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The Price of 'Access'

By David S. Broder
Sunday, March 2 1997; Page C07

The tawdry tale of White House hospitality to fat-cat Democratic donors continues to unfold, destroying one sham defense President Clinton tried to erect – but leaving a more important question unanswered.

When the stories about illegal foreign donations and the other campaign money horrors began to appear, the president tried to pretend this had nothing to do with him. At his first postelection news conference, when a reporter asked about "these allegations of improper fund-raising by your campaign," Clinton interrupted.

"Wait, wait, wait," he said. "There have been no allegations about improper funding [of his campaign]."

"Well, by the Democratic [Party]," the reporter said.

"That was the other campaign that had problems with that, not mine."

At another point, he blamed "Democratic Party officials" for failing to review properly the White House guest lists. "In areas where we had direct control . . . the proper decisions were made," Clinton said.

This effort to make the Democratic National Committee and its heads – Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Donald Fowler of South Carolina – the fall guys in this fiasco was ludicrous to anyone who knew how tightly the White House was riding herd on the DNC during the campaign. But now we know that Clinton himself authorized and encouraged White House goodies – including use of the Lincoln Bedroom – for big contributors to the Democratic Party, not just his own campaign.

That fig leaf removed, what remains unclear is what the favorite journalistic word "access" means to Clinton, or to other pols. Since Oct. 1, the word has appeared in 107 stories in The Washington Post about the presidency or Congress, often in the context of "buying" or "selling" access.

But what is this commodity? The implication is that access equals influence. It may or may not. A Republican friend, who worked in the White House for Nixon and Reagan and who despises Clinton, said, "Some of these donors really just want the thrill of meeting the president and being able to go home and tell their friends about it. Others want a lot more – and those are the ones you have to keep away from the man."

We do know one thing: The single most valuable commodity in political Washington is the time and attention of the president. Those who get it, by any device, are privileged over those who do not.

But not all those people get there because they have emptied their wallets. Some of the columns decrying the excesses of the campaign finance system and calling for its reform have been written by journalists who recently have been invited to intimate sessions with the president. They have access because they are presumed to have influence with the public, but they find nothing wrong in that.

Sensible campaign reform, in my view, will not come from some utopian notion of trying to equalize access to political decision-makers by all 260 million Americans. No legislation will control a politician's penchant for listening to some folks and ignoring others.

I was more disturbed by learning from Bob Woodward's book "The Agenda" that Clinton had decided to grant access to his campaign consultants, Paul Begala and James Carville, as full participants in the 1993 deliberations on Clinton's first budget and economic plan. I have a hunch that some of those businessmen-donors could have contributed more to sound public policy than two guys who make TV ads and "spin" the press. But I know no way to curb such a presidential penchant.

Forget the equal-access chimera. Focus on influence-peddling cases. Write a campaign finance bill that will create conditions for more equal competition for more offices. And tell Clinton, once again, that blame-shifting is unbecoming a president.

I know that union leaders are long out of fashion, but a man who died last week, Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers, deserved more than the cursory commendation he received. While fiercely protecting his member-constituents, Shanker campaigned as hard as any American one could name these past two decades for better schools and higher standards for teachers and students alike. He worked with everyone who shared his passion – governors and presidents of both parties and business leaders of all stripes. Parents and kids who never heard of him are in his debt.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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