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A cancer has been growing on the Clinton presidency. Its locus is the office of the White House Counsel.

Hillary Clinton brought in her Watergate mentor, Bernard Nussbaum, to run it, along with two of her Rose Law Firm partners, Vincent Foster and William Kennedy. Under her guidance, they brought in a known dirty trickster, Craig Livingstone, to head their political internal security. Their central purpose: protect the Clintons at all costs.Vince Foster, afflicted with the festering Whitewater files, was the first to crack, a suicide. The too-loyal Nussbaum, blocking the FBI from the dead man's office files on Whitewater, was soon cut adrift by his clients. William Kennedy, who tried to cover up a patronage grab by using the FBI to besmear innocent travel office staffers, quit under a cloud. His role as supervisor of the former bouncer Livingstone in raping the privacy of some 500 Americans is just being exposed.

That grand Clinton White House Counsel tradition is being carried to new depths by Jack ("Tell 'Em Nuthin' ") Quinn. With guilty knowledge of Clin-ton-ites' wrongful obtaining and sustained possession of FBI confidential files, Quinn tried to conceal evidence of that abuse under "executive privilege."

Only when threatened with jail for contempt of Congress did the former Gore aide hand over a document that led to revelations of political snooping into private lives, which the president tried to kiss off as a "bureaucratic snafu" (Clin-tonese for "third-rate burglary").

As the scandal metastasizes, we are beginning to get some idea of its scope:

What is known as Whitewater is graft, plain and simple, the local bribery compounded by the use of federal office to obstruct justice.

What is known as Travelgate is the cover-up of the embarrassment at being caught making places for political patrons by abusing the power to prosecute, compounded by lying to a federal agency investigating Hillary Clinton's role.

What does not yet have a name - but what the roundheeled director of the FBI, hand-picked by Nussbaum, would like to be slugged as "the victimization of the FBI" - is the requisition of the most intimate details of the lives of potential political targets by the office of White House Counsel.

What do these three scandals have in common besides the centrality of the president and his wife?

The power of the federal government has been used to protect political friends from the law and to pose a threat to punish political opponents. In each case, a conspiracy has been under way.

I've just returned from observing the Russian elections. Worried about the closeness of the vote, President Boris Yeltsin fired his most venal adviser, the head of the KGB and the bloody-handed defense chief. He purged his regime of its worst elements not because he wanted to, but because voters at the polls sent him the message that he had to clean up the Kremlin or they would throw him out. Fear of losing brings out his best.

But in America, the rising tide of revelations seems only to buoy the president high in the polls. The message he gets from public boredom in the face of sustained scandal is plain: hang tough, murmur "mistakes were made," get your partisans in Congress to see no evil, admit no wrongdoing. Confidence in winning brings out his worst.

Strange new democratic world. The Russian voters are angry, so their president changes from sullen, repressive autocrat to peppy, responsive populist to please them; the American voters are apathetic, and our president feels no need to sweep out the Augean stable, heaped high with high crime, that his office of White House counsel has become.

But as the people awaken, the endgame begins.