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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