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A Charade of Scandal for Clinton

September 28, 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."

WASHINGTON — It is getting extremely difficult to write about the White House fund-raising scandals with any sense of urgency--and that is the most urgent thing about them. In trying to gauge the impact of the recent news, you think you are viewing two different countries: one populated by part of the politically attentive public, straining, inch by agitated inch, to push Atty. Gen. Janet Reno into asking for an independent counsel, and the other, far bigger, inhabited by a public-at-large, announcing with a deafening roar of silence that it could care less.

Most citizens have other things on their minds, but that is not all. If there is one class that people mistrust more than politicians, it is the media; so the fact that journalists across the ideological spectrum are hopping up and down about this thing gives the public yet another reason to want no part of it.

So nothing much is going to happen to President Bill Clinton as a consequence of the current flap. Vice President Al Gore, playing the traditional vice-presidential role of scapegoat, will have his political chances hurt; but those chances may not have been so bright in the first place. The current scandals will stay interesting less for the changes they may bring than for their exemplary character as a political anatomy lesson.

Even jaded scandal observers must admit our leaders have shown more than the usual moral tackiness in raising funds and in accounting for it afterward. Clinton has staunchly defended the White House coffees he attended for Democratic contributors and potential contributors, and he has repeatedly said he could not remember if he made fund-raising calls from his working quarters at the White House: "I can't say, over all the hundreds and hundreds and maybe thousands of phone calls I've made in the last four years, that I never said to anybody while I was talking to them, 'Well, we need your help,' or, 'I hope you'll help us.' "

But it turns out, according to a story in The Times, that Clinton used White House phones to solicit money from several major Democratic donors in 1994--and that Harold M. Ickes, a former aide, was in the room when he made the calls. The disclosure follows the discovery of White House documents showing that the president had been asked to solicit funds during the 1996 campaign. When presented with those documents indicating that he had been working the fund-raising phones with some frequency, Clinton--well, did a Clinton, to wit: "I believed then and I believe now what we did was legal. But I am absolutely positive that we intended to be firmly within the letter of the law."

Clinton's spokespersons, while not attempting to dispute Ickes' recollections, continue to assert that any such calls "are entirely legal."

Also during the '96 campaign, Gore met in his office with a Democratic fund-raiser and the leader of a Buddhist sect. The vice president then made a fund-raising trip to Los Angeles, where he spoke at the sect's temple and sect members made out checks to the Democratic National Committee. Some had been pressed to do so and were reimbursed out of temple funds, which is unambiguously illegal. The official response to this? The temple gig was not a fund-raiser but "community outreach."

Then came news of the fund-raising phone calls from the vice president's office. When they came to light, Gore said that (a) there were a few of them, (b) he had paid for them with his "DNC credit card," (c) there was, in his now-famous phrase, "no controlling legal authority" declaring his actions illegal, and (d) he was proud of what he did. It turned out that there were more than a few calls. He dialed 86 numbers, to be exact, from lists prepared by the DNC. And there was no DNC credit card.

Throughout, White House spokespersons say this whole ruckus turns on two technicalities. One is an old law that forbids political fund-raising on federal government property, a statute designed to keep politicians from shaking down federal workers that might well not apply where the solicitor at one end of the phone connection is on government property while the solicitee at the other end is not. The other main charge is that some of the funds raised by Clinton and Gore ended up in the DNC's "hard money" account, earmarked for electing Democratic candidates; the distinction is coming to seem ever more metaphysical.

Both points are well taken. It is quite true that all the clucking about possible illegalities is, in good part, an excuse to explore the larger territory of Clinton administration fund-raising. But the ground is worth exploring.

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