Riding the Rapids

updated 01/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

AS A WRESTLER AT IOWA'S DAVENPORT High School in 1960, wiry Jim Leach developed the moves to defeat more powerful opponents and become state champ. Now, at 51, he finds himself battling the most formidable foe of his career: Bill Clinton. As the ranking Republican on the House Banking Committee, Leach has led the crusade for a public accounting on Whitewater, the first family's ill-fated Arkansas real estate partnership. "I believe that in sports and politics you play within the rules," says the mild-mannered Leach. " 'Lately, I've been called a pit bull, though I'm not fond of that term."

He has also been called a political opportunist, though the nine-term congressman has a history of marching to his own drum. He defied his party's leadership by voting against aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, and he steadfastly supports abortion rights. He was a critic of the family-values platform at the 1992 Republican National Convention. "I've always had some doubt about people who advertise their family life," he says. "Family is something you live, not advertise."

Given his reputation for independent thinking, it wasn't surprising that even some Democrats heeded Leach's rallying cry for a full public investigation of Whitewater. Bowing to the pressure, Clinton two weeks ago directed Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint a special counsel. But Leach is demanding that Congress open hearings on the matter as well, an idea most Democrats refuse to consider.

Leach's opponents say he is not above using false sincerity to score political points. Complains Democratic political consultant Paul Begala, who has debated Leach on TV talk shows: "I am very frustrated dealing with this guy with his Bambi blue eyes and soft-spoken midwestern manner."

Yet in the Whitewater case he has also struck a few low blows, frequently raising the specter of Watergate—though he insists the two situations are not comparable—and publicly musing that worries about Whitewater led White House deputy counsel Vince Foster to commit suicide last July. "That,'' says Begala, "was not Leach's finest hour."

Leach learned the science of politics from his mother, Lois, an organizer for the League of Women Voters in their hometown of Davenport. His father, Jim, was a businessman, and his great-grandfather served as president of the Iowa State Senate. After graduating from Princeton in 1964, Leach earned a master's degree in Soviet politics at Johns Hopkins and began a promising career in the foreign service. But after receiving a plum assignment to Moscow in 1973, Leach resigned his post in protest over Richard Nixon's dismissal of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

Returning home, Leach launched an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1974 with a sparsely attended rally in Iowa City. "Only four people came to my speech," he recalls. One of them was architect Elisabeth Foxley, now 46, the heiress to a livestock fortune, whom he married in December 1975. The following year, Leach defeated Democratic Congressman Ed Mezvinsky.

Ironically, Leach's reputation for integrity led some to tout him as a possible ambassador to the United Nations in 1992. Now, though the While House may not appreciate it, he's serving the Administration in his own way. "If there's a fire with this smoke, it's more likely a campfire than a forest fire," says Leach. "But there is no reason for this to linger. Call the witnesses, lay out the record, and let the public make its own judgment."

DAVID ELLIS
LINDA KRAMER in Washington

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