Out of America: First buy yourself a leader, then ask him questions later

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WASHINGTON - According to front-page dispatches from political reporters sent out this Easter recess to take real America's pulse, the public reckons the fuss over the Clintons' past financial dealings is more than a mite exaggerated. I learnt the same thing a fortnight or so ago, from my chiropractor.

His office may be on K Street, mecca of the pricey lawyers and lobbyists of insider Washington. But he lives safely in Maryland, out beyond the Beltway, in a world where the propriety of certain Arkansas bank transactions in the mid-Eighties is of less than cosmic concern. 'That Whitewater stuff,' he opined as he nudged my ver tebrae back into the correct alignment, 'is a bunch of bullshit.'

And to judge from the renewed glint in his eye on television, President Bill Clinton is discovering much the same during a holiday break at the safest possible distance from his Washington tormentors. For a while at least, the controversy has run out of steam. The news media have been obliged to look at their own performance and frequently found it wanting.

Both Time and Newsweek are in the doghouse: the former for a cover photo showing a harassed President in fact taken months ago and then doctored, the latter for falsely claiming Hillary Clinton did not put a cent of her own money into her commodity specu lation which earned her dollars 100,000 ( pounds 68,000).

Now the saga of 'Hillary in the Pits', to borrow the headline of a Wall Street Journal editorial the other day, may be the most damaging nugget the sleuths have yet unearthed. What ammunition for Republican hecklers ('Hey Hillary, do you like July pork bellies ?') or for the late night television comedians ('How do you end the collapse on Wall Street? Get a few stock tips from the First Lady'). But it has nothing to do with the Whitewater affair proper, which for all its imperfections is a fascinating illustration of the strength and weakness of the system which put President Clinton in the Oval Office.

The strength, of course, is the capacity to reach out beyond the centre for new faces. Sitting senators, governors of small states, even paranoid businessmen from Texas: if they can get the organisation and the money together, they can run. Love him or loathe him, there's no denying Mr Clinton represented change; a change of party, of generation and of outlook.

The old democracies of Europe, where such things could never happen, watched in sour envy. But the American free-for-all has its drawbacks. One is not knowing quite what you are getting. Never was this truer than of the action- packed, but by United States' standards extraordinarily short, campaign of 1992.

The most obvious Democratic candidates simply passed on it, calculating that George Bush, the liberator of Kuwait, was unbeatable. Bill Clinton only declared his intention to run for president on 3 October 1991, barely a year before the election. Even inside the Beltway, where he had put down markers, he was known only as a young, clever and ambitious 'New Democrat' governor, rumoured to have an eye for the ladies.

For the country at large, apart from the 2.4 million souls of Arkansas, he was a total mystery. In Europe, except in the unique circumstances of Italy and Silvio Berlusconi, such ignorance is virtually inconceivable. The character of a future president or prime minister would have come out over decades, in the wash of parliament or national politics. In the case of candidate Clinton, that process was perforce crammed into a few months.

The original New York Times article on Whitewater (which incidentally, despite all the labourings of ace investigative reporters since, still contains about 75 per cent of the verified facts of the affair) was published on 22 March 1992. Alas, the tale was complicated, a far harder sell to both editors and readers than the allegations of adultery and draft-dodging that were making Mr Clinton's life a misery at the time.

And no sooner had the story broken than the newspapers realised Ross Perot was for real. The journalistic troupe moved from Little Rock to Dallas. Whitewater and all it would say about the character of the Clinton couple was squeezed out for lack of time. So it is that today Americans continue to find out who their President is - except after, instead of before, electing him.

Such is the shortcoming of the system. For what is happening now, both sides are to blame. Led by the conservative anti-Clinton press, the media have often given ludicrous prominence to the most minor developments (and non- developments). Whitewater cannot be called a scandal, but who wants to miss out on a possible Pulitzer Prize?

Cackhanded damage control by the White House has not helped, nor has President Clinton's incurable tendency to dissemble and split legal hairs. But that does not mean the investigations are unnecessary. I am pretty sure that my chiropractor is right. But Whitewater is the price for having to take a candidate on spec.