Storylines: Scandals for Dummies

On the first Sunday in March, the Washington Post published

an investigative piece highlighting Vice President Al Gore's central

role in the Democratic Party fundraising operation. The article,

by Bob Woodward, chronicled how Gore called donors one by one,

hitting them up for money in a manner so direct even one veteran

fundraiser called the experience a "shakedown." The

article also described how in one instance, Gore called a donor

to acknowledge a $100,000 gift to the Democratic Party—a gift

the donor says was intended as a "thank you" for assistance

in gaining a lucrative telecommunications contract.

Since television producers use articles in the Sunday Post

as their cues for coverage—particularly when the articles

feature Woodward's byline—it was no surprise to find questions

about Gore's fundraising all over the Sunday talk shows. On NBC's

Meet the Press, host Tim Russert pressed his two guests—Senators

Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Orrin Hatch—on whether the Vice President

violated laws prohibiting fundraising and solicitation on government

property. On ABC's This Week, George Stephanopoulos answered

similar charges by explaining carefully how Gore used special

phone lines, paid for by the Democratic Party, to avoid violating

the letter of the law.

At a press conference the following Monday, every question but

one centered on whether Gore broke the law by making fundraising

calls from the White House. Other outlets followed suit in the

week that followed, as they scrambled to catch up with the Post.

For his part, Gore denied any wrongdoing, noting some of the laws

against fundraising on government property don't apply to the

Vice President anyway. But Gore added that for the sake of appearances

he would stop calling donors from the White House. The Post's

headline on Tuesday relayed the bulletin, "Gore: Fund-Raising

Calls Broke No Law."

ripped from the pages of the *Post*

One could credibly argue that Gore was due for this kind of embarrassment.

In the face of ethical and legal questions about Clinton-Gore

re-election fundraising, Gore had conspicuously distanced himself

from the entire operation. Yet was his mere involvement with fundraising

newsworthy enough to drive a week's worth of front-page coverage?

And, more importantly, what about the other half of the story?

According to Woodward, a Gore fund raiser who was also a telecommunications

lobbyist told a firm he represented, DSC Communications, that

it would be a good idea to "thank" the administration

for awarding the firm a $36 million contract. The firm then gave

the Democrats $125,000. This raises the specter of real impropriety—although

in all likelihood it did not implicate Gore personally—yet the

papers gave it scant attention.

It was Woodward, of course, who made famous the advice

of Deep Throat: Follow the money. But in the current feeding frenzy,

reporters seem to be following the money for its titillation value

rather than to sort out serious scandal from what is merely tawdry.

In the aggregate, this kind of piling-on can perhaps stimulate

a public clamor for reform. But precisely because the most scandalous

part of this story is the most familiar element—the fact that

money in Washington routinely buys political favoritism, mostly

within the letter of the law—the race to find new fundraising

angles every day means the arcane or irrelevant frequently makes

the front page, particularly as stories move down the food chain

and into the electronic media.

Here in Boston, for instance, the Globe pounced on the

revelation that Clinton was personally involved with fundraising

operations, flogging it with a banner headline. Yet what's wrong

with a president, in a re-election year, taking an active interest

in raising money for his cause? Much of the Gore coverage centered

on the fact that, unlike his predecessors, he directly asked donors

for money. But what's the difference if requests are explicit

or implicit?

Perhaps nobody has muddied the waters like William Safire, who

has spent his second career as a columnist living down his first

one as a Nixon aide. For Safire, Clinton's involvement in fundraising

improprieties is a dream come true—the Democrats recapitulating

Watergate. In fairness, Safire did important muckraking of the

connections between Asian-American donors and the Clinton-Gore

campaign. But, in a moment of true hyperbole, Safire wrote that

the Democrats had finally repeated the "high crime of Watergate,"

which Safire defined rather broadly as the abuse of incumbency

to win an election. That, of course, was the low crime of Watergate

(and of every incumbent since George Washington). Apparently,

Safire has forgotten that Watergate involved felonies like breaking

and entering, theft, wiretapping, and obstruction of justice.

This kind of treatment leads administration officials to complain,

with some reason, about being subject to a double standard: Wealthy

donors naturally gravitate to the Republican Party, after all.

For Democrats to keep pace with the Republicans, whose constituents

are corporations and the wealthy, they have to ask for

money. Besides, on Capitol Hill "shakedowns" are routine

business, whether or not they involve actual solicitation in congressional

offices. Where was the outcry two years ago after the Republicans

invited lobbyists for its most generous corporate donors into

the Capitol, and turned over to them the job of rewriting the

nation's environmental, health, and safety regulations?

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The administration isn't guiltless. But the real scandal

isn't that fundraising calls were made on one credit card rather

than another, or that they were made personally by Gore rather

than his surrogates, or that Clinton invited fat cats to the Lincoln

Bedroom because he had no private ranch like Reagan or LBJ. The

real scandal is that politics is so highly driven by money in

the first place and that the Clinton-Gore campaign engaged in

the same influence-peddling racket as everybody else. The question

reporters should ask is not whether officials raised money, but

how that process tainted government decisionmaking.

Consider the Lincoln Bedroom and White House coffee episodes.

Although presidents had long given donors special access to the

policy process—George Bush invited members of his "Team 100,"

a group of $100,000 Republican Party soft-money donors, to special

briefings with administration officials—the mere fact that Clinton

invited donors to the White House for coffee and overnight stays

was the basis for countless stories. Newsweek went so far

as to publish a schematic drawing of the White House, demonstrating

which parts were considered the "residence"—where fundraising

would be legal—and which parts weren't. Lost in this melee were

the reports that regulators had attended coffee meetings that

included corporate representatives in their areas of jurisdiction.

This news is potentially far more troubling, as it implies the

regulatory process may have been tilted to favor companies that

donated to Democratic campaigns.

Even stories about foreign donations have suffered from this problem,

albeit to a lesser degree. Since the fall, the Wall Street

Journal has hammered away at the connection between Clinton

and Asian donors. These important stories laid the groundwork

for congressional and Justice Department investigations, and they

raised the extremely troubling prospect that foreign governments

or corporations used donations to manipulate U.S. trade and national

security policy. The Clinton administration deserves the criticism

it has taken for lowering its guard and allowing contributions

from obviously shady sources.

But another troubling question, one that has not received nearly

the same level of coverage, concerns the possible connections

between the Commerce Department and multinational corporations

and how that relationship affected trade policy. Thanks to some

investigative work by the Globe we now know that Democratic

Party fundraisers approached corporate donors shortly after the

Commerce Department, under Ron Brown and later Mickey Kantor,

aggressively promoted their business operations abroad. If the

administration was basing its promotion on likely sources of donations,

that would be a real scandal. But this story didn't have strong

enough legs to carry it; the Globe's findings were barely

a blip on the national radar screen.

At this writing, the media is turning its attention toward

Congress, where influence peddling is even more rampant—often

with even less pretense of propriety. But with an impending congressional

investigation into fundraising likely to bring forth even more

revelations of shady dealings in coming months, the need for sorting

out the news is greater than ever. That "everybody does it"

does not condone the current system; on the contrary, the ubiquity

of money buying access impeaches the entire role of money in politics.

Yet with voters already numb to stories of corruption, overplaying

the irrelevant merely reinforces indifference and cynicism—thus

making real reform all the more difficult to achieve.

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