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November 1, 1997

News Analysis: Trying to Have It Both Ways


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    By DAVID E. ROSENBAUM

    WASHINGTON -- At Senate testimony this week, Sen. Fred Thompson complained that "the administration had sought to have it both ways" by appearing publicly to cooperate with investigators yet stiffing them privately.

    In the months that his Governmental Affairs Committee has spent investigating campaign finance practices, Thompson has also sought to have it two ways.

    Encouraged by his Republican leaders, Thompson tried to use his committee's subpoena power and the public spotlight to wound President Clinton and the Democratic administration in the same way that Democratic congressional investigations inflicted political damage on Republican presidents with the Watergate and Iran-contra inquiries.

    In this respect, the senator seems to have failed. With the investigators never scoring a direct hit on the president, Clinton has become stronger than ever as measured by opinion polls.

    At the same time, Thompson tried to draw attention to a hopelessly broken campaign finance system. To the extent he succeeded in this mission, it was over the strenuous objections of the leadership of the Republican Party and with only half-hearted support from Democrats. These people, after all, owe their jobs to the current system.

    On the first point, the committee did manage to add some color to the gray newspaper accounts of the fund-raising binge engaged in by Clinton and the Democratic Party in last year's election campaign.

    But protagonists like John Huang, Yah Lin Trie, Johnny Chung and the Riady family remained off stage, either having left the country or having asserted their right to refuse to testify. Marquee players who did appear seemed to have conveniently developed amnesia.

    So it was not entirely Thompson's fault that he was unable to nick Clinton or to engage the public in what Republicans believe was a Democratic scandal. Thompson had no star witness and thus little exposure on television. And the White House, having polished its damage-control skills through repetitive use, blunted every thrust from the investigators before serious injuries were inflicted.

    But the prevailing view here among Republicans and Democrats alike is that Thompson dropped the ball. He raised public expectations by pronouncing on opening day that a Chinese plot to pour money into U.S. politics "affected the 1996 presidential race," but he never offered evidence to substantiate such a serious charge.

    His committee spent far too much time early in the hearings proving points that were not in dispute.

    Thompson and his staff also proved to be inept at stage management. Before the public sessions started, he told every interviewer that one of his main tasks was to put on a good show so that people would pay attention, but he never did so.

    The committee's lawyers questioned witnesses endlessly on minor points. The committee's senators spent day after day delivering monologues serially rather than questioning witnesses. And testimony compelling enough to interest the television networks was often offered at times when it was not convenient for the networks to broadcast it.

    On the question of exposing the flaws in the campaign finance system, Thompson contends, with some justification, that the attention generated by his investigation was a factor in the agreement by Republican leaders to allow votes next March on changes in the campaign finance law.

    "We've had the first real substantive debate on campaign finance reform in 20 years," Thompson said Friday. "We played a part in that, and I'm proud."

    But he and the other senators from both parties were never willing to address squarely the fact that the campaign finance system is based on a fiction: the proposition that donors give large amounts of money to politicians and expect nothing concrete in return and that politicians accept money without feeling obligated to give something in return.

    The truth is that perfectly legal donations brought out in the hearings -- a $300,000 donation from a wheeler-dealer who wanted to build a pipeline from the Caspian Sea, a $230,000 contribution from Indian tribes that got a favorable ruling from the Interior Department, a $50,000 contribution from a corporate executive who received a phone call from Clinton -- might be considered bribery or extortion in other walks of life.

    Who in America was surprised to learn that Roger Tamraz, the donor who wanted to build the pipeline, got an audience with Clinton in return for his large donation? There is not a senator on the Thompson committee who does not open his doors to his major contributors. But this is not a matter that the senators wanted to discuss at length.

    If Thompson and his colleagues had truly wanted to expose the flaws in the system, they would have taken a cue from tobacco hearings. The only congressional hearing on tobacco that everyone remembers was the one in 1994 when the top executives of the seven largest American tobacco companies stood in a row, raised their right hands and swore that they did not believe that cigarettes were addictive.

    Imagine if Thompson had subpoenaed the seven largest donors in the 1996 election campaign and asked them under oath why they gave so much of their money -- or their shareholders' or their union members' money -- to politicians and political parties.

    You can bet that the television networks would have covered that hearing.




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