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The Real Scandal : Obsessed With Image--and Money

March 16, 1997|Suzanne Garment | Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times)

WASHINGTON — The old Jewish curse goes, "You should grow like an onion, with your head in the ground." Well, the Clinton scandals are Washington's onion. On the outside is the usual rigamarole: journalists, congressional investigators, independent counsels. Peel back this outer layer--and all you seem to find is ordinary, messy political behavior. But if you peel again, you'll see, underneath the conventional politics, a deep corruption of the presidency and of its ability to fulfill its function in the American system.

The scandal of the moment stems from the avidity with which President Bill Clinton and the Democrats raised campaign money as the 1996 election approached. Vice President Al Gore, so clean and boring that his Secret Service code name is "Al Gore," made fund-raising calls from the White House. The same White House opened its doors to big contributors. Especially generous souls stayed overnight. Others were invited to private coffee klatches; at one such meeting, a group of bankers got to sound off to the nation's top banking regulator.

The Democratic National Committee accepted money from U.S. citizens fronting, perhaps, for foreign nationals. While these negligent transactions were taking place, the Chinese government was discussing plans to influence U.S. policy by making illegal political donations.

It sounds ominous. But underneath lies--maybe nothing. Presidents have always socialized with big contributors--on boats and golf courses, at resorts and the homes of rich friends and, yes, even in the White House. Isn't it better to reward them by letting them bounce on Lincoln's bed than by selling them a piece of federal policy?

The idea of bankers cozy with a bank regulator is smellier. Still, after their meeting, the administration did not do what the bankers desired; no discoverable quid pro quo here. Similarly, the foreign donations look suspicious, but no one can point to anything concrete, short term or long term, that was bought or sold.

So why not defy the scandalmongers and defend the president? In fact, that is what his friends and some independent observers are doing. It is mainly liberals, erstwhile reformers of the dirty campaign-finance system, who now say we should stop pillorying Clinton for doing what all politicians do. By contrast, many conservatives, who usually defend the current system on free-speech grounds, are happily attacking Clinton's practices. When a situation produces this kind of irony-packed partisan reversal, you can bet that it is not first-degree political murder.

But let's peel some more. Is it true that this is simply conventional politics--the kind of pluralism we should tolerate and even respect as the price of a free, democratic society? Well, not exactly.

The oldest tension in democracies is between campaigning and governing, between giving people what they want and giving them what they should have. In this country, the balance is now seriously out of kilter in virtually all types of government. At the highest level, it is listing heavily to the side of presidential bread and circuses.

Different observers, all of us blind men exploring the elephant, have given different reasons: weakened political parties, television costs, campaign contribution limits. But the result is clear. Politicians like Clinton spend increasing amounts of time polling the electorate and its constituent groups; using television to reach these groups, and raising money to do the polls, make the ads and buy the TV time.

Thus in 1992, an expensive enough presidential campaign, each side spent about $40 million on TV ads; but in 1996, as consultant Dick Morris tells us in his book, the Clinton campaign and the DNC spent $85 million. Clintonite spending on fund-raising-related events at the White House has run at about three times the rate of the Bush administration. President George Bush, in the year before his reelection bid, held 11 such White House events; the number for Clinton was 59.

As Garry Wills has pointed out, the late Lee Atwater, previous holder of the King of Machiavellian Political Operatives crown, thought he was really sneaky because he got each day's Washington Post delivered the night before--so he could impress others with his up-to-the-minute knowledge early the next morning. By contrast, Morris, advising Clinton during the federal government shutdown of 1995, used a huge budget to poll every night, so he could get results at 4:00 a.m. and transmit them early each morning to his presidential boss.

In short, politicians devote far more energy and money than before to finding out how they should look and projecting this image to the country. No wonder they need more money; no wonder they root so assiduously for new funding sources and put the arm more aggressively on existing ones.

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