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Gore's Meltdown

By Charles Krauthammer
Friday, March 7, 1997; Page A21

"There is no controlling legal authority that says this was in violation of law."
-- Al Gore, seven times (in one form or another), White House news conference, March 3

"Controlling legal authority." Whatever other legacies Al Gore leaves behind between now and retirement, he forever bequeaths this newest weasel word to the lexicon of American political corruption.

Gore is talking here about his phone calls from the White House soliciting Democratic campaign contributions. Now, he cannot say, "I have broken no law," because Section 607 of Title 18 of the U.S. Criminal Code states very clearly there is to be no solicitation of campaign funds in federal government offices. Gore broke the law as written, as understood and as practiced. His defense? Apparently, that there are no cases testing the law. So there.

The problem for Gore is not just that Mr. Clean is taking refuge in one of the flimsiest legal confections of our time but that this flimsy confection is directly contradicted by his own president.

Here is President Clinton, one week earlier, defending his 103 White House coffees: "We got strict advice about – legal advice about what the rules were and everyone involved knew what the rules were. . . . There was no solicitation at the White House."

The rule: no solicitation

And in case that wasn't clear enough, here is presidential parrot Mike McCurry on the same Clinton coffees: "There is a separate restriction that exists for the solicitation of funds for political activities, which cannot occur on these premises."

Solicitation cannot occur on these premises.

McCurry: "The law is what counts. . . . the law is the law . . . the law goes to the question of solicitation, and that's the issue."

What a paradox. Gore lavishes the most fulsome praise on the wisdom, vision and clearsightedness of his president. But regarding what is and is not legal in the Clinton White House, Clinton is for Gore no authority at all.

The apologists say: Well, what's the difference? It is a meaningless distinction. Congressmen run out of their offices and make cell phone calls from the Capitol parking lot to stay on the right side of this law.

But that's exactly the point. With active politicians, it is very hard to draw a line between public service and self-serving campaigning. It is precisely because the line drawn is necessarily somewhat arbitrary that it is very bright and very clear.

So clear that congressmen, like furtive sidewalk smokers, must make their campaign calls outside. So clear that the president indignantly defends his coffees by saying he solicited no money. So clear that McCurry insists the law is the law and solicitation defines lawbreaking.

Ah, but that was last week. In this White House, a week is a lifetime. What was law last week is now history. This week the very idea of law gives way to "controlling legal authority."

But this week, too, the Clinton scandals finally reach critical mass. The reason is simple: volume. There are so many of them, coming from every direction. News of Gore's lawbreaking comes days before news that the first lady's chief of staff took a $50,000 campaign contribution in the White House from a California "hustler" (the National Security Council's word) looking for "access."

This comes just days after the Lincoln Bedroom list, the selling by a tenant of what most Americans regard as their common patrimony. At the same time, the Commerce Department announces new rules banning what the Clinton administration had been doing for four years – giving places on international trade missions to fat-cat Democratic donors.

Meanwhile, documents emerge showing that the mad INS rush to naturalize a million new Americans last year (resulting in hundreds, maybe thousands of criminals sliding through unchecked) was done under the pressure of a White House eager to produce new Democratic voters in time for Clinton's reelection.

Clinton had made promoting trade the keystone of his entire foreign policy, and now it turns out that it was a vehicle for the crassest political money-grubbing. It turns out, too, that naturalization, that most sacred induction ritual into the American civil religion, was also made an instrument of Clinton's political purposes.

Is there anything Clinton and company have touched that they have not corrupted?

On Oct. 13, 1996 – amid all this immigration, trade, Lincoln Bedroom, White House phone-calls sordidness – Al Gore went on national television and said this: "The ethical standards established in this White House have been the highest in the history of the White House. You have a tougher code of ethics, tougher requirements strictly abided by."

And no controlling legal authority to contradict him.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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