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 on the 1996 presidential race. He quickly began backing away from the implications of his own innuendo. “It never occurred to me that this would become a partisan matter,” he said with apparent innocence. But the harm was done. The Senate hearings, which might have led to long-overdue reform of campaign financing, immediately degenerated into partisan quibbling about who had raised more shady money first, the Republicans or the Democrats. Predictably, when the hearings were about to become truly bipartisan by examining Republican fund-raising practices as well, the Republican Senate leadership pulled the plug.
What lured Thompson into his misstep? He was looking for a hook—a “blockbuster,” said his friend Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi—that would catch the cameras and microphones. Thompson sensed that twenty-five years after Watergate—and after all the other real and imaginary scandals that have followed it—mere campaign finance fraud was not enough to attract public attention. In an age when we can hear on half the nation’s radio stations speculation about whether Clinton was involved with Arkansas drug runners or whether his wife was behind the “murder” of former White House Deputy Counsel Vince Foster, the real-life, everyday sordidness of our political world is tame stuff.
We know there have been genuine scandals, chiefly those involving President Ronald Reagan’s approval of arms sales to Iran and Clinton’s lies about his sex life. But after Watergate we have also had Lancegate, an imaginary banking scandal involving President Jimmy Carter’s budget director, Bert Lance; Iraqgate, a fictitious charge that the Bush administration financed Iraqi arms purchases; and Whitewater, the ever-wandering inquiry into the Clintons’ land dealings that lasted seven years and ended only in June, when Webster Hubbell pleaded guilty to a technical offense and Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr finally declared that the Arkansas phase of his inquiry was over.
We have had Representative Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, firing bullets into a melon in pursuit of his theory that Vince Foster was murdered. We have had former Senator Alfonse D’Amato of New York conducting Banking Committee hearings into decade-old Arkansas real estate deals. We have had the eager pursuit of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, acquitted on all thirty counts of accepting illegal gratuities, and the ongoing prosecution of former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros for allegedly undercounting the money he paid to a pushy former girlfriend. At the time that Thompson spoke, Monica Lewinsky had not yet surfaced, but the political landscape was already littered with the bodies of innocent people who had been chewed up in the scandal machine, their reputations wrecked and their life savings lost to lawyers’ fees. With this competition, Thompson felt he needed something sexy.
The books by Elizabeth Drew and Bob Woodward are both about scandal, but scandal of very different kinds. Drew examines how money corrupts our political process and steals democracy from us. Woodward recounts—but fails to examine—a history of scandalmongering that has corrupted our political discourse and, at its worst, crippled our government, also stealing democracy from us.
Campaign finance reform? At the mere mention of those words, it is tempting to succumb to the national boredom with the subject. Drew’s book goes over familiar ground. Money corrupts politics. It is outrageous; but it is not a new story and it has been told in recent years exceptionally well in, to name only three books, Thomas Byrne Edsall’s The New Politics of Inequality, Brooks Jackson’s Honest Graft, and William Greider’s impressively detailed Who Will Tell the People. Drew herself has dug deep in this field, and her last book, Whatever It Takes, exposed the surprisingly powerful influence on our political life of such groups as beer wholesalers. Drew stalks Capitol Hill filling one notebook after another, and every few years empties them into a book centered on a theme of the moment, plus whatever else happened to be occurring at the time. This one concentrates on campaign finance but also digresses into the impeachment of President Clinton, a subject that has no connection to her main theme except that it occurred at the same time that campaign finance reform was being debated.
But Drew brings fresh reporting and illuminating insights to the question of who owns the US government. Perhaps the most telling fact is cited toward the end of her book. In the 1998 congressional elections, two records were set. Spending on television advertising reached an all-time high of $531.9 million, and voter turnout was 36 percent, the lowest in any non-presidential election year since 1942. There is a connection, Drew implies. Most of the TV commercials were attack ads, designed to turn voters against a candidate rather than have them cast a positive vote for the candidate supported by the ad’s sponsors.
There appears to be a cynical new strategy at work: Republican or Democratic campaign consultants do not expect to persuade independent or opposition voters; rather, they don’t want those iffy or hostile voters to vote at all. They prefer to leave the race to the hard-core partisans on both sides. Democrats have slightly more grass-roots support, according to current polls, but Republicans traditionally have higher voter turnout rates. Each side has an incentive to discourage the other’s voters from showing up at the polls and it is apparently easier to be negative than to project a positive vision.
The astonishing amounts now raised by both political parties depress turnout in another way. Voters, especially the young, see access to power being sold to the richest and most powerful special interests and conclude that their single vote carries no weight in a Washington where congressmen must spend so much time courting contributors. Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who has vowed to make campaign finance reform the centerpiece of his run for the Republican presidential nomination, blames this highly visible influence-peddling for the record low turnout among eighteen- to twenty-six-year-old voters. They do not believe that Washington works for them.
Both Republicans and Democrats oppose campaign finance reform. Senator Robert Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, told Drew why Democrats like the status quo, which permits virtually unlimited contributions of “soft money”—contributions that are theoretically not spent in advocating the election or defeat of particular candidates but nevertheless support the positions they take in their campaigns. “There is no financial base for the core issues of the Democratic Party,” he said.
I’ve said so in the Democratic Caucus several times. Civil rights, the environment, pro-choice—they have a voting constituency but they have no financial strength. In current American politics you can’t survive without a financial constituency…. The Democratic Party is disproportionately funded by organized labor and our Jewish constituency. The Republicans have a small-donor base. We don’t.
Torricelli points to one of the lingering ironies of American politics: the Democratic Party, the party of the little guy, depends more on fat-cat contributions than do the Republicans. One proposed reform—requiring that a congressman raise all or most campaign money in his or her own district—draws the opposition of the Congressional Black Caucus, particularly those members from poor black districts in the South who rely heavily on out-of-state contributions from liberals.
Republicans, in turn, oppose reform because the current system has put them in power—giving them control not only of the Congress but of many state governments. They also fear that if they surrender their money advantage, they will be swept away by the grass-roots get-out-the-vote activities organized by labor unions and will be drowned out by the supposedly liberal press and television. Drew makes a fairly persuasive case that the First Amendment argument against campaign finance reform—that restricting contributions is an infringement on freedom of speech—is bogus and not believed even by its leading advocate, Senator Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky who has led the effort to thwart reform in the Senate.
It is a bizarre paradox: both parties fear that campaign reform will cost them political victory. In a two-party system, they can’t both be right, but both sides seem genuinely afraid of changing the system. Drew quotes one of the leading advocates of campaign finance reform, Representative Chris Shays, a Connecticut Republican: “The leaders of both parties telling their freshmen that their parties would lose control [if reforms were enacted] says it all.”
Drew also argues that even though we spend vast sums of money on politics we are getting an inferior grade of politician, less grounded in the issues and with scant interest in governing. She quotes Representative Peter King, a conservative Long Island Republican who views his colleagues with amused detachment, on the Republican freshmen of 1994 who brought Newt Gingrich a House majority for the first time in forty years: “The extent of their knowledge was listening to Newt’s GOPAC [Gingrich’s PAC to develop and support Republicans for Congress] tapes and to Rush Limbaugh. Not being part of the political system, they really didn’t hear the other side. They felt they were totally right and the other side was totally wrong.”
Yet even with all this entrenched opposition to the reform of campaign financing we see another paradox. There is in fact a majority in both houses of Congress in favor of restraining special-interest political contributions. There is considerable support as well for other changes that have come and gone and then reappeared in the delicate negotiations: free air time for candidates and restrictions on special-interest ads advocating the election or defeat of a candidate within sixty days of a federal election. The current direction of reform is to restrict unlimited “soft money” contributions that are in fact used to support candidates. Drew’s account of the House and Senate debates, and how the reform forces were thwarted, has moments of high drama, none more entertaining than when Shays, the mildest of men, confronted his own majority leader, the burly and domineering Dick Armey of Texas, on the House floor and accused him to his face of acting in bad faith. In the end, Shays rallied enough Republican members to win passage of reform legislation in the House over the objections of the House Republican leadership. Reform died in the Senate under McConnell’s filibuster, but test votes showed that fifty-two Senators—all the Democrats plus McCain, Fred Thompson, and five other Republicans—supported it. Because of the filibuster rules, it would take sixty votes, a three-fifths majority, to win Senate passage. McCain has vowed to bring the issue up again this year, but those sixty votes are not yet in sight.
Drew is a dogged and determined interviewer. She picks worthy targets for her investigations and, though it is clear that her sympathies are with reform, she talks to and quotes opponents as well. She needs more aggressive editing: one needs a compass to navigate through sentences like “The idea that corporate and union money that cannot be contributed directly to federal candidates is completely acceptable when it is contributed, even in large amounts, to the parties to indirectly help the candidates fails any test of logic.” Or, “There’s virtually no one who people come to the Senate chamber to listen to when word spreads that a certain Senator is about to speak.” Chris Shays, one of her central figures, did not, as she says, vote for any of the articles of impeachment against President Clinton. The director of Central Intelligence is George Tenet, not Trent. In addition, there are an inordinate number of typographical errors.
Woodward’s book provides an ironic counterpoint to Drew’s. There can be no greater scandal than her tale of the theft of our democracy by powerful special interests, yet it gets nowhere near the attention that we devote to what the press likes to describe as “the appearance of wrongdoing.” In the current ethics of the press, there need be no actual misdeed to set the bloodhounds baying; there need be only an appearance, perhaps a slowness or clumsiness in responding to a false charge, and we are off and running. Woodward sets out to examine how five presidents—Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton—responded to challenges to their honesty, and he concludes by blaming all of them for exacerbating the scandals that enveloped them.
This is a ludicrous reading of recent history. The real lesson in Woodward’s book is that it has become ridiculously easy to gin up a scandal with a few sly questions and insinuations—and then fire at the target as he or she squirms to answer an often unfair or unfounded accusation. Politicians will eagerly join in the chase. Editorial writers will thunderously demand that the target come clean.
One of the earlier and sillier “scandals” recounted in Shadow is Woodward’s disclosure that in 1977, three years after Richard Nixon resigned at the end of Watergate, the Central Intelligence Agency was sending money to Jordan’s King Hussein. Only a moment’s reflection will tell us that there is nothing in the least surprising about this; Jordan is a moderate Arab country and a vital listening post for US intelligence. It is also a monarchy. If the CIA wants to sustain an intelligence relationship with Jordan, it makes sense to give the money to the supreme authority and let him dispense it among his aides and generals. When Jimmy Carter tried to delay publication of Woodward’s story, he engaged in a negotiation with Woodward and Ben Bradlee, then The Washington Post’s editor, that Woodward now describes as duplicitous. “I was left with a feeling of distaste,” Woodward writes. “I had a sickening sense of foreboding, of here-we-go-again with another president.”
This observation reflects an utter lack of proportion on Woodward’s part. Carter’s attempt to preserve the cover of a vital US intelligence relationship can in no way be equated with Nixon’s Watergate cover-up, but to Woodward it is all the same: duplicity on the part of yet another president. Similarly, the false charges against Carter aides Hamilton Jordan (alleged cocaine use) and Bert Lance (illegal self-dealing at his bank) are for him just as much of a “scandal” as Watergate or Iran-contra and the victims of these falsehoods are held responsible for the plight they found themselves in.
Woodward cites the lessons that presidents should have learned from Watergate:
First, if there is questionable activity, release the facts, whatever they are, as early and completely as possible. Second, do not allow outside inquiries, whether conducted by prosecutors, congressmen or reporters, to harden into a permanent state of suspicion and warfare.
As advice, this is both disingenuous and useless. The very terms “questionable activity,” “facts,” “early,” and “completely” are defined by an insatiable and cynical press and, often, a hostile Congress that feel entitled to know the most intimate personal and financial details of the next person in the spotlight. In recent years we have seen demands for the release of all financial records going back decades. Medical reporters have insisted on full access to a candidate’s physical examinations. Even their wives now feel compelled to bare all: we know about Kitty Dukakis’s addictions and the depression that afflicted Tipper Gore and Colin Powell’s wife, Alma. Try to preserve even the slightest bit of privacy, fumble for just a moment in dredging up old documents, and some “in-vestigative reporter” will start writing about cover-ups and missing medical records. If one follows Woodward’s advice, it is not enough to be an open book; one must also preserve the records and documents of a lifetime lest questions be raised some-time in the future about why they were destroyed. There is no use feeding the scandal machine; it will never be satisfied.
Woodward’s second lesson—do not let outside inquiries harden into a permanent state of suspicion—is equally vapid. It suggests that the target of an investigation is in control of the inquisitor’s behavior. In the Whitewater investigations, however, Clinton can hardly be blamed for Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s monomaniacal interest in his sex life (an interest, Woodward reminds us, that began long before Monica Lewinsky surfaced) or the cabal of right-wing lawyers who successfully conflated the Whitewater investigation with the Paula Jones case and the Lewinsky affair. Clinton, like Richard Nixon before him, has attracted an unusually persistent group of haters who would not have been deterred by their victim’s cooperation and openness.
Shadow relies on Woodward’s ability to ingratiate himself with hitherto-silent sources and use their recollections of events to give a behind-the-scenes account of how decisions were made. If you want to know which public official, in private conversation, called some other person a creep or worse, Woodward is your man. He uses an accumulation of detail—President Bush was wearing a striped shirt with a white collar, David Kendall was just sitting down to dinner with his wife when the phone rang—to create an impression of authorial omniscience, a method pioneered by Time magazine. People cooperate with Woodward because he almost invariably makes them look not merely good but absolutely central to a history in which they may have been, in fact, bit players. Talk to Woodward and you get to star in a historical tale of your own telling.
In Woodward’s account, therefore, the toughest-minded, farthest-seeing member of the White House team was former counsel Bernard Nussbaum. It is true that Nussbaum warned against agreeing to the appointment of an independent counsel; but it is also true that his overaggressive lawyering raised needless doubts about the Foster suicide, and he was dumped after he could not foresee the political danger of consulting with the Treasury about the Whitewater investigation, thus opening the White House to charges of illegitimate contact with government agencies in order to protect the President. In Shadow, Nussbaum is not shrill or politically maladroit; he is a legal John Wayne. Likewise, Kenneth Starr’s team of prosecutors may seem, on the public record, to have been ruthless and callous, but one of them, Brett Kavanaugh, spoke to Woodward and is duly presented in Shadow as principled, sensitive, and farsighted. Kavanaugh warned Starr not to prosecute the tangential Julie Hiatt Steele and not to let Congress release all the seamy details in his Lewinsky report, but Starr would not listen, Woodward tells us. On the other hand, former White House aide George Stephanopoulos, who seems not to have talked to Woodward, is portrayed in the book as panicky in his reaction to charges against the President, and Hillary Clinton is presented as emotionally fragile and nearly paranoid.
In reconstructing his accounts, Woodward uses a suspect technique: he reports conversations, supposedly verbatim and in quotation marks, that could not have been transcribed at the time. Several of his sources—former White House lawyer Jane Sherburne, former spokesman Michael McCurry, and even Brett Kavanaugh—have disputed Woodward’s retelling of their stories. One might give Woodward the benefit of the doubt, except that on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer on July 5, he manifestly mischaracterized McCurry’s complaint of just a few moments earlier. McCurry acknowledged speaking to Woodward but said Woodward had misunderstood him if Woodward thought he was getting verbatim quotations. Woodward called that a “non-denial denial” and said McCurry had simply failed to recall giving him the quotations. But McCurry’s complaint was quite clear and specific and broadcast for all the world to hear. If Woodward could not report that complaint accurately to an audience that had just heard McCurry’s words, we must take the rest of his reporting with new skepticism. Woodward’s source notes are generally unrevealing about who said what. It is clear that some of these supposedly verbatim conversations must be paraphrases, yet they appear in the same quotation marks as utterances that are demonstrably verbatim, such as those made on television. Perhaps we should invent, for Woodward, some new punctuation mark or borrow the continental åÇ åÈ to show that the words in question may or may not be the actual ones used.
Shadow has drawn most attention because it appears that Clinton’s lawyer in the Paula Jones case, Robert Bennett, spoke to Woodward or his aide, Jeff Glasser, in violation of normal attorney-client confidentiality. Chief among Bennett’s alleged revelations is that Clinton lied to him in denying that he had had an affair with Lewinsky. Bennett denies having been a source, but Woodward appears to have him cold, even relating his inner thoughts.
For the most part, Shadow fits the old news magazine description of a wordy report that is thin in substance: too much spaghetti and not enough meatballs. But there is some substance. Woodward gives a pathetic account of Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh’s attempt to interrogate Ronald Reagan about some elements of the Iran-contra episode. Reagan could not remember whether or not George Shultz had been his secretary of state or whether Edwin Meese had been attorney general. Woodward also discloses that House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde secretly tried to short-circuit an impeachment trial in the Senate with a roundabout scheme involving former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. According to Woodward, Hyde approached Democrats with the idea that the prominent Democrat Robert Strauss could get in touch with his old friend Dole and have Dole urge top Republicans to pressure Hyde to settle for censure rather than impeachment. Hyde would then reluctantly yield to the Republican entreaties. In the end, the plot fell through. Hyde, who posed as a reluctant prosecutor in his secret phone calls to Democrats, then pulled out all the stops in trying to convict and remove the President.
One sidelight common to both Drew’s and Woodward’s books is that FBI director Louis Freeh is portrayed as two-faced. He told Fred Thompson he was on solid ground in going after a China connection and then, when Democrats challenged him, according to Drew’s account, pulled the rug out from under Thompson. In Woodward’s book, Freeh signed a letter claiming that the White House had “victimized” the FBI by requesting and receiving confidential personnel files on Republicans. When challenged, he denied that he had known about the statement made in his name. Attention, Louis Freeh: Next time, talk to Woodward. You will be portrayed as the savior of civilized institutions on the North American continent.
Sad to say, neither the campaign finance scandal recounted by Drew nor the scandalmongering that is exemplified, however unwittingly, in Woodward’s book is likely to change. George W. Bush’s stupendous campaign chest, $36.25 million and rising like a superheated taxi meter, gives the Democrats new justification to continue their own money-grubbing in the next election. Vice President Gore, as he seeks the Democratic nomination, has engaged as his top adviser the likable and experienced former congressman Tony Coelho, whose aggressive fund-raising techniques were the centerpiece of Brooks Jackson’s book Honest Graft. Coelho was the architect of the Democratic strategy of pursuing the same business interests courted by Republican fund-raisers—with the consequences, Jackson wrote, “of making his own party substantially dependent on special-interest money.” Similarly, the heavy demand of the talk-radio programs, cable television channels, and some nodes of the Internet for loud political conflict—the cheapest form of entertainment, in all senses of the word—guarantees that virtually any accusation can be elevated into a scandal, possibly requiring the appointment of a special prosecutor (now that the Independent Counsel Act has lapsed). Anyone entering public life is now at the mercy of this cynical machinery and must be willing to give up all privacy—and willing to sacrifice his life savings on legal fees—as the price of public service at a high level.
In sum, we are spending more money than ever on politics, while getting, as Drew observes, a lower grade of both politician and political discourse. At the same time, we are deterring voters from even going to the polls to cast ballots for what can only seem like the lesser of two uncaring, bought-and-paid-for evils. Our press is eager to imply that public figures are crooks, and our political system requires that even the purest of them must, at some point, lift a telephone to beg for money from a contributor—and thereby run the risk of looking crooked. It is a scandalous system whose excesses have reached epic proportions, with no solution in sight.
August 12, 1999