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The most difficult of all military operations is retreat, and it is not much easier in politics. It is usually messy and always undignified, and President Clinton's retreat on the Whitewater scandal is a good example of how not to do it.

The day he arrived in Moscow for a summit meeting with Boris Yeltsin, hoping for enthusiastic news coverage of Clinton the Peacemaker, the papers and television news were filled with lugubrious officials announcing that the president would, after all, allow a special prosecutor to poke through his financial affairs.He and his wife, Hillary, with all the zealous warriors in the White House war room and the attorney general, Janet Reno, have been steadfastly insisting for weeks that there was no need for a special prosecutor to investigate the affair. They mounted a brave counterattack, denouncing Republicans for demanding the investigation, abusing them for making the point the day the president went to his mother's funeral and set out for Europe.

The Republicans were insensitive and unpatriotic, said the White House spin-masters a week ago. Then last Sunday, a whole slew of senior Democrats in the Senate, led by Sen. Patrick Moynihan of New York, said that of course the president should allow a special prosecutor. So much for partisanship.

They did things better during the election campaign, most of the time. The basic war-room tactic was to counterattack.

The war room moved to the White House a year ago and kept up the tradition. They won some victories that way, pulling off last-minute congressional majorities on the budget, on NAFTA and GATT, but it did not work with Whitewatergate.

The implied accusation is that Bill Clinton used his position as governor of Arkansas to enrich himself, by helping friends of his, James and Susan McDougal, in their business dealings. McDougal was president of a savings and loan association, Madison Guaranty, and Madison may have made improper loans to one of Clinton's re-election campaigns or even to the Clintons directly.

Hillary Rodham Clinton was on a $2,000-a-month retainer as counsel for Madison and argued its case before the Arkansas banking regulators - people who had been appointed to their jobs by her husband. They always gave her a favorable hearing.

Subsequently Madison went bankrupt and the government had to provide $60 million to reimburse depositors.

The McDougals and the Clintons were the four partners in a real-estate speculation, Whitewater Properties. The project failed and the Clintons claim they lost $69,000 on their investment.

The McDougals are under investigation for various improprieties connected with Madison and Whitewater. Furthermore, Susan McDougal has been charged with embezzling $200,000 from the conductor Zubin Mehta, for whom she was bookkeeper.

The FBI wants to know what happened to the money, and to see all the Clintons' papers. Until now, the president and his lawyers (and he and his wife are both lawyers) have resisted the investigation.

The political point is that, as some of these details leaked out, the White House was unable to offer convincing, detailed explanations of the Clintons' involvement in Whitewater. Therefore public demands for a thorough accounting grew steadily louder. It is all reminiscent of Watergate.

If the Clintons are completely innocent, they have done themselves a great deal of damage already. If they are guilty, the roof will fall in on them, and President Gore will inherit a very shaky administration.

At this stage, that is morbid speculation.

The present situation is that Clinton has messed up his first trip to Europe as president by his clumsy handling of a domestic issue.

The press has been notably slow to plunge into the affair, which is reminiscent of Watergate when the scandal bubbled along for months, throughout the 1972 election, unexamined by most newspapers and all television networks. It finally boiled over in the spring of 1973.

Now the Clintons will hand over every piece of paper they have on Whitewater, and whoever is appointed special prosecutor will go through the documents and probably interview them and the McDougals among others, before presenting a report. The scandal will fade from the news until the report appears.

That will probably not be before the congressional elections next November, but it will certainly happen before the next presidential election in 1996. It will make interesting reading.

Dist. by Scripps Howard News Service.