Bentsen gets off lightly on Whitewater

COMPARED with what had gone before, it was a breeze. After its 10-hour roasting of his deputy, Roger Altman, the Senate Banking Committee yesterday treated Lloyd Bentsen with kid gloves, as the Treasury Secretary sought to wash his patrician hands of the whole Whitewater mess.

The night before the hapless Mr Altman had been put to the sword. Only at 2am yesterday did the committee finish with him, still plainly unpersuaded that he had not misled, deceived or lied to them at a hearing on 24 February. 'Semantic gymnastics,' scoffed Republican Senator Connie Mack of Florida at one point. 'Your every statement to this committee is to evade, not to inform.'

But no one dared treat Mr Bentsen like that - not even Alphonse D'Amato, the New York Senator-cum-streetfighter who has led the Republican assault on allegedly improper contacts between the White House and the Treasury on the Whitewater-related investigation into the Madison bank affair, which have brought Mr Altman to the brink of resignation.

The reasons include Mr Bentsen's age, his old Texas money, and his 22 years of Senate service. No one can accuse him of being a pushy young Friend of Bill on the make. Then there is the Bentsen style, a patronising owlishness, perfect for potentially embarrassing hearings on Capitol Hill.

Only Mr D'Amato showed real anger, fulminating afterwards that the Treasury Secretary 'should be ashamed of himself', and that not only Mr Altman but Jean Hanson, the Treasury Department's top lawyer, and Chief of Staff Joshua Steiner should be sacked.

The committee seemed to buy the Bentsen assertion that he knew nothing of the extent of the contacts until he read about them in the newspapers in early March: 'I've turned my memory inside out, we went through thousands and thousands of documents and couldn't find one written briefing to me on these White House meetings.' It was almost an apology for not having come up with something more exciting.

But he cannot undo the damage. This week, the Whitewater hearings have come alive. The issues may border on the incomprehensible, but there is blood in the air.

The diaries kept by Mr Steiner may have been disowned by their author, but his contemporaneous jottings resonate with plausibility: how Mr Altman 'gracefully ducked' a question on 24 February, and how the White House was 'furious' that Mr Altman, an old friend of the President, asked to be moved from his job at the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC).

More important, someone among Mr Bentsen's top staffers has not told the truth about their role in the contacts over the probe into Madison, owned by the Clintons' partner in the former Whitewater land venture. Among a host of discrepancies, Ms Hanson insists Mr Altman had instructed her to brief the White House on Madison as long ago as last September. Mr Altman, who would have to resign if that proved the case, denies the charge.

Someone will have to pay, and last night Mr Altman still looked vulnerable. 'I have no intention of resigning,' he maintained yesterday. Mr Bentsen failed to state, unequivocally, that his deputy should stay on. But Mr Clinton in a televised press conference expressed confidence in Mr Altman and dismissed a question that he might dismiss him.

Mr Bentsen conceded it would have been better had some White House/Treasury meetings not taken place. But nothing happened. No one interfered with the RTC investigation. No one behaved unethically, still less criminally. But try telling that to Senator D'Amato.

Mr Clinton said last night it was 'premature' to consider seeking congressional approval for a US-led invasion of Haiti, Reuter reports.

'I would welcome the support of the Congress and I hope that I will have it,' Clinton said in response to a question at a televised news conference. 'But at this moment, I think we have done all we need to do.'

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