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Marathon Man Comes to a Personal Crossroad : Altman survives grueling 10-hour hearing session, but . . .

If Roger Altman, deputy Treasury secretary--and the star witness at the marathon Senate hearing on Whitewater that went on until the wee hours Wednesday morning--did shave the truth in his previous testimony, he is not the first government official appearing before Congress to have done so. Nor did many of his inquisitors have very high ground to stand on. Washington itself is a caldron of half-truths and compromises where selective use of facts and partisan conclusions are often mixed together and presented as disinterested findings--or even as sworn congressional testimony.

The amazing Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato (R-N.Y.) of course is a special case; this self-appointed ethics sleuth walks around with his very own ethics cloud hovering over him. And Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), while a skilled inquisitor, all too clearly relished the opportunity to grill this high-ranking Democrat with all those klieg lights and TV cameras illuminating the star witness’ anguish.

Fair enough. Such is politics. Altman’s real problem is not with overeager Republicans but with uncomfortably embarrassed Democrats. They rightly praise Altman for all the expertise and talent he brings to government service. But several of them have obvious misgivings about his statements on Tuesday, as well as his previous testimony in February. The issue is whether the Treasury Department improperly conveyed to the White House confidential information about the Whitewater probe and what Altman’s role in that was. Altman himself now acknowledges that his testimony on this score may have been misleading.

In addition, Altman now acknowledges that, as a close friend of President Bill Clinton, he should have quickly withdrawn as acting head of the Resolution Trust Corp. as soon as federal investigators there began their probe into the failure of Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan.

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In truth, putting both the No. 2 Treasury job and the RTC oversight job into the hands of the same public official was bad public policy. Now it is turning into a serious political problem for Altman and fellow Democrats. Congress as an institution has the easiest part to play here. A new RTC head needs to be confirmed. John Ryan, the agency’s deputy head and now the acting chief executive officer, should be formally nominated to head the RTC, even though it is scheduled to go out of business on Dec. 31, 1995. Until then it still needs a full-time head. Treasury officials, by law, have an oversight role over the RTC; that should be confined to basic oversight--not turned into day-to-day supervision. Senate confirmation of the new RTC director should occur quickly.

For Altman’s part, evidence of a real crime is just not there--or at least no one has found it yet. But as Altman now admits, his earlier testimony to Congress had been “too narrow and perhaps incomplete.” He had to endure a grueling 10-hour hearing before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, and he did that with some aplomb, considering the circumstances. But it may be that Altman will conclude that his ability to relate to Congress has been compromised by its perception that he has been, at best, less than candid; and that an impaired deputy Treasury secretary is of marginal utility to the President and the country.

If Altman does reach this conclusion, President Clinton should have little trouble finding another important assignment for this talented man--nor should private industry, should he wish to return to it.


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