Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 1, 1997; Page A01
Sen. Fred D. Thompson's investigation of campaign wrongdoing came in with grand expectations but ended with a whimper, wrapping up without proving Chinese espionage, influence peddling or extortion, and leaving the Clinton administration largely intact.
But the White House can take cold comfort in withstanding the investigation, because although it is widely seen to have fallen short of many of its stated goals, Thompson's Governmental Affairs Committee revealed the Clinton presidency as a modern model of campaign excesses.
An almost endless parade of tapes, documents and witnesses showed the Clinton administration hustling indecorously for dollars: in White House coffees and sleepovers for big fund-raisers; at hotel galas with questionable characters whose source of income was suspect; taking business cards from strangers making big-bucks promises.
The hearings left indelible images: Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie bringing a paper bag full of checks to the office of Clinton's legal defense fund, Buddhist nuns destroying documents to mask improper campaign contributions after an appearance by Vice President Gore.
There was Florida businessman R. Warren Meddoff, who got a call-back after handing Clinton a business card offering $5 million to the campaign, and would-be pipeline entrepreneur Roger Tamraz, whose "only reason" for giving $300,000 to the Clinton campaign was to gain access to high government officials.
Not that the Democrats were the only ones who roasted under the committee's spotlight. Despite bitter partisan wrangling that often brought hearings to a dead stop for hours, Thompson (R-Tenn.) kept to his original commitment and let Republicans take some lumps-principally former national party chairman Haley Barbour for his ardent courting of a Hong Kong businessman. This helped Democrats advance their core contention: When it comes to campaign improprieties, everybody does it.
When Republicans crowed about racks of White House videotapes showing Clinton exulting over the way unregulated "soft money" was used to promote his candidacy, Democrats produced a tape of GOP candidate Robert J. Dole doing the same thing. A historical footnote even emerged of Ronald Reagan asking for contributions at a White House event.
Fred Wertheimer, president of the public policy organization Democracy 21 and one of the leading advocates of campaign finance reform in the country, said he was pleased that the committee had "made an irrefutable record that the campaign finance system is totally broken."
"People were interested in blood on the water," said Norman J. Ornstein, an expert on campaign finance at the American Enterprise Institute. "What we have, which is not exactly what Republicans wanted, is a picture of a campaign system spun out of control."
But the hearings failed to produce a major revelation, which limited television coverage and caused reporters to trickle away, leaving only a tiny audience in the cavernous Hart Senate Office Building hearing room to witness the investigation's most recent public sessions.
Thompson said yesterday he thought from the beginning that the committee had enough material to "pull back the curtain" on the 1996 campaign, but dismissed as "slim and none" the chances of finding evidence of high crimes committed by administration officials or Clinton himself-"scalps on the wall," as he put it.
Yet if there was an expectation of scalps, or at least drama, it was created by Thompson himself. He oversold the probe on the opening day of hearings by speaking of a Chinese government plan that is "designed to pour illegal money into American political campaigns" and that "continues today." The committee never pursued the matter.
As Thompson has explained countless times since, he was simply passing on a highly censored version of an ongoing counterespionage investigation and never intended that his words be taken as a sample of what was to come.
"I felt that the attorney general needed some encouragement," he said yesterday, and noted that the counterespionage investigation is now a Justice Department criminal probe. "That's pretty significant to me."
Thompson's Chinese gambit, inserted atop his opening statement at the last minute, was also the sort of thing that raised questions about how well-orchestrated the hearings would be. The most successful congressional hearings often work best as public policy theater rather than courtroom give-and-take.
The Thompson hearings never had a story line and showcased few star witnesses. Instead, they jumped from episode to episode in which, through tedious and repetitive questioning, often low-level witnesses were asked to point the finger at higher-ups over alleged violations of arcane election law provisions.
Working without a script, committee investigators in the waning days merely seemed to be reacting to news reports rather than developing new evidence. Thompson argued that he was stymied by witnesses who either fled the country or refused to testify, and by a Dec. 31 deadline that encouraged witnesses to stall.
But his focus on a legalistic process also played to a White House strength. Their lawyers proved very effective at rebutting the committee's work by reminding reporters that the administration was not breaking the law. "Call us inept," said White House lawyer Lanny J. Davis at one point. "But don't call us venal."
Those mind-numbing technicalities of the current system are now most apparent in what for a time was the committee's most fervent line of inquiry. Tracking down fund-raising calls emanating from the White House, the committee ultimately found that Gore and perhaps even Clinton might be in violation of a 19th century law that had never been enforced but which could be interpreted to prohibit government officials from soliciting campaign funds on government property.
In the end, even Thompson had to admit, "Everybody knows that nobody is going to be prosecuted" under that law.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company