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A scandal brewing

White House Counsel Bernie Nussbaum's job is to resolve legal and ethical problems for the Clinton administration, not create them. Through a series of mindless blunders, though, Nussbaum and the rest of the White House Damage Control Gang have succeeded in turning what began as a minor curiosity into a full-fledged scandal.

Several administration officials, including Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman, have acted improperly in ways that seriously compromise ongoing investigations into the Whitewater affair.

And Friday night the FBI came calling. At the White House, six of the president's senior officials, including Nussbaum, were subpoenaed. Altman was among the three subpoena recipients at Treasury.

Nussbaum's indiscretions, however, are the most numerous and least defensible. In fact, his repeated intrusion into what should be a thoroughly independent inquiry has raised far more suspicion than the original allegations have. There still is no hard evidence that President or Mrs. Clinton did anything illegal in connection with an Arkansas savings and loan and the Whitewater real estate venture, but Nussbaum keeps behaving in ways that suggest somebody important has something to hide.

Nussbaum's suspicious involvement in this case began in the hours immediately following the apparent suicide of his deputy, Vincent Foster. Nussbaum ordered sensitive files, including some related to Whitewater matters, removed from Foster's office. He then balked at complying with investigators' subsequent efforts to obtain the documents.

If Nussbaum truly didn't anticipate how suspicious those actions would look, the ensuing criticism should have chastened him. Incredibly, though, he continued to inject himself into the Whitewater investigation in ways that suggest a purposeful effort to subvert the process. He participated in three meetings in which Treasury Department officials passed on what should have been confidential information about the Arkansas cases.

These and other examples of abuse of power _ including his attempt to use the FBI for political purposes in last year's flap over the White House travel office _ provide more than enough evidence to conclude that Nussbaum lacks the requisite sense of propriety and discretion for the White House counsel's job. In fact, there was talk Friday night that he was planning to resign.

But what of Nussbaum's boss? When Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen learned that two of his top assistants had improperly briefed White House officials about the Arkansas probes, he left no doubt about the depth of his displeasure. But President Clinton still seems afflicted with ethical tone-deafness. He has been far too tepid in his criticism of White House aides whose indiscretions have done him a disservice, just as he originally was too slow to recognize the political need to turn this case over to an independent counsel.

Unfortunately, these lapses are characteristic of a president who generally doesn't seem to care very much about the appearance of impropriety.

The perception created by his ethical missteps helps to perpetuate even the most far-fetched rumors. Did Vince Foster really commit suicide? What are we to make of the grand jury testimony of the young Rose Law Firm courier who says he was ordered to shred documents that came from Foster's files? Just how tangled are the conflicts that Mrs. Clinton and Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell created for themselves in Arkansas and Washington?

As is usually the case, the rumors are bad, but the hard evidence of a coverup is worse. Until the president moves resolutely to demonstrate that he and his family have nothing to hide, he will bear primary responsibility for the deepening political trouble in which he now finds himself.

If he and his administration are capable of straight thinking, straight talk and direct action, now is the time to show it.