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You don't need to watch Jay Leno or "Saturday Night Live" to find hilarious parodies of how politics works in our nation's capital. Often, this city just makes fun of itself.

Last week, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., demanded details of meetings that Karl Rove, President Bush's senior adviser and top political guru, had with companies in which he owned stock. Waxman's letter was prompted by news that Rove had met with the chief executive of the Intel Corp. in March about an issue pending before the administration. At the time, Rove had not yet divested himself of his Intel stock.

The funny part came when the White House expressed its pious indignation. "The American people are tired of these partisan investigations of the past," Dan Bartlett, a senior White House communications official, told reporters. "We've offered a clear break from this, and we hope they will do the same."

Producer: Roll that track of incredulous audience laughter.

The administration that claims to have made a "clear break" from partisanship is the very same administration that, through prodigious leaking, got the news media to give vast coverage last January to alleged "vandalism" in the White House by members of the outgoing Clinton administration. This, in turn, led Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., who has never met an allegation against Clinton that he didn't want to talk about on television, to demand an investigation by the General Accounting Office.

The GAO dutifully reported in April that it "found no damage" to the White House real estate and said it could reach no further conclusions because the White House said it had no written record of the alleged damage. Former Clinton staffers, who felt they had been unfairly maligned, demanded an apology from the Bush White House.

An administration genuinely tired of partisan tit-for-tat might have said something nice or innocuous, and let the story go. But no. Earlier this month, White House officials who didn't furnish any records to the GAO released a list of damage they said was done by the Clinton staffers. The list included obscene graffiti, sliced telephone lines and broken computer keyboards.

How did Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, justify revisiting a story he insists he'd like to go away? "We tried to be gracious, but the last administration would not take graciousness," Fleischer said. In other words, because junior Clinton administration officials decided to defend themselves, the Bush administration decided to trash them again.

The double standard is clear. Anything allegedly bad that happened under Clinton was worth investigating over and over and over. But anything allegedly bad that happens under Bush should certainly not be investigated. Investigating the Clinton administration was an obligation to justice. Not investigating the Bush administration is a an obligation to civility.

In the case of Rove, it's difficult to believe he was double-dealing on behalf of his stock portfolio. His central obsession these days is politics, not money.

But rules are rules, and do you doubt for a moment that had, say, George Stephanopoulos been charged with exactly the same conduct as Rove, the conservative talk shows would have buzzed with rage? Don't you think Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., chairman of the Government Reform Committee, would have planned extensive hearings?

But isn't Bush's spokesman right, that we all want to curtail government by investigation? Of course. That's why the new Senate majority leader, Democrat Tom Daschle, was shrewd to say on Sunday that he didn't foresee a need to investigate Rove. Senate Democrats should avoid narrow inquiries into every Bush administration peccadillo. They would best use hearings to change the nation's political agenda.

It's the Republicans who have the credibility problem on seeking a "new tone" in Washington. Burton has yet to shut down his congressional probe of Clinton's pardons. Since a federal prosecutor is already looking into the pardons, the Burton investigation seems aimed only at racking up more partisan points. The redoubtable chairman is also on a bizarre expedition looking into the conduct of prosecutors in a 9-year-old case involving a fugitive Miami politician. It just happens that case was handled by the office of a county prosecutor named Janet Reno, before she became Clinton's attorney general.

And so a party that still lives by investigations and allegations proudly declares that the era of investigations and allegations is over. Producer: Could you run that laugh track again?

Washington Post Writers Group

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