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HEARINGS A POLITICAL SPECTACLE

Bernie Nussbaum last week fulfilled every hinterlander's fondest dream of the New York stereotype, accent and all. Assertive and combative, he held his ground and testified to Senate Republicans prepped to play on Middle American preconceptions, that he had acted ethically and properly as White House counsel in blocking official attempts two years ago to examine the papers of Vincent Foster, his deputy and the Clintons' close friend, who had just committed suicide.

Nussbaum stated that his first duty was to his client, the president, to preserve the privacy of those papers lest they compromise confidential personal matters as well as executive privilege.It was a ringing defense, made as both houses of Congress held separate hearings into Whitewater and the Foster suicide. The hearings resembled nothing so much as an opening act of the 1996 presidential campaign. Republicans strained in their attempts to make political hay while Democrats were obsessive in their defensive blocking.

It was not anyone's finest hour, but it served a purpose. Yet again, it taught that hoary lesson: No government is likely to honestly investigate itself.