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Proud of What He's Stopped Doing

By George F. Will
Wednesday, March 5, 1997; Page A21


Al Gore, who seems equally proud of what he did and of his promise to stop doing it, says he only did what his lawyer told him was permissible. When Newt Gingrich made that argument, the House ethics committee told him to pay $300,000. Everyone knows the rules are different for Republicans but, really, this is getting ridiculous.

Gore hopes to take the oath by which chief executives vow to see that the laws are faithfully executed. Thus it is interesting that he does not construe laws strictly, by what they say in plain language, or based on common practices adopted to conform with the language. Rather he construes them permissively, by disregarding the language and focusing solely on the primary intent of the legislators.

At issue is an 1882 law that in Washington's mind-bending current atmosphere is both generally referred to as "obscure" and generally obeyed. It is generally obeyed because, far from being obscure, everyone knows it. It forbids the raising of funds on federal property. The primary intent of that law was to prevent federal officials from soliciting or receiving campaign contributions from federal employees susceptible to pressure. But the law's language refers to locations.

The Clinton White House – where, we are asked to believe, the former bar bouncer who handled the FBI files of Republicans got the files by innocent accident – has just sufficient vestigial conscience that it tried to feign compliance with the 1882 law by (George Stephanopoulos said last Sunday) installing on federal property special phone lines paid for by the Democratic National Committee. Gore must not have heard of such lines, because he says he complied with the law by using a DNC telephone credit card. He should have asked his helpful lawyers if using a cell phone – after all, such a phone is not physically connected to federal property – would have sufficed.

Questions multiply. Was Gore alone in the room on government property when he called the numbers on the list of potential contributors? Or were other federal employees with him? Who handed him the list? Who compiled it? Was it compiled with the help of the computer database bought by $1.7 million of taxpayers' money?

That is the database that the president's wife has said concerned only official White House business – guests and correspondence – not political affairs. Using it for political purposes would be illegal. However, a memo written by a political aide on White House stationery and marked "confidential" speaks of making "the new system" available "to the DNC or other entities we choose to work with for political purposes." Handwriting on the memo reads, "This sounds promising. Please Advise. HRC."

The country is becoming used to, or at least numb about, hairs of legality being split, and then split again, and then again. They are split by people who think they are cleverer than they are and that the country is dumber than it is. Presidential spokesmen (taking their cue and style from the fellow who once was the cleverest boy in Hope, Ark., and who says the Lincoln Bedroom was not "sold" – hey, it's still there) say:

The White House fund-raising coffees that some organizers of them referred to as fund-raisers were not fund-raisers because no specific price was put on them, or because giving money was not an explicit prerequisite for attending them. One spokesman says the coffees were a "component" of a fund-raising plan but were not fund-raisers.

Besides, many of the coffee drinkers, and certainly those sleepers in the Lincoln Bedroom, were "friends" or, in the priceless locution of one White House spinner, they were persons who "weren't friends yet." If all these were more or less friends, the Clintons should have paid for these gatherings of personal friends from their personal pockets. Congressional committees may want to see the receipts.

And they will want to examine Gore's involvement in whatever caused the Immigration and Naturalization Service, responding to administration cravings for a million new voters, to abandon due process and open the floodgates so that the electorate could be swelled with immigrants, including 180,000 who escaped the required criminal background checks. The administration's Nuremberg defenses – everybody does it, and we were just doing what the lawyers in our pay told us we could do – will not quite cover the INS case.

Regarding this administration, what has been said of promises (Stephanopoulos, Feb. 15, 1996, on Clinton: "He has kept the promises he meant to keep") may be true as well of many laws and norms: They observe the ones they want to observe.


© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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