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Whitewater is no longer a Little Rock matter.


``Just tell the truth.' The advice seems too simple, too obvious. Yet how often have we seen a president recognize the virtue of such counsel only after it was too late?

Bill Clinton has now reached back and selected 76-year-old Lloyd Cutler to counsel him through the rapidly deteriorating Whitewater-Madison Guaranty crisis. Cutler presumably will draw on long Washington experience and tell the president that the longest route through a scandal is to try to stonewall it. Cutler may also point out that saying you have nothing to hide is not the equivalent of having nothing to hide - particularly when those around you are giving every indication of hiding something.When questions first began to arise last year about the Clintons' relationship with James McDougal and his Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, it was a Little Rock story rapidly approaching the realm of history. There was the potential of embarrassment for both Clintons, and for political damage. But it was basically old stuff.

Now, Whitewater Part II: The Washington Angle. Missing documents, an aide's suicide; word of back-stair meetings between White House staff and Treasury Department regulators; another White House counsel has quit in disgrace. And, perhaps most important, Congress has legitimate reason to hold investigative hearings apart from the investigation of Robert B. Fiske, the Justice Department special counsel.

Fiske has subpoenaed six White House officials to appear before a federal grand jury today and to turn over certain documents. Those subpoenas relate not to Whitewater or Madison, but to allegations of a cover-up and interference in the Madison savings and loan probe.

President Clinton took pains earlier this week to draw distinctions between Fiske's Whitewater investigation and previous presidential scandals, namely Watergate, and the Iran-Contra affair of the Reagan and Bush years. ``No one has accused me of any abuse of authority in office,' the president declared in his Monday news conference.

Well, yes and no. Iran-Contra was about a White House that simply ignored laws it disagreed with. That was a blatant abuse of presidential authority. Nixon's downfall in Watergate, by contrast, was about a cover-up. There was no evidence tying Nixon to the burglary, but there was abuse of presidential authority in various efforts to protect those who were directly involved.

If members of the Clinton staff have tried to influence the Treasury investigation of Madison Guaranty, or have tried to frustrate Fiske's probe of Whitewater and the S&L, then, whether or not Clinton knew about it, there was an abuse of presidential authority.

Watergate's resolution required a Senate inquiry as well as the criminal investigation led by Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski. Iran-Contra Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh found his otherwise air-tight criminal cases against Oliver North and others demolished by a parallel congressional investigation. Accordingly, Fiske has asked congressional leaders not to schedule hearings on Whitewater.

That's a very difficult call. History argues both for and against a congressional inquiry. Except for possible obstruction and cover-up by the White House, there is no clear congressional interest in the Whitewater issues. Certainly, Fiske's ability to prosecute if the facts warrant it should not be hindered. Yet his protracted timetable is not reassuring.

Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill seem rightly inclined to honor Fiske's request, but it would help immensely if Fiske promised a full report in less than 18 months.


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