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Media can't afford to ignore the rising waters of scandal

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a change in the political landscape makes an enormous difference in the world view of some part of the electorate.

And so it is that the letters and phone calls once filled with cries of "Why aren't you slamming them more on Iran-Contra?" and "What about Neil Bush and Silverado?" now reverberate with the complaint "How come you're being so hard on the Clintons?"

Those complaints have grown with the slow spiral of Whitewater and the plethora of questions about what the president and Mrs. Clinton knew and exactly when they knew it.

The choice of language is neither flippant nor coincidental, for over this enterprise and perhaps every politically suspect action/reaction for the foreseeable future hangs a long shadow.

Twenty years ago this August the first American president to resign from office took off for the coast in a helicopter from the White House lawn, impeachment snapping at his conservatively shod heels.

There are Republicans who still refer to Watergate as a third-rate burglary. They've been thirsting for anything quite so third-rate on the Democratic side of the aisle ever since.

Whitewater was a third-rate land deal in which the Clintons say they lost money. From this stone thrown into the murky pond of Arkansas politics have spread concentric rings: questions about everything from interest deductions on the couple's tax returns to conflicts of interest within the powerful law firm where Mrs. Clinton, as well as a number of other players in the new administration, were once partners.

But the water in Washington, if sometimes toxic, is far more transparent than in Little Rock, and more questions were bound to be asked about the real estate deal and related matters once Clinton became president.

While Whitewater in all its earliest manifestations seemed little more than a civics lesson in the incestuous survival tactics of a small state capital, the aftermath has been infinitely more worthy of notice.

To wit, last week: reports of meetings between officials at the Treasury Department, who are investigating the failed S&L linked to Whitewater, and White House aides, whose bosses are one focus of that investigation.

Reports of shredded documents from the files of Vincent Foster, deputy White House counsel, one-time attorney for the Clintons and Mrs. Clinton's former partner, whose suicide last year is still under investigation.

FBI subpoenas delivered at the White House and the Treasury Department.

And the hits just keep on happening, leading to the inevitable question: Who's in charge there? And why haven't they done a better job?

Do Watergate and Whitewater have much in common besides H2O, or hot war? No way, nohow, nowhere near.

But with the Nixon White House as an anti-model, how in the world could Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernard Nussbaum, who met when both were working on the House Judiciary Committee investigation into Watergate, think that the best initial response to questions about Whitewater was, in the parlance of a previous era, to stonewall?

How could either have failed to detect echoes of the past in meetings between White House staff and representatives of investigating agencies?

The people, we're sometimes told, don't care. They care about crime and health care and schools, not about the Clintons' tax returns or Vince Foster's suicide.

Ever since Bobby Ray Inman went nuclear in a televised press conference and informed the American people that he could not afford to be secretary of defense because the press was mean, there has been a faintly apologetic atmosphere surrounding the reporting enterprise.

Anyone who has been in the newspaper business over the last quarter-century can remember vividly when Watergate, too, was being styled as a liberal media vendetta, a story only reporters cared about.

In retrospect, there was nothing third-rate about it; it was a first-rate exercise in the arrogance and abuse of power. In retrospect, the people cared a great deal.

When all the stories and the investigations are done it may well be that Whitewater will be fourth-rate, fifth-rate, in retrospect not worthy of all the fuss. But reporters are not paid to operate in retrospect.

Because when news begins to solidify into current events and finally hardens into history, it is the stories we didn't write, the questions we didn't ask that prove far, far more damaging than the ones we did.

New York Times News Service