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Gavel To Gavel: AllPolitics' Campaign Fund-Raising Special Report
Does Everybody Do It?
Big Money, politics go way back in U.S. history
By Judy Woodruff/CNN
WASHINGTON (Oct. 7) -- With the Clinton Administration under fire for the way it rewarded big donors, the Lincoln Bedroom has become a symbol of how money and politics intersects today.
"We honor the spirit of Abraham Lincoln by putting a premium on his beliefs, not a price on his bedroom," said New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman at a May 1997 Republican gala.
President Bill Clinton has insisted, "The Lincoln Bedroom was never sold. That was one more false story that we have had to endure." (128K wav sound)
Today, the Lincoln Bedroom on the second story of the White House may be a symbol of integrity in American government. But in Lincoln's day it wasn't even a bedroom. It was an office where the newly inaugurated president met with friends and campaign contributors who lined the halls of the White House, seeking government patronage jobs as rewards for their political support.
Lincoln had gotten elected by outspending opponent Stephen Douglas two to one, waging the first $100,000-campaign in U.S. history, with heavy backing from the emerging railroad industry.
"Those railroad interests were rewarded over the next several years," said Chuck Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, a political watchdog group. "They got all kinds of special deals and subsidies to build railroads across America."
Liquor interests contributed heavily to Franklin Roosevelt, who later repealed Prohibition. John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson rewarded big contributors with government contracts, Cabinet briefings and even meetings with the president.
"The bottom line is that the presidents have gotten in bed with people who wanted favors from the government and they have gotten money for their parties and their elections. And that goes back a good 200 years," said Lewis.
But it was Republican Richard Nixon whose excesses so stunned the nation that Congress was forced to rewrite campaign finance laws.
Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign traded favors for cash. Maurice Stans and John Connelly arranged a $2 million donation from the Associated Milk Producers, made just hours before an increase in government milk price supports was announced.
And when Chicago insurance giant W. Clement Stone made an individual contribution of $2 million, the voters cried foul.
"Watergate was the spur for what was actually a pretty good law that was passed in 1974 that limited contributions by individuals and political action committees," said Elizabeth Drew, a longtime political reporter and author.
The reform measures seemed to work pretty well at first. But then a series of rulings by the Federal Election Commission essentially created a new category of campaign funding that's now called "soft money," allowing political parties to accept large donations if the money was not used for a specific candidate.
Most analysts say soft money's impact started in 1988.
"In '92 it was huge, and in '96 both parties raised and spent three times as much soft money as in 1992," Drew said. "It exploded. It has destroyed the law that was passed in 1974. It makes a mockery of it. Both parties used it for purposes that certainly appear to be illegal."
But all the charges, the sleepovers, and the coffees didn't start with Clinton, argues Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, the leading proponent of the "Republicans Do It, Too" defense.
Levin is armed with stacks of documents to prove his point, including an invitation to a dinner for George Bush in 1992.
"If you buy enough tables, you get a private reception hosted by President and Mrs. Bush at the White House. It is right here in the invitation," Levin said. "And down here it says that attendance at all the benefits is limited, and benefits are based on receipts."
The biggest contributor to that dinner proves Roger Tamraz wasn't the first shadowy character to contribute a small fortune just to get near a president.
"Michael Kojima with Bush is my favorite all-time example," said Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity. "A fellow who had no known assets and two ex-wives looking for child support sitting with the president of the United States at a victory dinner here in Washington. And he is giving half a million dollars to the party."
Levin cites that example, too. "This is a letter to the prime minister of Japan, introducing Mr. Kojima saying that this major contributor is just a terrific man. He happened to be the biggest dead-beat dad in California ... The embassy of Japan was used by the Republican National Committee to set up appointments for Mr. Kojima, and in this letter it is represented that Mr. Kojima has a message from the president..."
And Levin says "dialing for dollars" began with Ronald Reagan, not Al Gore.
Documents in Reagan's own presidential library indicate he was coached by his White House staff in a series of fund-raising calls between 1981 and 1988. Levin points to a call Reagan made to a meeting of major contributors called the Republican Eagles, held at the Commerce Department in 1982:
"President Reagan said 'You have all my Cabinet down there with you. I'm sending Secrtary Shultz [and] other members of the Cabinet to keep you abreast of what is going on. In fact you will be seeing more of my Cabinet today than I will.' That's to major contributors of the Republican Party, meeting on government property. And then he says, 'Let me say to you Eagles how important your contributions are to the Republican Party.'"
Like an arms race?
Some analysts liken the two political parties' chase for soft money to an ever-escalating arms race.
Drew said, "It seems that each party moves that sleaze ball down the field a little more in new ways."
"The only way we are going to really get a solution is if people acknowledge the fact that both parties have been doing it," Levin said.
It might make Republicans squirm to hear it now, but back in 1992, when Bush Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater was asked about that fund-raising dinner Sen. Levin spoke about, he told The New York Times, "It's buying access to the system, yes. That's what the political parties and the political operation is all about."
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