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Back to the Thompson Hearings

By Elizabeth Drew
Wednesday, September 3, 1997; Page A19

As the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's hearings into campaign finance scandals resume tomorrow, we now have some real guideposts by which to judge them – set up by the committee's first round of hearings.

These hearings are unusual in several respects. Unlike Watergate, or Iran-contra, there is no clear story line. Therefore, the committee, headed by Tennessee Republican Fred Thompson, has the more difficult job of painting a coherent picture of a sprawling mess.

Moreover, the old rules don't apply. The stakes for both political parties are such that this is total war. Potential big-time witnesses simply refuse to appear. (But the committee, under pressure to offer some stars in order to get more attention, will call other big-time witnesses in the coming weeks.) So-called independent groups, which may have illegally colluded with the political parties, insouciantly – and potentially in contempt of Congress – defy subpoenas of their documents. The White House plays so many games with requested information that the very shape of congressional hearings has been given new formations.

But despite – or even because of – these disorienting developments, here are some ways to think about the hearings:

Don't look for crimes, watch for patterns. There was much press excitement over a proven transfer of foreign funds into the Clinton campaign – from its friends at the Indonesia-based Lippo Group through a "holding company" in California, arranged, of course, by the energetic John Huang. But this was one drop in an ocean of money coming into the Clinton-Gore campaign from questionable characters who apparently didn't have enough resources of their own to make such generous contributions. The real story was the agglomeration of stories of questionable money coming into the campaign, and White House tours, Oval Office access – or more – for people who shouldn't have been allowed anywhere near the place (as some White House aides tried to get across, futilely).

The Thompson committee will shortly examine a series of transactions that have the appearance of quid pro quos – money for favors. Quid pro quos are hard to prove. But a pattern of the granting of special access to large donors – followed perhaps by a call to a department before which the donor has business, or a meeting with a relevant high-level official – is telling in itself. (This sort of transaction is endemic in the congressional campaign finance system. Money buys access and access buys influence, which may produce favorable policies. The recent revelation of a special provision in the new budget giving tobacco companies a $50 billion gift to offset their penalties in the proposed settlement over litigation against the companies – a provision ardently pushed by Republican leaders at the same time that the companies were giving the Republican Party $1.9 million in "soft" money in the first quarter of 1996 – says it all.)

Don't look for new techniques but variations on old ones, and quantum leaps. Though the Clinton people were inventive – $50,000 coffees with the president – there is little new under the fundraising cloud. But an example or two of questionable behavior in the past – holding a reception for donors at Vice President Quayle's residence, granting a big donor a seat next to president Bush at a dinner – doesn't offset the frenzied pattern of granting seats of honor, or of telephonic shakedowns by the highest elected officials in the nation (and perhaps also by the First Lady) that characterized the fundraising for Clinton's reelection. We all learned by the second grade that "two wrongs don't make a right." Surely a few wrongs on one side and probably more on the other don't, either.

Don't look for news, look for information. The White House and the Democratic National Committee know virtually everything the committee has on them, and try to preempt any news that the committee might break. But what's the difference if we learn something new from testimony in the hearing room or a day or two before – or a few hours after – as a leak out of the White House? The new information is being flushed out only because of the hearings. Does anyone imagine that, absent the hearings, the White House would volunteer such uncomfortable information regarding its fundraising practices?

The preemptive leaking by the Clinton White House has in fact become so prodigious that Thompson and his staff have been driven to trying to preempt the preemption by leaking their own discoveries first. These hearings, therefore, have given a new definition to the term "news." And even if we have heard some of the specific facts before (much of the press seems to assume that the public has followed all of the stories with the same intensity that we have), their being arrayed together, fleshed out, put into patterns, becomes new information.

Unfortunately, the full flavor of the hearings on the most fundamental issue in American politics today isn't available to the public in any convenient form. But they are more revealing, interesting and even funny than most of the public has any opportunity to see.

Elizabeth Drew's most recent book, "Whatever It Takes: The Real Struggle for Political Power in America," deals with recent campaign finance abuses.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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