08/03/97 - 11:54 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Fund-raising hearings yet to capture public's fancy

WASHINGTON - Americans spent the summer of 1973 riveted to their TVs, watching the Watergate saga unfold in Senate hearings. In 1987, the Iran-contra hearings were an engrossing political spectacle all summer long.

At least so far, this summer's Senate fund-raising hearings haven't been a reprise of those scandal hits. The Governmental Affairs Committee has adjourned until September without electrifying the public or wounding President Clinton.

"There doesn't seem to be a lot of interest in what's going on," committee Chairman Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., told reporters Friday.

When Thompson's committee returns after Labor Day, that could change. Witnesses will likely include former top Clinton administration officials, such as former deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes and Hillary Rodham Clinton's former chief of staff, Margaret Williams.

Even the epic Watergate hearings didn't produce blockbuster testimony until two months after they began. That's when the existence of President Nixon's secret taping system was revealed.

And Oliver North's dramatic testimony about arms sales to Iran and the diversion of proceeds to Nicaragua's contras came two months into the Iran-contra hearings.

The severity of the charges, media interest and the political climate all are different now:

Before Nixon resigned, he ordered the FBI to stop cooperating with investigations of his lies about the Watergate break-in and the subsequent coverup. In Iran-contra, President Reagan was accused of defying a congressional ban on the sale of arms to Iran.

No one has charged that Clinton knew of a plot by China's government to funnel money into U.S. elections last year, the most serious element of Thompson's probe.

When the Watergate hearings began on May 17, 1973, top Nixon aides, including White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, already had resigned. Several had been indicted and trials were under way.

When the Iran-contra hearings began on May 5, 1987, an independent counsel, Lawrence Walsh, had been at work for five months. The independent Tower Commission had released its report, and White House chief of staff Donald Regan had resigned.

Because Thompson must complete his hearings by Dec. 31, he was forced to begin them before his investigation was complete. There have been no indictments of key players. Many have fled the country or refused to talk.

In Iran-contra, that role was played by North, a charismatic Marine who worked for the National Security Council. He described the arms and contra operations and said that Reagan had authorized everything.

In Watergate, it was John Dean, the earnest White House counsel who narrated a tale of deception and coverup.

During the first month of Watergate hearings, the three networks' evening news broadcasts averaged a total of 27 stories a day, according to the nonpartisan Center for Media and Public Affairs. The average was five stories a day during the first month of the Iran-contra hearings.

During the first month of the current hearings, the average was two stories a day. In part, that's because many events explored in the hearings were detailed by the media weeks ago.

"Journalists pushed hard on the (fund-raising) story when it first came out," says Robert Lichter, head of the center. "There was no public response and they gave up on it."

Thompson says he's not worried about headlines. "It's not a blockbuster business," he says. "It's a building business." Even Watergate, Thompson says, "wasn't very exciting in the beginning, was it?"

It was not. The first witness was Robert Odle, director of administration for Nixon's re-election committee. Odle had a hard time reconstructing the events leading to the break-in.

On May 28, 1973, 11 days after the hearings began, The New York Times published an analysis noting the inquiry was moving "at a leisurely pace. . . . It has obtained no direct evidence implicating either the president or any of his chief advisers in either the planning of the break-in or in the efforts to limit investigation of it."

Dean testified for a full week starting June 25. He said Nixon had known of the coverup since September 1972.

But the most damaging testimony didn't come until July 16, nine weeks after the hearings had begun. Alexander Butterfield, a former deputy assistant to Nixon, was questioned by Thompson, who was then the counsel for the minority on the committee. Butterfield described Nixon's taping devices.

The next day, the committee voted unanimously to ask Nixon to release the tape recordings. His refusal to do so ultimately led to a constitutional confrontation and Nixon's resignation on Aug. 9, 1974.

The first witness in the Iran-contra hearings was Richard Secord. The retired Air Force general organized a private network to airlift military supplies to the contras.

Fawn Hall, North's secretary, gave the first jolting testimony a month later. On June 8, 1987, she testified about shredding and smuggling documents out of the White House. North's testimony didn't begin until July 7, more than two months after the hearings began.

Other factors have contributed to low interest this summer. A USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll done July 25-27 found a majority of people believe both parties used unethical practices in the 1996 campaign. Half said they don't think new information has surfaced.

And people just aren't paying as much attention to government as they did during the two previous scandals. During Watergate, the country was suffering through an economic downturn. The Iran-contra hearings focused on an incredibly popular president. Today, most people are enjoying the benefits of a strong economy.

During the Watergate and Iran-contra hearings, says Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., the government "was in a form of paralysis" and the hearings were "radical surgery."

Now, the exposure of flaws in the campaign-finance system shows "there's a more insidious, longer-term disease, a kind of cancer affecting the body politic," says Lieberman, a member of Thompson's panel. "Our hearings will not be as riveting or as immediately curative, but I do think they're in the long term as important."

By Judy Keen, USA TODAY



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