Leading Article: Clinton muddies the Whitewater

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RULE number one of Washington scandals in high places is that the cover-up is usually more damaging than the crime itself. Few should have been more aware of this than Bernard Nussbaum, once a lawyer on the House committee which worked on the impeachment of Richard Nixon, and until this weekend White House counsel. Instead, with the aid and abetment of his colleagues (among them, perhaps, Mr and Mrs Clinton) the cack-handed Mr Nussbaum has succeeded in transforming some minor Arkansas shenanigans of the Eighties into a major league presidential crisis.

'Whitewater' (the portmanteau word for the tangled financial dealings of the Clintons when he was State Governor) is not yet Watergate. Barring developments which no one seriously expects, it never will be. But, like Watergate, it is a largely self-inflicted mess. Evasiveness, procrastination and now three celebrated and utterly improper meetings between White House staff and Treasury officials on what is a private problem of the Clintons - all have created the impression there is something to hide.

Worse, the audience has changed. Before Saturday, Whitewater was an off-Broadway production, for specialists only, about which ordinary Americans cared little and understood less. But everyone knows what words such as resignation, grand jury and subpoena mean, especially when they affect senior officials at the White House. Whitewater is now the only show in town, with every prospect of a long run ahead.

President Clinton must act quickly if he is to shorten this embarrassment. First, he has to find some advisers - notably a White House counsel who is not a card-carrying Friend Of Bill - with the experience and clout to tell the First Couple that there is a difference between official and personal business. Few recent presidencies have gathered so much power into the White House; but few have exercised it so navely. In Little Rock, government by clique and old boy network might have worked. In Washington, it does not.

Second, assuming no graver matters are involved than the minor tax irregularities and small-state conflicts of interest which Whitewater still appears to be, the President must tell all, at once. Rightly, he points out that neither he nor his wife have been accused of any crime. Impeachment is not the threat facing America; the risk rather is of a presidency defensive, distracted and paralysed by a controversy which sheer incompetence has permitted to swell beyond all reasonable proportion.