Analysis: Tapes raise suspicions of coverup

WASHINGTON - CNN was in high gear from the minute the White House started showing a new batch of fund-raiser videotapes last Wednesday.

Reporters and editors set up round-the-clock shifts to watch the 90-plus hours of tapes, which had been shot by a White House agency at gatherings inside and outside the executive mansion.

Producers and crews numbered and color-coded the 60-odd videocassettes and logged them into a computer to catalog which ones showed which events and where the events took place.

By Wednesday night, CNN's team had produced an instant prime-time special, The Money Trail. Bits and pieces of the tapes, which were made originally for presidential archives, have been airing since then.

Investigators at the Justice Department and in Congress will decide whether they contain evidence of illegal fund-raising - on federal property, for example, or from prohibited foreign sources.

But meanwhile, why the Washington fixation with grainy pictures, bad sound and jerky camera work showing President Clinton and Vice President Gore spending a few pleasant moments with people who make big contributions to political campaigns?

The answer starts with what the White House says was its own bungling. By not releasing the tapes until months after they were subpoenaed, the White House raised suspicions of a coverup and set off a scramble in the capital to see if they offered new embarrassments for Clinton and Gore.

Whether they do or not, the tapes open a window onto the rarely seen private workings of the president's office. They show gatherings in elegant White House rooms and posh hotels where rich donors get the president's attention.

None of what's seen is shocking, says CNN Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno. "But when you've had this drumbeat of a story going for so long, and when you can show something as it's happening, then it breathes and it lives."

After a year of a Republicans-vs.-Democrats argument, the tapes bring life to a subject that polls show has left the public cold.

Michael Schudson, a communications professor at the University of California-San Diego and author of Watergate in American Memory, says people are fascinated because of "the Watergate echo."

People remember "that endless slowness of the Nixon White House turning over and not turning over the tapes," he says. "No matter how innocuous the circumstances may be at the moment, it's pretty hard for anyone who was conscious during Watergate to not feel that there are echoes."

In graphic detail, the tapes show that the president and vice president spent an astounding amount of time raising money for their re-election.

"Leaving aside the legal issues, the tapes show Clinton really did differ from all of his predecessors since Nixon in utterly obliterating the difference between governing and getting re-elected," says William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. "Bush, Reagan and Carter understood that most of what they did was being president of the United States."

In the Clinton administration, he says, "these videos make clear how utterly the government was consumed by the permanent campaign."

Larry Sabato, author of Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics, says the practical implications of the tapes appears to be "nil."

"Most people made up their minds about this some time ago and determined that, yeah, it's sleazy, but the economy's doing pretty well and things are on the right track," he says. People also have felt for a long time that "this is not President Eagle Scout."

So watching Clinton socialize with Democratic givers and controversial fund-raisers such as John Huang "just reinforces what people already think about Clinton: that he will do and say anything to gain power," Sabato says. "People shrug and say, 'Yeah? Tell me something I don't know.' "

It is "not exactly compelling video," independent political analyst Charles Cook says. "The big deal is it that it is video, and arguably unless a story makes big television, it's not a story anymore. It sort of spurs people's prurient interest."

Several videos of interest to investigators show that Clinton invited donors and fund-raisers into the Oval Office to watch him deliver his Saturday radio address and then pose for pictures with him. But most people asked to the Oval Office for the weekly addresses are White House staffers and their families, and friends of the Clintons.

On one tape that CNN has aired, a young man proposes to his girlfriend right in front of the clearly delighted president.

"Any documentation of a presidency is fascinating because it is so behind-the-scenes," Sesno says. "In so few instances do we get candid looks at the president's time."

By Mimi Hall, USA TODAY