THERE WAS ONCE A TIME WHEN leading a congressional inquiry into a sitting president was an opportunity for political stardom. The most conspicuous case was the 1973 Senate Watergate investigation led by 76-year-old Sam Ervin, who had long been regarded in Washington as a colorful old racist with a quaint interest in constitutional law. After Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon, Ervin achieved something close to beatification in the Washington media. Back then, the Democrats controlled Congress and the Republicans the White House. The media treated congressional investigations of presidents as noble undertakings, to be regarded with utmost seriousness.

But that's all changed. Now there is the example of Al D'Amato, who found himself under relentless media attack when he ran the Senate Whitewater investigation and is in desperate electoral straits 18 months before he must face the voters again in New York. These days, it pays to be cautious if you are a Republican heading a probe of the president. That is why staffers working for Tennessee senator Fred Thompson fear Thompson is already getting too much attention even though his investigation of the 1996 fund-raising morass hasn't even begun yet.

On February 25, Thompson gave his first out-of-state television interview since he was named to head the investigation. Thompson granted the interview to New Hampshire station WMUR as a favor to his Republican colleague Judd Gregg, and he refused even to comment on the probe. Nonetheless, his staff was worried that the interview would be taken as a further sign that Thompson is hoping the scandal will catapult him into contention for the presidency.

Republican aides who worked on the Senate's Whitewater investigation remember precisely when they learned that the rules of the presidential- investigation game had changed. It came on January 4, 1996. Before then, the Senate's Whitewater investigation had been marked by bipartisan harmony, even as it passed from Democratic control into Al D'Amato's hands. But on that day, those missing billing records from the Rose Law firm turned up in the family quarters at the White House.

Bye-bye, bipartisanship. "After that," one senior Republican aide recalls, " we had a totally different reaction from the Democrats. Richard [Ben-Veniste, the Democrats" counsel] became much more of a defense attorney. No one on the Democratic side would support us." Indeed, the Democrats blocked D'Amato's request to extend the investigation past its scheduled expiration date in February 1996. When it finally got going again in May, the probe never recovered its momentum. The Democrats even felt free to vote as a bloc to stop the committee from immunizing David Hale, the key witness in the investigation.

Nothing like that ever happened in the old days. Quite the opposite, in fact: There were always a handful of Republicans who would join the Democratic posse in pursuit of a Republican president. And those Republicans would invariably reap media praise for their courage. On the Watergate committee, it was Connecticut's Lowell Weicker and, to some extent, Tennessee's Howard Baker. Indeed, Baker is the author of the classic Watergate question: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"

During the Iran-contra inquiry in 1987, New Hampshire's Warren Rudman was such a team player with the Democrats that he was deputized as the committee's vice chairman. The chairman, Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye, wistfully remembered those days during a press conference on March 5. " Everything was bipartisan," he said. "We had an agreement, Rudman and I, that we would appear before press conferences, whether it was Meet the Press or something like this . . . two of us, never by ourselves."

Under those circumstances, Republican administrations felt they had little choice but to cooperate, or at least pretend to. No longer. The Clinton administration openly attacked the Senate Whitewater investigation as a " partisan witch hunt." And the administration did not merely attack; it also stonewalled. Michael Chertoff, the committee's chief counsel, remembers: "We had guys like [Clinton aide] Bruce Lindsey, who had been under subpoena for more than a year, produce documents on the last day of the investigation. If a U.S. attorney had a witness come in on the last day of an investigation claiming they'd just found things, they'd sure be looking at him for a possible prosecution for obstruction of justice."

Some have argued that D'Amato, with his reputation as a fierce partisan with his own ethical baggage, was simply the wrong man for the job. But D'Amato actually behaved with considerable restraint, much more so than some Democrats. Remember Henry Gonzalez, then the chairman of the House banking committee, and his wild goose chase after the so-called Iraq-gate scandal? The premise of that case, that the Bush administration funneled cash to Saddam Hussein through federal agriculture credits, turned out to be false. The whole probe was a farce, but it still got better press than D'Amato's investigation.

At the moment, the press is driving the Clinton fund-raising scandal, providing both the disclosures and the coverage of the tortured explanations. It is not going well for the White House, especially after Al Gore's unconvincingly pedantic defense of his one-man telethon. "Not a good news conference," said ABC's Cokie Roberts. "A sorry performance," said the Washington Post's Mary McGrory. Even Post cartoonist Herblock, normally as reliable a friend as the Democrats have, depicted Gore on the phone in his office, balancing himself on the edge of a telephone credit card, and later in the week, drowning in a pool of his own legalisms.

What should Republicans be saying and doing in this atmosphere? Maybe nothing. Senate majority leader Trent Lott last week pushed a cleverly crafted "compromise" funding plan for Thompson's investigation through the Senate Rules Committee in hopes of breaking a partisan deadlock that had threatened to block the entire inquiry. He proposed spending $ 4.35 million through December 31 to investigate "all illegal activities" in the 1996 campaign. The phrase "all illegal activities" was designed to keep the focus on the Clinton campaign while appearing to allow an inquiry into all abuses, including those in congressional races. "I just don't believe," said Lott, " that the Democrats want to be in a position of trying to . . . block this or filibuster this."

In fact, that might be the best thing that could happen to the Republicans. Two days after Newt Gingrich piped up that this scandal was in total "much bigger" than Watergate, the Atlanta Constitution reported that six years ago, Gingrich solicited wealthy donors to his political action committee with promises of access to him and the opportunity to influence policy. Is this the D'Amato effect working its negative magic again? Maybe, maybe not, but it's an example of why Republicans on Capitol Hill would be wise to look before they leap into this fray. The White House can't possibly win a fight with the news media. But it does pretty well when it goes up against the Republican Congress.

Contributing editor Brit Hume is Washington managing editor of the Fox News Channel.

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