between sips. No, there was no solicitation by the Democratic National Committee on the premises. That would be wrong. As for that former aide, he was not asking for the million, he was just explaining how it could be delivered. But, yes, a former party official says he used a huge White House database to identify prospective political donors.

Name other cloudy questions: the Whitewater investment story, the elusive Vincent Foster papers, the White House's FBI files on Republicans, the returns to sender of improper campaign contributions. Faced with initial hedging, the public remains in doubt about when a given episode is finally accurately known.

Suppose the reasons are bureaucratic inefficiency and innocent mistakes. Still, all the backing and filling gives an impression of less credibility than presidential aides, let alone a president, should have.

Now it's reported that James McDougal, former Clinton partner in Whitewater, has denied his sworn testimony that Mr. Clinton did not attend a 1986 meeting at which a $300,000 illegal loan was discussed. President Clinton also testified that he did not attend. Mr. McDougal, changing his story as a convicted felon, is not exactly a credible witness.

If only our president were a wholly credible witness. Despite his recent lament about a "toxic atmosphere of cynicism," he proved he could win the electorate amid the campaign barbs about "trust." He has, as polls show, kept public admiration for his job performance. There is still time to establish a White House tone of candor that will help Americans believe what is said from the top the first time around.

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