In TIME This Week:
Special Report: What Makes A Good School
Washington Diary: Back In The Saddle
It's Groundhog Day
The Clinton tapes roll on and on and on, but every now and then, a tantalizing detail emerges
By Richard Lacayo/TIME
WASHINGTON (TIME, Oct. 27) -- The White House last week dumped its second load of videotapes of Bill Clinton schmoozing potential donors. Watching them is a bit like sitting through Groundhog Day, the movie in which Bill Murray keeps repeating the same 24 hours of his life. In almost any segment, you see the President entering a room or in a receiving line. Now he charms, now he mixes, now he makes small talk ("Nice tie!"). At some point he may accept a token of appreciation, like a lucky rock or a ceremonial dagger. He delivers some cheerleaderish remarks and shakes every hand that looks capable of signing a check. Then comes another segment in which he does it all again. And then again. And again.
So far, more than 100 hours of tape of the Panhandler in Chief have been made public. Put aside for a moment the questions about what was illegal and what was just unseemly, and the overall effect is oddly comforting. If nothing else, the tapes prove that the most powerful nation on earth can operate on autopilot while its President chases campaign money. What they don't appear to do so far is show whether the Democratic Party had a scheme to channel foreign cash into campaign '96, and if so, whether Clinton was in on it.
The most candid Democratic line is the one offered by a senior White House official: "They're not incriminating. They're just...pornographic." What he means is that the tapes show hour after hour of repetitious foreplay with potential donors. For the most part, the Clinton we see appears to know that the law more or less forbids him to direct his listeners to reach, right there, for their wallets. When one donor makes the mistake of attempting to present checks in the White House, Democratic National Committee chairman Donald Fowler refuses them while Clinton adroitly chats away with someone else about golf.
The worst potential slip-up comes at a December luncheon in 1995 sponsored by the D.N.C. The President thanks the assembled guests for giving generously to the D.N.C. "issues" ad campaign that supports his budget policies. He goes on: "We realized we could run these ads through the Democratic Party, which means we could raise money in $20,000, $50,000 and $100,000 blocks"--instead of in increments of $1,000 per donor, the limit on contributions to specific candidates like, for instance, Bill Clinton. Was he winking at the legal line that is supposed to separate the "soft money" donated to parties from the "hard money" given to individuals? Could be. But since that line has been fudged by both parties, nobody expects it to send anybody, much less the President, to court.
When it comes to the more serious question of whether Clinton knew of a foreign-money pipeline, the tapes are tantalizing...but. At a 1996 event he thanks "those who have come from other countries to be with us tonight." At another he praises John Huang, the Democratic fund raiser who solicited a good part of the contributions that have since been returned by the party as questionable or worse. In the Oval Office we also see Clinton courting James Riady, whose family controls the Lippo Group, the Indonesian conglomerate with major projects in China, and questionable D.N.C. contributions. And then there is the Boris-and-Natasha moment, when Clinton is greeted by Arief Wiriadinata, the Indonesian gardener who with his wife somehow contributed $450,000 to the Democrats--later returned--and who tells the President, "James Riady sent me."
For now the White House is sufficiently confident, or maybe sufficiently cagey, so that last week it rolled out White House special counsel and damage controller Lanny Davis to delineate the most interesting parts of the tapes. He dutifully indicated every presidential hello to Huang. Maybe Davis should also have singled out Clinton reminding one group how the golfer Greg Norman squandered a six-shot lead at the Masters. "This thing could get away from us," the President warns. What he meant then was that his pre-election lead in the polls could similarly melt away. All the same, that's a remark that could turn out to be true in ways he didn't mean at the time.
-- Reported by Michael Duffy and Karen Tumulty/Washington
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