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The only surprise in the resignation of Roger Altman as deputy Treasury secretary is that it took him and the White House nearly two weeks to read the obvious handwriting on the wall and see that he simply had to leave.

This delay seems to be due not just to wishful thinking on Altman's part but also to a degree of ineptitude in the White House that borders on cruelty.Ignoring bipartisan outrage from Congress about the way Altman had misled the nation's lawmakers about the Whitewater scandal, White House aides initially said that President Clinton wanted him to stay and indicated Altman would be given a chance to do some fence-mending with Congress.

Only after Altman left on vacation in Wyoming did presidential aides leak word that he should resign.

This needlessly ugly, painful handling of Altman's departure can't be expected to inspire much confidence and loyalty on the part of his successor - or on the part of other Clinton aides involved in the Whitewater affair.

Apart from the Oval Office's flip-flop on Altman, the delay in his departure indicates the administration is out of touch with Congress and likely with the public, too.

Altman came under withering fire for putting his desire to protect the president ahead of his obligation to candor and the public interest. Last February he told the Senate Banking Committee of only one contract between Treasury and White House officials concerning the government's investigation of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, the failed Arkansas thrift institution owned by the Clintons' partner in the Whitewater real estate deal. In fact, it was later discovered that there were about 40 such contacts involving Altman and other senior Treasury officials. One of these was to notify the White House that the Madison case was about to be sent to the Justice Department for a possible inquiry in which the Clintons might be named as witnesses.

The White House should have known immediately how outraged Congress would be at Altman for compounding his initial misleading statements with a failure to make prompt amends. No one takes kindly to deception, intentional or not.

Beyond those blunders, Altman - an otherwise likable, public-spirited and extremely competent investment banker - should have known enough to avoid the conflict of interest in which he was involved.

Altman made the mistake of wearing two hats as deputy Treasury secretary, a political job, and as acting chairman of the Resolution Trust Corp., an independent agency set up to sell the assets of failed savings and loans and uncover evidence of fraud and abuse. Altman should have known that Clinton's connection with Madison Guaranty, a failed Arkansas thrift run by people who also were partners with the Clintons in the Whitewater land deal, would put him in a compromising position as a federal regulator. Instead of recusing himself from anything to do with Madison or the Clintons, Altman briefed the White House on the legal ramifications of the Madison investigation.

In resigning, Altman expressed the hope that his departure would help diminish the controversy over White- water. But clearly it will not. In addition to the investigation by independent counsel Kenneth Starr, a second round of congressional hearings is planned. Consequently, this scandal could keep haunting the Clintons for months or even years - particularly if the White House is not more alert to congressional and public sensitivities than it has been so far.