Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Notes from different corners of the world.
July 25 1997 3:30 AM

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

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       Haley Barbour came out shooting with everything in his good ol' boy arsenal. In a long and remarkably pugnacious opening statement, he tried to yank the Democrats on the committee into the scandal they were trying to fob off on him. Speaking in his most syrupy Mississippi drawl, Barbour repeatedly reminded spectators that John Glenn was one of the Keating Five. He asserted that the National Policy Forum was no different from the Democratic Leadership Council, which Joseph Lieberman chairs. And in an impressive, if totally irrelevant, display of research, he pointed out that a Taiwanese organization that gave money to the National Policy Forum was also a sponsor of the Chicago Symphony, from Dick Durbin's home state of Illinois.
       Barbour, stuffed like a sausage into his pinstripe suit, is an entertaining rascal, and his high indignation made for a pretty good show. He came up with several witty lines (such as when he called the NPF, which went broke, "a nonprofit with a vengeance"). He also made a persuasive case that the organization wasn't created for the sake of accepting foreign money forbidden to the RNC. But on the other key points Barbour didn't do much to mitigate the basic charge that he, as chairman of the Republican Party, had aggressively pursued what CNN might call "international" money. The NPF was legally permitted to accept foreign funds, and Barbour might have admitted seeking it. But he has previously maintained, in public comments and in his sworn deposition, that he did not know that Ambrous Young's $2.1 million loan guarantee came from Hong Kong, and now he had to stick to his own line.
       On this point, he was pretty clearly dissembling. Earlier in the day, Fred Volcansek, a fund-raiser hired by Barbour at the NPF, testified that he clearly remembered telling Barbour and others at the NPF that Young's collateral was coming from Asia. Moreover, on two separate occasions, Young himself, according to his testimony, indicated to Barbour that the money had a long journey to make. At a dinner at a Washington steakhouse, when Barbour pressed him for a loan, Young said he'd have to check with his board of directors--in Hong Kong. Later, on Young's yacht, when Barbour begged for loan forgiveness, Young said he couldn't agree, because of Hong Kong laws. Barbour's far-fetched claim was that he failed to understand what Young was saying on both occasions because of his Chinese accent. "If he said anything about that I either did not hear him or understand what he was saying," Barbour testified. Barbour also claimed--contrary to the testimony of others from the NPF--that he did not know that Young had previously renounced his American citizenship for tax reasons.
       During the first week, former DNC official Richard Sullivan doggedly held to the absurd insistence that the White House coffees were not fund-raisers but "tools used in fund raising." This time it was a Republican witness insisting on legal fictions. Barbour preposterously claimed that the NPF was totally independent of the RNC, even though he was the chairman of both organizations, and even though the former was created with a loan from the latter. Barbour's repeated reminders that the NPF ultimately lost money for the RNC were reminiscent of the Clintons' rejoinder that they lost money on their Whitewater investment--as if corruption only counted if it was successful.
       Most of the senators had no trouble reversing their usual roles. Glenn, Levin, Durbin, and Torricelli, formerly defense, were now the prosecution; Cochran, Domenici, Smith, and Bennett, formerly prosecution, were now the defense. All tossed Barbour irrelevant puffball questions about the terrible things done by John Huang. Disappointingly, the Barbour defense team was joined by Susan Collins. Collins, a moderate from Maine, was expected to play a more independent role in the hearings. Instead, she has consistently seemed to be in over her head, and every bit as partisan, if somewhat more pleasant, than her wizened male counterparts. Collins' line of "questioning" was pointing out that Ted Sioeng gave more money to the Democrats than he gave to the Republicans.
       One Republican, however, rose to the occasion--chairman, Fred Thompson. Thompson opened his question period by prodding Barbour on the convergence between the RNC and the NPF, chiding him for not considering foreign money "radioactive," and casting scorn on his professions of ignorance about where the $2.1 million was coming from. "You're sitting on a boat in Hong Kong Harbor, talking to a gentlemen who is a citizen of Taiwan," Thompson noted. Then Thompson launched into a spiel about why he thought the RNC had a moral obligation to repay Young the $800,000 he got stiffed. "A deal is a deal," Thompson said, pulling a censorious scowl with his wonderful rubber face.
       Loyalist Republicans see Thompson's flashes of bipartisanship as cynical and political--just as Democrats accuse Lieberman of preening and showboating when he asks pointed questions of Democratic witnesses. And indeed, it is probably no accident that Thompson's first big pang of conscience struck on a day when media coverage was at its heaviest, with CNN carrying the hearings live for the first time. But motives are always mixed, and in this case they're largely irrelevant. It's refreshing to see another senator beside Lieberman reject his assumed role as hatchet man for his team. And for a guy who may want to run for president in 2000, you've got to say it's pretty gutsy as well.

Jacob Weisberg is SLATE's chief political correspondent. His column, "Strange Bedfellow," appears weekly.