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 Partya 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 coverageparticularly when the articles
feature Woodward's bylineit 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 guestsSenators
Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Orrin Hatchon 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."
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 improprietyalthough
in all likelihood it did not implicate Gore personallyyet 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 elementthe fact that
money in Washington routinely buys political favoritism, mostly
within the letter of the lawthe 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
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 truethe 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?
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 processGeorge Bush invited members of his "Team 100,"
a group of $100,000 Republican Party soft-money donors, to special
briefings with administration officialsthe 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 legaland 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 rampantoften
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 cynicismthus
making real reform all the more difficult to achieve.
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