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Under Clinton, Old Practices on a New Scale

By Dan Balz and Lou Cannon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 3, 1997; Page A01

The care and feeding of wealthy contributors is an essential, if unseemly, component of presidential politics, but the Clinton administration's systematic use of the White House to court and reward big donors goes far beyond what others have done in the past, according to officials from administrations dating back 20 years.

President Clinton said last week, "The Lincoln Bedroom was not sold," and his defenders assert no laws were broken in the use of the White House to help raise campaign funds.

But veterans of past campaigns and administrations pointedly reject the "everybody-does-it" defense offered by some of Clinton's allies. They argue that the 103 White House coffees arranged by the Democratic National Committee and the 938 people who were overnight guests at the White House – including hundreds of contributors – represent a significant and disturbing escalation of past practices.

"It's like the difference between someone who likes to have a cocktail before dinner now and then and a guy who downs a fifth every night," said Stuart Spencer, who was a political strategist for Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald R. Ford.

Evan S. Dobelle, who was President Jimmy Carter's finance chairman in 1980 and now is president of Trinity College in Connecticut, said: "The world has changed in the sense that people on both sides of the aisle have been caught up in a situation that I'm unaccustomed to and not used to. I can't suggest whether it's ethical, moral or legal. All I'm saying is that we didn't do it and we could have. . . . Carter set a tone that you wouldn't even consider it."

When the office of former president George Bush released a list of the 284 overnight guests during his four years in office that included only a few major contributors, his spokesman Jim McGrath issued a statement that said: "President Bush asked me to reiterate that there was never any solicitation, either direct or indirect, made of the Bushes' guests to make political contributions. Furthermore, no staff or political committee member ever suggested that the Bushes invite someone to stay in the White House based on past or future fund-raising activities."

A spokeswoman for the Reagan office in Los Angeles said contributors were not invited to stay overnight at the White House during the Reagan presidency. "Family members stayed at the White House and a handful of longtime personal friends," said Joanne Drake, chief of staff for Reagan's office and a former member of the advance staff in the Reagan White House. "Use of the Lincoln Bedroom was never made available to anyone on the basis of past or future contributions. It simply wasn't done."

Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, director of the Gerald R. Ford Museum and Library in Grand Rapids, Mich., said Clinton's use of the White House for fund-raising purposes dwarfs anything in recent memory. There has never been "anything of the magnitude of this," he said. "It's the selling of the White House."

Veterans of past administrations say they find nothing wrong with a president inviting a wealthy contributor who also happens to be a good friend to spend the night at the White House or to invite occasional contributors to a state dinner or to have occasional receptions for major contributors at the White House, with the president posing for photographs.

"That's fund-raising. That's been done forever," said Robert M. Teeter, who was Bush's campaign manager in 1992. But he said the notion that others have done what the Clinton campaign is reported to have done is "absolutely, totally wrong."

These political veterans also said tension between those who raise money and those who run campaigns is common. Fund-raisers routinely had to deal with unhappy contributors who felt they were not given enough access to such things as state dinners or White House receptions. Political operatives or White House officials often had to push away ideas from fund-raisers that might have crossed a line between accepted practice and embarrassment.

One Bush administration official recalled a decision to cancel an event after seeing a brochure advertising it that suggested contributors would receive certain perks in return. "We were afraid to take the chance," he said. Fund-raisers are paid "to push the envelope. My job was to protect the administration."

Many Democrats now find Republican criticism of Clinton's campaign practices politically self-serving, noting that the GOP regularly has out-raised and out-spent the Democrats with inventive enticements designed to attract big contributions from wealthy individuals or corporations. During the 104th Congress, corporate lobbyists helped write legislation affecting their industries, and congressional leaders warned corporations not to expect favors if they continued to give money to Democrats.

"It wasn't invented in the last election," said Anne Wexler, who served in the Carter White House.

Jody Powell, who was Carter's White House press secretary, said that while Clinton's use of the White House may differ in degree, it is not a significant departure from past practices. "It's my observation that almost everybody who gets invited to the White House, other than members of the family, whether to spend the night or go to a coffee or a reception, are there either because they've done something to help the administration or the administration hopes they will do something." Powell added that he finds the media frenzy over Clinton's fund-raising excessive. "Has the press just discovered that people raise money in politics?" he asked in exasperation.

Hardly. What has changed, however, is the magnitude of "soft money" – funds not regulated by federal election law – raised by both parties in recent elections. In the past four years, the amounts tripled: In the 1992 campaign, the two parties together raised about $88 million in soft money; in the 1996 campaign, that amount ballooned to $263.5 million, with the Republicans raising $141 million and the Democrats $122 million. The need to raise those sums put enormous pressure on party fund-raisers.

Campaign fund-raising has always represented the underworld of politics, a vital ingredient in the process of getting elected that many politicians find personally distasteful, even while pursuing donors with what borders on religious zeal.

Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson raised big money from their President's Club, and some of the contributors were rewarded with government contracts. Members received Cabinet briefings and sometimes met the president at a fund-raising event.

Arthur Krim, a Hollywood mogul and New York businessman who headed the club during Johnson's administration, was so close to Johnson that he was one of only a few people who knew in advance that Johnson was planning to announce his decision not to run for reelection in 1968. In a parallel to what the Clinton campaign did last summer when the president turned 50, Krim organized a series of events around Kennedy's birthday in 1962 that raised $1 million, an enormous sum in those days.

Richard M. Nixon's 1972 campaign traded cash for favors, including a celebrated scandal in which milk producers gave money in return for higher milk price supports, and raised money in such scandalous ways – including a $2 million contribution from W. Clement Stone – that Congress rewrote the campaign finance laws in 1974 to clean up after Watergate.

Every White House since then has operated under a more restrictive environment, and it is in that light that Clinton is being judged.

In 1978, the Justice Department investigated the Carter White House after allegations that two businessmen – one of them MCA Chairman Lew Wasserman, who was on Clinton's overnight guest list last week – gave the Democratic National Committee $125,000 after having had lunch at the White House and meeting privately with the president. Then-Attorney General Griffin B. Bell said Carter had violated no law and declined to name a special prosecutor in the case.

In 1986, Haley Barbour, who was then working in the White House political liaison office, was called on the carpet by the White House counsel's office after the Wall Street Journal reported that he had co-hosted a cocktail party for lobbyists at the Old Executive Office Building where, it was charged, he had solicited funds for Republican Senate candidates. Barbour denied any direct solicitation.

Barbour recently concluded four years as GOP national chairman, and helped raise record sums for the Republicans during that tour of duty. But he contends that nothing occurred during his time at the White House to compare with the activities undertaken by Clinton and the Democrats. "When I was political director, I'd have been fired if I'd have tried to do this stuff – and rightly so."

Jim Cicconi, assistant to the president in the Bush White House, said the "direction of political activities by the White House is not inappropriate," but added that what has been reported about the Clinton campaign's operations is "leagues beyond anything that's been done there that I know of."

Democrats counter that Republicans long have made the White House available to contributors and fund-raisers. A detailed July 11, 1995, memorandum to Clinton from then-White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes noted that "the Republicans engage in similar activity." Ickes pointed to enticements offered to the GOP's Team 100 members [the biggest givers], which included "exclusive missions abroad" and "the greatest opportunity possible to meet and talk with party leaders, foreign dignitaries and special guests," and to the fact that Ford hosted the first meeting of Republican Eagles – another group of big donors – at the White House in 1976.

"Stroking people by showing up at a fund-raiser or including someone in a reception is very traditional," said former commerce secretary Robert A. Mosbacher, Bush's chief fund-raiser. "But stroking people by having them not only up to the private quarters but having them stay over and using the White House and all the intimate parts of it is something frankly I've never heard of."

Republicans point to legal findings by the office of the White House counsel over the years that allowed for occasional receptions for contributors at the White House. "Campaign-sponsored or other political activities (receptions, dinners, meetings, but not fund-raisers) may be held in the Executive Residence at the White House, provided that either the President, Mrs. Bush or some other family member attends the event," wrote C. Boyden Gray, Bush's White House counsel, in a Nov. 27, 1991, memo.

"We didn't have an orchestrated game plan for using the White House to raise money," Gray said. "If you want to say that a dinner once a year or a reception once a year is the same thing as 100 coffee klatches, what can I say. . . . A reception a year does not in my mind qualify as a fund-raising event."

Former secretary of state James A. Baker III, who was Bush's closest political adviser and Reagan's first White House chief of staff, protested that the difference between past and current practice is the systematic use of the White House to entice or reward contributors. "I sometimes briefed contributors when I was secretary of the Treasury, but I didn't do it in the Lincoln Bedroom," Baker said.

Baker said he did not do any such briefings when he was secretary of state because he regards the State Department as nonpartisan.

Michael K. Deaver, deputy chief of staff in the Reagan White House and the aide with the closest ties to the president and Nancy Reagan, recalled that the late Holmes Tuttle, "who Reagan owed more than anyone," once complained that he had never spent a night in the White House. Tuttle was founder of a group of wealthy donors known as the "kitchen cabinet," who bankrolled Reagan's successful campaign for the California governorship in 1966 and contributed to his presidential campaigns.

Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., who served as RNC chair from 1983 to 1989, said he once proposed that local campaign stalwarts be invited to tour Air Force One whenever Reagan was traveling and the plane was parked on a runway. He also wanted them to be given mementos, such as the napkins or items that are marked Air Force One. The Reagan White House flatly rejected the idea.

"They were right to turn it down," he said. "Air Force One belongs to the people. This would have been just too brazen and partisan use of the aircraft."

One instance in which the White House was used to entice support came in 1976 when Ford was fighting a primary challenge from Reagan. "We used to bring delegates in for drinks and hors d'oeuvres at the White House," said former defense secretary Richard B. Cheney, who was Ford's chief of staff in 1975-76. "We were dying for delegates."

But Cheney said he knew of no contributor who was invited to stay at the White House during his tenure there. "We were super-cautious in the aftermath of Watergate. We didn't need an accusation we weren't playing by the rules," he said.

Donald Rumsfeld, who preceded Cheney as Ford's chief of staff and later served as defense secretary, said: "The whole series of revelations about the way this administration has managed the subject of campaign financing paints a picture that is totally different than the picture I knew as part of the Ford administration. It is totally foreign – and I don't mean to use the pun."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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