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Follow The Money

Bill Clinton

[Bill Clinton]

(adapted from "The Buying of the President," Charles Lewis and the Center for Public Integrity, 1996)

Bill Clinton, who grew up without much money, has always understood the political importance of raising substantial campaign funds. What is most striking about his first campaign is how a 28-year-old assistant professor of law in Fayetteville, Ark., running for a seat in the Congress for the first time, could raise more money than the incumbent four-term Republican congressman. During that 1974 election Clinton raised $178,000, about $20,000 more than John Hammerschmidt, from traditional Democratic party sources.

In 1974 as well as 1992, candidate Clinton has actually embraced powerful corporate interests and much of their agenda despite his rhetoric against them. When Clinton ran for Congress in 1974, the largest employer in the Third District of Arkansas was Tyson Foods, based in Springdale, which was well on its way to becoming the nation's largest poultry producer. In 1995, Tyson Foods ranked "110th on the Fortune 500 list, and sold 6,000 products in 57 countries, from fresh chickens to taco fillings," according to an August 1994 company profile in The New York Times.

The chairman, Don Tyson, is a colorful figure who in the late 1970s designed his corporate office as a replica of the Oval Office in the White House, with doorknobs shaped like chicken eggs. Tyson was estimated to be worth $800 million. He supported Clinton in the 1974 race, and according to author David Maraniss, the Tyson family donated a campaign telephone bank which was operated from an apartment near the University of Arkansas, although it should be noted that no such "in-kind" contribution was reported by the campaign to the Federal Election Commission. Clinton never talked much about the company itself publicly, but instead spoke empathetically about the plight of chicken farmers.

The Tyson-Clinton relationship continued in Washington, of course, and it grew out of a special culture. Probably no one has better captured the real essence of the political-financial nexus in Arkansas than journalist Michael Kelly, who wrote that Arkansas "has been ruled for almost all of its existence, and is largely ruled still, by a thin upper crust of Democratic party officials and Democratic legislative leaders and important landholders and businessmen."

"This elite, bound together not by party or even ideology but by mutually advantageous relationships, holds sway over a small and politically disorganized middle class and a large but well-beaten population of the poor.

Class-based Reaction

"The contradiction is that Arkansas voters, in a class-based reaction against this condition, perpetually favor politicians who are 'common' in touch, populist in theology, and reformist in policies," Kelly wrote.

To be plausible and acceptable to the political and financial elite of Arkansas, a politician certainly can and must relate well to the people. But he or she must not substantially interfere with the daily commerce of the state, the business status quo. Every candidate in Arkansas instinctively knows this or learns it the hard way. Such is the theater into which Clinton's political career was born.

In his 1992 run for the presidency, money was of paramount concern to the Clinton campaign, which raised more funds than any of the other Democratic challengers prior to the 1992 Iowa caucuses. If Clinton was to be regarded as a "serious" national candidate, then his fund-raising base would have to reflect a breadth far beyond Arkansas interests. Wall Street, Hollywood, the high-tech "information highway," telephone, computer, media conglomerate interests and many other groups were heavily and successfully solicited.

Campaigning on the phrase "putting people first," Clinton did not accept political action committee (PAC) money, which meant that in the crucial pre-nomination phase he would have to depend on individual donations which are limited to $1,000 each. After the nomination was assured, much of the fund-raising energy turned to soft-money donations of $25,000 and larger to the Democratic party, for "get-out-the-vote" and other permissible activities throughout the states which would obviously benefit Clinton.

Clinton was no stranger to Washington or its money politics. In the late 1980s, he had helped to form a conservative Democratic organization known as the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and its affiliated think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI). Headquartered in Washington, and famous for phrases such as "reinventing government," the DLC relied on undisclosed corporate contributions and unlike the Democratic party, generally eschewed labor union policy issues or support.


Ending "Business As Usual"

The most aggressive "anti-Washington" rhetoric in the caucus/primary season was made by candidates Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot and Jerry Brown. It was not until the summer of 1992 that the apparent nominee of the Democratic party began to strike the same chord. Clinton announced that he planned to end "influence peddling" and "business as usual" in Washington, and the campaign issued a best-selling book of policy positions and ideas under the title Putting People First, which said, "It's long past time to clean up Washington. On streets where statesmen once strolled, a never-ending stream of money now changes hands -- tying the hands of those elected to lead."

To the masses, Clinton was portraying himself as an outsider to the seat of power and government. By contrast, in a study about the presidential candidates and their campaign advisers issued a week after the 1992 New Hampshire primary, the Center for Public Integrity discovered that more than half of Clinton's unpaid campaign advisers were from "inside the Beltway" of Washington. No fewer than six advisers came from the DLC or PPI. During their "day jobs," several of Clinton's unpaid policy advisers got handsome fees from foreign corporations and governments, tobacco companies, the insurance industry, oil and gas firms, investment banks and other business interests.

Judging from the people around him it was plain to see that candidate Clinton was continuing the bipartisan Washington practice of putting lobbyists first. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, lawyers and lobbyists were Clinton's biggest campaign contributors in 1992, donating $3.1 million.

Banking and financial interests were not bashful about supporting the Arkansas governor. In 1992, candidate Clinton received at least $853,295 in campaign contributions from the financial sector, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Servicing Business

The Clinton Administration has pursued and serviced the American business community more aggressively and more systematically than any previous administration. Clinton assiduously courted corporate support for his economic program after he arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Individual aides -- White House officials Mack McLarty and political director Rahm Emanuel, Robert Rubin and public liaison chief Alexis Herman -- were given assignments.

Red Cavaney, former Reagan White House official and president of the American Plastics Council, said the administration's relationships with lobbyists are "as good as I've ever seen in my 20-odd years of doing this, in terms of their willingness to sit down and discuss issues."

For more informtion, check the Center for Public Integrity's Home Page.

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