In TIME This Week:
Calvin Trillin: Seeing Spills, Ignoring Ills
By Calvin Trillin
(TIME, November 3) -- If I had to look at videotapes showing a hundred hours of White House coffees, I know I'd find myself distracted by spills. "Are those coffee stains?" I'd be asking my fellow viewers, grim-looking men from various investigating committees. "Or is he wearing the club tie of some organization whose logo is a dark splotch?"
"Try to keep focused on anything that might show the President raising money on federal property," the chief investigator would say. By then, though, my gaze would have wandered, attracted by the possibility that I'd spotted an exceedingly rich man wiping the residue of a glazed doughnut off on the side of his trousers while placing his hand casually in his pocket.
I suppose my powers of concentration are not all they should be. In 1992, Republicans who donated $92,000 to the cause could get their picture taken with George Bush, and all I could think about was what would happen if the photographer caught the donor halfway through a blink, looking like a geek. Would another shot cost another $92,000?
I realize now that I should have been concentrating on where the pictures were taken and whether the contributions were properly used as soft money or ended up to be the sort of soft money that hardens before your eyes in the heat of the campaign, like quick-setting cement. Did these photo sessions take place in the White House--federal property--or did George Bush and his friends troop down to some photography studio in Cleveland Park and line up behind seniors from Sidwell Friends who were there to have their yearbook pictures taken? These are details that tend to slip from your mind when you're faced with the fact that someone has just handed over $92,000 to have his picture taken with somebody else.
In the past week, while a lot of investigators presumably have been spending long days in darkened rooms examining videos of people having coffee, here are just some of the facts about campaign financing that have been printed openly, for all to see, in the New York Times or the Washington Post: Having examined 11 elements in this year's budget and tax deal, Common Cause found that the biggest winners were individuals and companies that since 1995 have generated $300 million in soft money--in many cases, giving generously to both political parties at the same time. The Democratic National Committee has invited donors of $50,000 and more to a weekend retreat with Bill Clinton and Al Gore. PACs of institutions from General Electric to the American Medical Association contributed mainly to Democratic congressional candidates until the 1994 election that gave Republicans control of Congress, whereupon an overnight conversion resulted in their money being channeled overwhelmingly to Republicans.
Given all that, trying to ascertain precisely which room campaign money was raised in strikes me as the equivalent of a city plagued with bank robberies concentrating its investigation on whether or not the getaway drivers were in possession of valid driver's licenses. Valid licenses or invalid licenses, we're still being robbed.
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