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Top Stories? That's A
Bit Of A Stretch

1997 was a year of drip-drip-drip developments

By Craig Staats/AllPolitics

WASHINGTON (Dec. 23) -- Quick! Name the 10 biggest political stories of 1997.

Stumped? 1997 turned out to be that kind of year, enlivened by a steady drip-drip-drip of developments in the campaign finance mess, but hardly one for the history books.

Still, there were some notable moments, from Bill Clinton's bold defense of his aggressive campaign fund-raising at an August news conference, to Chinese President Jiang Zemin's red-carpet welcome at the White House in October.

Or the Supreme Court giving Paula Jones a green light to proceed with her lawsuit. Or Kenneth Starr quoting Fiorello LaGuardia -- "When I make a mistake, it's a beaut" -- about his ill-advised plan to quit the Whitewater probe for a beachfront deanship in California.

The campaign money mess was 1997's top political story, in all its jumbled glory, with news leaks, subpoenas, Justice Department investigations and congressional probes, on both the Senate and House sides.

Gavel To Gavel: Fund-Raising Hearings

News Archives

Republicans haven't yet come up with a road map source, a Clinton confidante who could explain it all. So instead, there was a parade of characters and moments, from the mysterious Chinese businessman Ng Lap Seng, also known as "Mr. Wu," to former White House aid Harold Ickes sparring with Sen. Don Nickles during the Senate hearings.


The scandal dogged Democrats all year long, peaking in the early days of Sen. Fred Thompson's Governmental Affairs Committee hearings, then again earlier this month, when Attorney General Janet Reno decided not to seek independent inquiries of Clinton and Vice President Al Gore's fund-raising.

If the campaign finance imbroglio was hard to understand, one part of it was not: the allegations that Clinton "sold" overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom, by giving big contributors access to that historic room.

Lincoln Bedroom

Clinton's guests in the Lincoln Bedroom gave a total of at least $5.4 million to the Democratic National Committee during 1995 and 1996, according to a study for CNN by the Campaign Study Group.

The man most hurt by the scandal was Vice President Al Gore, who bungled a news conference in early March by repeatedly offering a limp, legalistic defense of the fund-raising calls he made from his White House office.


Within hours, Gore's mantra -- "no controlling legal authority" -- became part of the political lexicon. The Gore Transcript

Gore's year-end favorable rating stood at 50 percent, down 10 points from the first week of 1997, according to a Dec. 22 CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll.

After the money trail, here are another dozen political stories to look back on:

  • Jesse Helms vs. William Weld Weld, who quit the governorship of Massachusetts to lobby for confirmation as ambassador to Mexico, never had a chance. His fight with Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, culminated in that brittle meeting on Sept. 12, when Helms delivered a public scolding to those who suggested Weld deserved a hearing. Helms said the sole purpose of the meeting was "to discuss a history of countless failed nominations in the past 10 years which were denied hearings by the chairman or the ranking member."

  • The Nov. 4 Elections In an off year, there were only a smattering of races that drew national attention, and the GOP swept them all.

    The closest was the New Jersey governor's race, where Christie Todd Whitman won by the slenderest of margins. In Virginia, Jim Gilmore beat Democratic Lt. Gov. Don Beyer. And in New York City, Vito Fossella captured the vacancy left by Susan Molinari's resignation and Mayor Rudy Giuliani easily won a second term.


  • The Teamsters Election A federal monitor invalidated Teamsters President Ron Carey's re-election victory over James Hoffa and ordered a new election. Carey is barred from running, and there are questions, too, about the union's relationship with the Democratic National Committee.

  • The Newt Coup House Speaker Newt Gingrich survived a coup by insurgent, but incompetent Republicans. Bill Paxon was bounced from the inner circle, leaving him free to travel the country and collect chits for a future speakership battle. When it was all over, pundits called it the Keystone Coup.


  • The Dole Loan Just when the furor over the Gingrich ethics case was dying down, the speaker stoked the fires by announcing he would pay his $300,000 penalty with a loan from GOP elder statesman Bob Dole. Gingrich was cited for not seeking proper legal advice in connection with his use of tax-exempt projects, and for furnishing inaccurate information to the House ethics panel that looked into his conduct. Gingrich made his first $50,000 payment in May, at which time he also disclosed his plans to borrow no more than $150,000 from Dole to pay off the penalty.


  • The Rip-Roaring Economy With unemployment at a low 4.6 percent, the economy rolled along and whenever he got the chance, Bill Clinton basked in its golden glow. The stock market weathered some giant gyrations, which left many investors uneasy, though.

    Amid the volatility, Clinton sought to focus on the economy's underlying strengths: a lower-than-expected federal deficit, unemployment and inflation at their lowest level in two decades, and healthy banks and businesses. "That's why we have to feel confident and continue our economic strategy," he said in late October.

  • Fast-Track Authority When they finally decided they didn't have the votes, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich pulled fast-track negotiating authority off the House floor. Afterward, Clinton minimized the defeat, but union leaders and many Democrats said it gives them a chance to build new safeguards into the next round of trade agreements.

  • Balanced Budget A ground-breaking agreement to balance the budget by 2002 and to provide a $152 billion tax cut was signed into law. With so many smiles on all sides, some analysts said all that really happened was Washington put off tough choices on entitlement spending. By year's end, most of the credit for the lower deficit was going to the strong economy and better-than-anticipated tax collections.

    In Focus: Balanced Budget

  • IRS Reform With the budget battle over for now, Republicans turned to a new target: the IRS. The Senate held hearings on taxpayer abuse at the IRS, and Republicans began to debate simplifying the tax code in 1998.

  • Jiang In Washington Trailed by protestors upset over human rights and his policies toward Tibet, China President Jiang Zemin made an official visit to the United States.

  • Sex, Sex, Sex There was plenty of pre-trial jockeying in Jones v. Clinton, the sexual harasment case that could define tawdry if it goes to trial next May as scheduled. Both sides took depositions, and Jones amended her complaint in a way that limits inquiries into her own reputation and sexual history.

    The biggest ruling of the year was by the Supreme Court, which in May said there was nothing in the U.S. Constitution that bars Jones' lawsuit from proceeding against the president while he is still in office.

  • Starr's Change of Heart In February, Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr tried to decamp for Malibu's Pepperdine University, but hoots of derision produced a big U-turn and a public admission he had erred. "As Fiorello LaGuardia would say, 'When I make a mistake it's a beaut,'" Starr told reporters, quoting the late New York City mayor.

    In Other News:

    Wednesday Dec. 31, 1997

    The Year's Top Political Stories
    New Year Brings New Laws
    GOP To Consider Abortion Litmus Test
    Clinton Retreats With Golf, Seminars And Dog Walking
    Thurmond Decides To Rest Longer In Hospital

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