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Whitewater: Prosecute It or Drop It

Ted Van Dyk is a former Washington State resident and a Democrat of national pedigree, who once served as an aide to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, later ran a Democratic policy center and advised Sen. Paul Tsongas in his 1992 presidential bid. These days he gazes balefully over developments in the Whitewater scandal as described in the newspapers that arrive daily in his Washington, D.C. office; and he asks rhetorically, what is the likely outcome of this seemingly endless mess?

Consider this scenario, he suggests: Bill Clinton, like Richard Nixon in 1972, wins big in November, and next February independent counsel Kenneth Starr announces an indictment. The country and the Congress are thrown into an uproar. It’s Watergate all over again and the people demand to know why the facts had not been presented to them when they could have exercised their own judgment at the polls.

Now picture a second scenario: Clinton wins, but narrowly. Then the independent counsel announces that he has found, in the familiar term of art, “insufficient grounds to prosecute.” The White House and Democrats are outraged that they have had to put up with the character issue hanging over their heads, when an earlier resolution could have spared the President and maybe Democrats in Congress a lot of anxiety, and maybe given them a larger mandate.

In scenario three, the current steady erosion of news stories–Mrs. Clinton cited for failure to report her role in the Castle Grande real estate deal, talk of pardoning the McDougals, and what have you–take their silent toll. Dole wins narrowly. Then, the independent counsel reports around inaugural time that he is indicting the soon-to-be-retired Clintons. More distress, including Republican indignation that this information was not available at a time when it could have led to a more substantial GOP victory.

Or, four, a narrow Dole victory is followed by a decision by the independent counsel not to indict. Outgoing President Clinton is relieved, but angry. This decision earlier could have saved the election for him and helped the Democrats in Congress. The process has triumphed over justice once again. (Van Dyk thinks the chances of indictment overall are 50-50.)

In short, the Whitewater scandal and the investigation attending it have dragged on so long now that it is hard to conceive of an outcome that truly serves the nationĂ­s interest. In 1992 the scandal was new, poorly reported and had no effect on the election. Later, as Travelgate and other mini-scandals developed, it was assumed that appointment of an independent counsel (two, as it turned out) would get to the bottom of the matter and clear it up, one way or another. Yet here we are, going through yet another election where Whitewater and related matters whistle around the campaign like a nasty ditty voters hate but can’t get out of their heads.

The assumption has been that because people are fatigued with Whitewater and related matters, they also are unaware and unaffected. In fact, voters know that questions of tax evasion, obstruction of justice and perjury are serious, but they don’t know how to assess them. In surveys, the results are strange, and Charles E. Cook in the Capitol Hill newspaper, Roll Call, is not alone in saying that he has never seen such volatility. Consider this exotic syllogism: a) a majority of people believe “character” is important in a president; b) a majority thinks Dole is far superior to Clinton on this count, and c) a majority plans to vote for Clinton.

If that kind of survey is accurate, does it suggest, as some say, that the American people have lost their moral bearings? Not necessarily. It may suggest that people have other things on their minds, and, in any case, prefer to give the Clintons the benefit of the doubt until hard evidence of wrongdoing is presented. Who can blame them? Theirs actually seems like a very sensible attitude.

For one thing, who can remember all the chapters in the Whitewater saga as it courses through Arkansas and Washington, D.C., let alone the details? Few Democratic leaders in Congress or elsewhere are visibly defending the Clintons on Whitewater, yet the Dole campaign is staying away from the subject, too. Maybe no one can follow it all.

Of course, there are many other, on-the-record reasons for a vote against Clinton and for Dole (and vice versa), but they are the old, standard liberal versus conservative arguments that have divided the parties for sixty odd years. You don’t have to have Whitewater splashed in your face. Not on the evidence so far.

Van Dyk, who over the past few years became a public critic of Bill Clinton’s character (“I believe he is badly flawed.”), is now frustrated with the failure of the independent counsel to come to a conclusion in a timely fashion that would allow a political resolution rather than risk a constitutional crisis. A partisan Democrat, he is foremost concerned for the country.

Prosecutors, he notes, always think of building as strong a case as possible before he takes action. Let justice takes its course. But there comes a point where more is at stake than a trial–like the future of the nation. Thus, Van Dyk now concludes that if Ken Starr is going to bring charges, he has an obligation to do it before election day. Otherwise, he should drop it.

Think about the grave implications of either course. Someone should.