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Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton assumes her meeting in Rochester will one day mean more than the flap over flatware.

She was upstate talking to business and education leaders about the region's economy. The issue helped propel her into the office she now holds. Her ability to stay there relies on whether she comes through.

In Washington, the new president was asked about the latest gift imbroglio -- the inopportune revelation that donors of some sofas and chairs thought they'd made gifts to the executive mansion and not to the Clintons.

"It's important that all the facts be laid out on the table, and I'm confident that . . . the former president and the first lady will make the right decision," President Bush said.

It seems that some furniture the Clintons took from the White House appeared on the White House gift logs as personal gifts, and also on National Park Service logs as government property. All gifts the Clintons accepted were cleared by both the White House curator and usher's office, the former president's office said in a statement.

The circumstance recalls the kind of bureaucratic snarl at the root of the FBI files caper, a big brouhaha once decried as the worst abuse of power since Watergate. In fact, two independent counsels concluded that the files mix-up involving background information on officials from the first Bush administration was precisely that -- a mix-up -- and that no improper use had ever been made of the documents. Still, the conclusions are not believed by the carnival barkers of the right.

Now we ponder, again, the eternal question of the Clintons: Are they the most ethically obtuse pair to occupy public office since Nixon? Or the victims of an orchestrated smear by opponents, helped by an obliging media? Answer that, and you've got a fat book contract.

It is unfashionable to say it is both, yet that is the essence of it. The Clintons had every right, as do all first couples, to take gifts on their departure. But their invitation to rich friends to help them furnish their new homes was tasteless. They went out with palms outstretched. This left the opening for right-wing howls and the usual media malfeasance.

The $190,027 in gifts the Clintons took wasn't the biggest haul ever, as some reported. That would be Ronald Reagan's acceptance of $2.5 million from political benefactors who bought the Gipper a retirement mansion in Bel-Air, Calif. (Nancy later said it was a loan, not a gift.)

There is much harrumphing about Hillary's china. No one has noted that President George Bush and first lady Barbara reported keeping a $1,025 barbecue pit for their new Houston home and some stainless steel cookware. So how did the Bush pals know the couple needed new pots?

During the frenzy over the Clintons' bric-a-brac, the media kept mostly silent about the buying of the Bush II inaugural going on at the same time. Corporations and rich people with business before the new administration kicked in $100,000 each for the festivities. The fat-cat donors included the deputy prime minister of Lebanon, who has a stake in the Mideast peace process, as well as a Houston-based global investment firm with stakes everywhere. The donation from Issam Fares would have been illegal if it went to Bush's campaign; not so the inaugural fund. And the money was gladly accepted.

This type of thing used to be considered more corrupt than receipt of a golf club by an ex-president. That seems long ago.

Jim Kennedy, who handles questions for the senator, says Hillary will of course give back anything the donors say belongs at the mansion. Which she did, returning $28,000 worth of donated sofas, rugs and other furnishings. The hope is that Clinton's determined focus and hard work in the Senate will, in the end, win out. They usually have. Let them rant about hair and gifts; Clinton will just keep on doing her work.

That was her winning campaign formula. But now she is the senator, the one with public office, the one with the reputation to build and the state to serve. Hillary Rodham Clinton must add another ingredient to the formula: Don't just work through controversies and distractions. Don't let them happen.


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