IT'S HARDLY SURPRISING that Sunday's joint appearance by the presidential candidates of the major party duopoly--it could hardly be called a debate--produced little that was noteworthy. Jim Lehrer was chosen as moderator because he is the acknowledged journalistic master of the Nerfball Toss, having long practiced a slavish deference to anyone in a position to influence PBS's congressional appropriation. With just 90 seconds to expound on the complexities of economic and foreign policy (less time than your average network commercial break), the candidates did little more than regurgitate the soundbite material contained in their TV ads.

          The only real news was that Bill Clinton continues to dangle the possibility of pardons for his former business partner Susan McDougal and others in the crimes of the Madison Savings and Loan scandal and for White House aides involved in the coverup of the Clintons' involvement. Mrs. McDougal's sentencing in the felony fraud of which she was convicted by a Little Rock jury has been postponed on appeal, but she's been jailed by a judge for contempt as a result of her refusal to tell a grand jury whether the president lied at her trial in which he claimed no knowledge of illegal loans.

          If the president did not lie, Mrs. McDougal could easily purge herself of contempt by saying so. Her refusal to do so raises the obvious question: What could she know that Clinton finds so threatening that he's willing to risk election-year criticism by holding out the possibility of a pardon?

          The answer may well be found in the dubious dealings over an 800-acre parcel of land known as Lorance Heights, which Jim and Susan McDougal purchased through the Whitewater Development Corporation in March 1986. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr is investigating whether cash from an illegal $300,000 Small Business Administration loan to a fictitious Susan McDougal company called Master Marketing was used to purchase the Lorance Heights property.

          At the trial that convicted the McDougals, an FBI agent testified that $50,000 of the SBA loan went to cover Whitewater expenses, while another $25,000 was deposited to the Whitewater account at Madison to cover a payment to the broker on Whitewater lot sales--and $25,000 more went toward a down payment on Lorance Heights, which was purchased the same month that former Judge David Hale says he was pressured by Clinton into making that illegal loan of SBA money to Susan McDougal. During the president's taped testimony in the McDougal trial, prosecutors asked him 18 questions about Lorance Heights, and 10 about the Hale loan.

          Lorance Heights has been virtually ignored by the national press corps--only the conservative Washington Times has given it extensive coverage. The paper's editorial columns may be repugnantly reactionary, but it's the sole major daily to keep a reporter full-time on the Whitewater/Madison scandals: the careful but dogged Jerry Seper. (One of the great bits of Beltway video last year came when Seper won a White House Correspondents Association award for his Whitewater work--which was presented by Bill Clinton. Bubba's language was priceless.)

          Seper is one of the few reporters to pay attention to the victims of the Madison land scams. As he wrote on September 18, "Most of the 50 persons who bought parcels at Lorance Heights were elderly or poor and took advantage of the $175-a-month mortgages. Few of the promised amenities, including roads and sewers, were ever delivered. Lorance was foreclosed in 1989 after Whitewater failed to make the mortgage payments."

          Character does matter: A greedy and ambitious politician who will countenance defrauding an SBA program designed to aid economically disadvantaged minorities for the benefit of a land scam that hurt impoverished senior citizens won't flinch at throwing millions of poor children off welfare.

          But given a choice between a slick crook and a pile of dust, the voting middle classes have made up their minds to reelect the crook. Truly, we are governed by pygmies.

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