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TIME Magazine

How Huang Makes Two Nominations Harder

By Michael Duffy

(TIME, February 3) -- Secretary of State Madeleine Albright charmed Jesse Helms and breezed through the Senate last week, 99 to 0. So did Bill Cohen, the new Pentagon chief, who until a few weeks ago was a Republican Senator. That about wraps it up for the easy Clinton nominations. The White House parlor game of the moment is called "Tony or Alexis--which one goes down?"

Tony is Anthony Lake, the Massachusetts cattleman and college professor who ran the National Security Council for Clinton and is the President's choice to run the CIA. Alexis is Alexis Herman, the White House aide and longtime Democratic Party operative whom Clinton tapped to be Secretary of Labor. A former aide to Henry Kissinger, Lake is bookish and white. An ally of the late Ron Brown, Herman is glamorous and black. He's diplomacy and Mount Holyoke College; she's civil rights and Mobile, Alabama. On camera, where Lake can be quirky and anxious, Herman is cool and unflappable. And so it is all the more remarkable that two quite different people, nominated to do quite different jobs, now face an identical problem when their confirmation hearings begin. Republicans want to ask both nominees how much they knew about John Huang, the zealous Democratic Party fund raiser who made regular visits to the White House last year and whose network of foreign donors has led to a Justice Department investigation.

The problem is particularly sticky for Lake, who as NSC director is supposed to have known about potential diplomatic embarrassments and can never utter the words "I was out of the loop." But that is essentially Lake's defense. His team contends that Harold Ickes and Doug Sosnik, who ran the White House political operation, rarely asked the NSC to do background checks on the foreigners coming to the White House for some of the 81 coffees the President had last year with donors and backers. In previous administrations, a rigorous NSC investigation greeted every foreigner who came to the White House. But in the midst of the campaign, Ickes and Sosnik let the Democratic National Committee do the first round of vetting. If the D.N.C. didn't raise a flag, Lake was never alerted, which helps explain why a Chinese arms dealer was allowed through the White House gates to meet Clinton last year.

In three days of hearings next month, Lake will say that had he known, he would have prevented Chinese weapons trader Wang Jun from taking coffee with the President on Feb. 6, 1996, a meeting even Clinton said later was "clearly inappropriate." When it comes to blame, Lake may spare no one--not even White House chief of staff Leon Panetta.

Alexis Herman

As for Herman, Republicans want to know how much she knew about all the telephone tag being played between her Office of Public Liaison at the White House and the fund raisers at the D.N.C. Herman was in charge of "outreach" to various ethnic groups--an effort that White House documents show included fund raising in some cases. Republican Senators are particularly interested in Herman's relationship with Huang, the D.N.C. fund raiser who once worked for the Lippo Group of Indonesia and who made 76 visits to the White House, sometimes to see Clinton, sometimes to see Ickes and sometimes to see Doris Matsui, the woman in Herman's office who organized support from Asian Americans.

By law, White House officials aren't barred from working on campaigns, but they aren't allowed to work on fund raising. Yet in several Clinton-Gore campaign-strategy documents produced by Herman's office and released last Friday by the White House, fund-raising plans are discussed in detail. In one document, a blueprint for organizing the "Asian Pacific American Community," the fund-raising section was written by Huang and dictated to a staff member in Matsui's office. It included a $7 million goal for donations from Asian Americans.

The White House leaked the documents pre-emptively last week to deprive Senate Republicans of an ambush at Herman's hearings. White House special counsel Lanny Davis admitted that some portions were produced in Herman's office, either on government time or on government equipment, but added that the Clinton-Gore campaign had recently reimbursed taxpayers for the cost. Davis could not say whether Herman had seen the documents, much less okayed them, before they were forwarded to Ickes last February.

Clinton has already fought for Herman once. AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney opposed her nomination last fall, favoring former Pennsylvania Senator Harris Wofford instead. Jesse Jackson personally lobbied Sweeney on Herman's behalf, but that isn't what changed the labor chief's mind; after a bruising role in getting Clinton re-elected, Sweeney simply wasn't in the mood for a fight. Now that Herman faces confirmation trouble, Clinton has turned to Washington lobbyists Michael Berman and Patrick Griffin to help shepherd her nomination.

A top White House official is worried that Trent Lott's Republicans are setting up two pins to knock one down. More likely, the G.O.P. will decide just to rough up both candidates a bit. If so, Herman has at least one advantage: one of her first accomplishments as a labor activist some 25 years ago was finding jobs for unemployed teenagers from Mobile--at a shipyard in nearby Pascagoula, Mississippi, where Lott's dad was a pipefitter.


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