07/10/97 - 01:00 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Spin control in high gear at hearings

WASHINGTON - Tuesday's opening of the Senate investigation into campaign finance practices sometimes had the feel of a campaign itself.

Outside the marbled Hart Senate Office committee hearing room where a summer of hearings began, scrums of reporters clustered around as senators, White House aides, Democratic consultants, and spokesmen for both sides vied to peddle their versions of the day's events.

One prominent spinner was White House lawyer Lanny Davis, point man for President Clinton in the campaign finance controversy.

When a friendly security guard who apparently had not seen Davis in some time asked him what he was doing these days, Davis joked: "At the White House, spinning my yarn."

Such is governing in the era of the permanent campaign. Even those at the center of the process know it for what it is:

"The public is tired of spending money on a lot of hot air," said Democratic consultant Mark Mellman after the hearing, seemingly oblivious to his own role in helping generate that climatic phenomenon.

Mellman's statement was aimed at the Republican's case against possible fund-raising abuses in the White House. But it could have been uttered almost any time about any topic at any place in this city - and fetch nods of understanding.

Unlike the atmosphere almost 25 years ago when much of the activity in the Watergate hearings was confined to the procedure-bound setting inside Sam Ervin's chamber, today's media age investigations go far beyond the dignified air of the Senate sanctum.

Indeed, a steady troupe of major players - from Sen. Fred Thompson, the committee chairman, to Ty Cobb, the lawyer for embattled Democratic fund-raiser John Huang - went on CNN after the hearings closed to continue pleading their cases.

They were asked questions that never arose inside the hearing room, adding yet more layers of context and complexity to points that hours before had seemed clearer inside the hearing room.

At times, as often happens during campaigns, the spin cycle seems to run the actors. Thompson, who has the power of the gavel inside the hearing room, became just another voice in the din outside.

Only one senator on the investigating committee was in the Senate during the Watergate hearings. He is Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and he couldn't resist commenting on how the spin cycle had kicked in almost from the beginning.

Democrats used an offer by key witness John Huang to testify under limited immunity to seize the early initiative in the hearings. During a break, competing spokesman for Democrats and Republicans came over to the cluttered press tables to cast their version of what it meant.

"I noticed for some reason the spinning was wonderful down here today," Domenici said later. Was he being sarcastic? Admiring? Both?

Only the spinners know for sure.

By Chuck Raasch, Gannett News Service

Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.