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The Whitewater affair puts President Clinton's trustworthiness, and potential effectiveness, on the line.@


Americans so far have tended to give President Clinton the benefit of the doubt on questions of judgment. But the spectacle of top White House aides testifying before a grand jury brings the issue of trust to the fore and could undercut his administration's ability to perform.

Clinton has been able to spring back from crises before, but Whitewater could prove a harder ordeal for Clinton to overcome. than his previous challenges.Questions of Clinton's character have always lurked close to the surface. But until now, his activism on issues Americans deem important generally has helped keep such questions at bay.

At least one new poll suggests more than a majority of Americans believe Clinton did something illegal or unethical in the Whitewater affair.

The investigation entered a new, more serious stage as the first of ten10 administration officials began testifying Thursday under subpoena to a grand jury looking into White House efforts to contain the affair.

While there's nothing incriminating about a subpoena and no one stands accused of wrongdoing, the development played into hands of Republicans who are seeking to draw a comparison between Whitewater and the Watergate scandal of two decades ago.

And the affair threatened to take a toll on Clinton's effectiveness, eroding his political capital and making his relations with Congress more difficult.

``It's bound to drain time and energy from the president's agenda,' said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. ``And it will chill personal relations to some degree within the White House: People are afraid to talk to one another about forbidden subjects.'

The Whitewater affair was spinning out of control at a time when Clinton was having a hard time anyway moving the centerpiece of his second year, his overhaul of the health-care system.

The growing affair also threatened to undermine the first lady's work. No longer can she expect to play to an adoring audience of lawmakers in pleading her case for the health-care plan.

The White House is considering a range of options to contain the political damage, from finding a friendly forum for Hillary Rodham Clinton to a possible joint appearance by both Clintons on a TV news magazine show to give their side of the story.

The impact of the affair on the Clinton presidency cannot be gauged at this time - since it's not clear where it's going. A prompt report by special counsel Robert Fiske exonerating Clinton and his staff could easily minimize the long-term damage.

``I remember how Watergate just built and built and built. Kind of a Chinese water torture,' said Lyn Nofziger, a former aide to President Reagan. ``Clinton's got the same problem that Dick Nixon had on Watergate. It's not the crime, it's the cover-up.'


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