LEADING ARTICLE: Whitewater 2: the empty case

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Under the beady and malevolent eye of the Republican chairman of the Banking Committee, Alphonse D'Amato of New York, the United States Senate tomorrow opens new hearings into the Whitewater affair.

Last year's instalment produced such momentous revelations as the secret diaries of a doey eyed young Treasury aide called Josh Steiner, a few minor inconsistencies in testimony, but absolutely no proof of White House tampering with a federal investigation into the failed Madison Guaranty Bank of Arkansas, with whose owner then Governor Bill Clinton once had close ties.

Part two in 1995 will dwell on whether White House aides improperly removed documents from the office of deputy White House counsel Vince Foster after he committed suicide two years ago. Mr D'Amato, a vicious critic of Mr Clinton, may be relied upon to impart a sharp edge to proceedings. But the outcome is likely to be no more conclusive. Why, then, this raking over of coals that were mere embers in the first place?

Obviously, democratic states must have the means of conducting independent probes into serious misbehaviour by politicians in office, be it Watergate or Iran-Contra in the US or the arms-for-Iraq allegations which Justice Scott is investigating here. Equally obviously, a sense of proportion is required. Whitewater, upon which a special prosecutor has been beavering away in Little Rock for the best part of a year, fails this test. Energies and time better spent elsewhere, not to mention millions of dollars, are being wasted on the pursuit of a middling-sized savings and loan collapse in the 1980s, long before Mr Clinton became President. He has yet to be accused of the slightest wrongdoing. Whitewater may be described as a controversy or an affair. But if the English language retains meaning, it is thus far not a scandal.

Alas, however, Mr Clinton has fallen foul of two of America's eternal verities: the brutality of its politics and its obsession with conspiracies. A serious connection between Vince Foster and Whitewater is utterly unproven. That, however, has not stopped his foes installing the suicide alongside the Kennedy assassination in the pantheon of plotting. And with a presidential election on the horizon, who can blame them? After the harassments visited upon presidents Reagan and Bush by a Democratic Congress, Republicans can be forgiven for feasting upon Whitewater. Indeed, rough justice demands that it be allowed to run its probably pointless course. Thereafter, however, the rules must surely be changed, to prevent abuse of the independent counsel law. A system inspired by Watergate has become a frivolous parody of itself. Whitewater and its like are splendid fodder for Washington dinner parties. But fear of undergoing such ordeals is another reason why America's best shun politics. In that sense, not just Bill Clinton but all America is the loser.