WE DON'T profess to know whether or not President and Mrs. Clinton did anything wrong in their dealings with the ill-fated Whitewater land investment or the failed Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan. The Clintons assert that they didn't, and the White House also continues to point out that they have been accused of no crime. But they are involved in a web of business affairs that is notable for its superabundance of potential and actual conflicts of interest, unreassuring coincidences, misplaced records and suspicious circumstances.
The White House response in recent weeks has made the situation, from its own point of view, enormously worse. The president's handlers in the White House have only deepened the suspicion. Someone said the other day that Washington may now have reached the state-of-the-art point of having a cover-up without a crime. Surely the attorney general, Janet Reno, has the means at her disposal to set up an inquiry -- independent of the Justice Department -- that could get to the bottom of this alternately ludicrous and alarming situation. She should have taken those steps by now.
Two stipulations are in order. First, many Republicans, recognizing the possibility of scoring election-year points, are indeed playing politics with this affair. Second, congressional Democrats, by going to passive resistance in response to GOP requests for hearings, are doing likewise. (Imagine if a Republican were in the White House.) But it is still in the president and Mrs. Clinton's interest to have their involvement with Whitewater and Madison publicly aired and thoroughly investigated by a credible and independent counsel of stature.
That isn't an exclusively Republican thought. Senior Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan has added his voice to calls for Mr. Clinton to release all Whitewater-related documents. "Presidents can't be seen to have any hesitation about any matter that concerns their propriety," said Sen. Moynihan. Appoint a special prosecutor? "Yep. Yep. Nothing to hide. Do it," he said. The attorney general and the Clintons should listen.
About the last thing President or Mrs. Clinton needs is to be seen as under the protection of high-powered White House damage control squads and a gaggle of spinners and legal advisers whose only success thus far is to have managed by word and deed to make it appear as if the Clintons have something to hide. White House cuteness is damaging the president and elevating interest in the Clintons' Arkansas affairs far more than the "runaway prosecutor" they are said to fear. Besides, the decision to appoint a special counsel is neither a Clinton nor a White House staff call. The matter of an independent federal inquiry involving the president should be left in the hands of the Justice Department.
Attorney General Reno has the authority to move this issue to a better and legally secure place. The concern she voiced the other day about appointing a special counsel ("I'm going to be damned if I do and damned if I don't") is beside the point. Whether or not she is criticized for the outcome is not the issue. The need for the current probe to be turned over to someone independent of the administration is overwhelming. Miss Reno can surely structure such an arrangement with the special counsel, as was done during the Watergate investigation. That's the best way to protect the independence of the counsel, defend the integrity of her office and ensure more fairness and more credibility for the investigation that must take place.