Senator Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee opened hearings into campaign finance abuses on July 8, 1997, with an uncharacteristic, and fatal, mistake. Thompson is an astute and levelheaded public servant and, though only in his first full term, a senator of unusual experience. As a young lawyer, he was Senator Howard Baker’s chief minority counsel in the Senate Watergate hearings of 1973 and the interrogator who drew from President Richard Nixon’s aide Alexander Butterfield the disclosure of the White House taping system. Now, a quarter-century later, his face looks, as was once said of Senator Everett Dirksen, as if he had slept in it. Before his election to the Senate he had made a successful second career in Hollywood playing make-believe Fred Thompsons—slow-spoken authority figures of imposing presence. Even his opponents readily concede that he is a serious man trying to serve the public good.
But in his opening statement to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Thompson was seduced into the mistake that has undermined most previous investigations of President Clinton and his administration: he did not confine himself to laying out the provable and egregious abuses of campaign finance laws in the two previous elections. He had ample material: the White House kaffeeklatsches for big donors, the huge sums donated to the Democratic Party by shadowy overseas Chinese contributors, the administration’s blatant peddling of access to the President and of opportunities to be photographed in his company, with few questions asked. Instead of sticking to these indisputable facts, Thompson cited “allegations of a plan hatched by the Chinese government to pour illegal money into American political campaigns. Our investigation suggests it affected the 1996 presidential race.”
Like so many of his Republican colleagues, Thompson overreached, making charges he could not prove and letting Clinton and his allies portray themselves as victims of vengeful Republicans who have never accepted the legitimacy of his presidency. Clinton received only a plurality of the votes in both 1992 and 1996, and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas inaugurated the delegitimizing of Clinton when he announced shortly after the 1992 election that he, Dole, would represent the 57 percent of the public who had voted against Clinton. Under direct questioning in 1997, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich would not even acknowledge that Clinton had been legitimately elected to office. Thompson’s accusation, therefore, seemed to be not a genuine line of inquiry but a challenge to the validity of the 1996 election and yet another partisan assault on the President. Democrats who had no particular love for Clinton or loyalty to the White House immediately came to his defense.
Clinton may have a variety of transgressions on his record, but he is not the Manchurian Candidate, installed in the White House by Chinese money. Though there is ample evidence of mysterious Chinese money having been sent to Democrats, Thompson could not document his accusation that a Chinese government plot was directing it or that it had any effect …
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