Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 8 1997 3:30 AM

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

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       In ordinary conversation, the emphasis is on what is said. If one person makes a point, others customarily avoid repeating it. In senatorial conversation, by contrast, what matters is the speaker. If someone utters a compelling remark, everyone else must associate himself or herself with it. In this way, thoughts that might be expressed in a few minutes often stretch on for hours.
       That's where today went. The hearing room was packed with reporters and spectators who had come to see Harold Ickes testify and, with any luck, draw and shed some blood. Ickes--attended by his wide-as-a-house lawyer Robert S. Bennett, whose meter purportedly runs at $600 an hour, as well as by two smaller and cheaper attorneys--looked ready to mix it up.
       But before Ickes could begin, Sen. Thompson wished to vent his frustration at the White House's latest act of noncooperation, the delayed production of an hour-and-a-half's worth of cinémavérité videos. Thompson was upset about the White House's incompetence defense and at Attorney General Janet Reno's continuing refusal to appoint an independent counsel to look at the campaign scandal. Sen. Glenn wanted to say that Democrats, too, were unhappy about uncooperative witnesses--Republican organizations that were simply disregarding their subpoenas. By the time a dozen senators were done reiterating these points, it was too late in the day for Ickes to do more than read his opening statement.
       Thompson has a legitimate beef. Once again, there's no proof that the White House intentionally suppressed evidence. And once again, the circumstances are more than a little suspicious; they suggest a culture of disingenuousness rather than of incompetence. About a thousand people attended the coffees. More than a few must have noticed the camera crew of three guys with Navy buzz cuts filming the first few minutes of the meetings. The Thompson committee caught wind of it this summer. In July, committee lawyers issued a subpoena that covered audio and video recordings. As Bob Dylan would say, Nothing Was Delivered. In August, a committee lawyer specifically identified the White House Communications Agency as the repository of the tapes. Again, the White House said the tapes didn't exist. They turned up last Wednesday, but the White House managed not to tell the Justice Department about them until Friday, which was after the attorney general's announcement that she would not seek an independent counsel to investigate the president's White House fund raising. White House spokesman Lanny Davis said the reason for the delay was that Thursday was Rosh Hashanah. That's right, he blamed the Jews.
       Thompson gave a low-key but irate speech that lasted 40 minutes and ended with an apostrophe to the president himself:

Mr. President, I would suggest this is your campaign. These were your supporters. These were your friends, many of them longtime friends. These are your people who worked in the White House. ... This is your Department of Justice, and these are your tapes. ... This committee has tried to be fair to you, Mr. President. I've tried to be fair to you. I've taken an awful lot of criticism because I've tried to be fair to you. ... And now I think the American people expect you to step up to the plate and take responsibility.
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        Apparently, he was asking Clinton to supercede Reno and ask for an independent counsel himself, as he had done with Whitewater.
       The Democrats responded with a stunt. Sitting in the front row in the wheelchair to which he is confined was Charles Ruff, the White House counsel--someone who has not previously been at the hearings. Noting Ruff's presence, John Glenn suggested that the committee pre-empt Ickes to hear Ruff's explanation of why the videos were not produced sooner. Thompson suggested that this wasn't such a great idea. When most of the Republicans were out of the room, Glenn demanded a vote on whether to call Ruff immediately. Thompson ruled this request out of order, but Glenn continued to nag. Finally, Thompson uncorked a zinger. "This is not a cocktail lounge where you can wander in and take a seat at the bar and tell your story to the bartender," he said. This finally shut Glenn up.
       It did not, however, have the same effect on Sens. Smith, Bennett, or Torricelli--but then, what would? Smith averred that this was "probably the biggest scandal in the history of the Republic." When the press broke out in laughter, he snarled: "I know it's all very humorous because you can't bring yourselves to get to the truth about the president of the United States. When are you in the media going to get serious?" Bennett gave an obscure, rambling oration about how the FBI or the CIA had only given him a classified version of a briefing about someone he referred to as "Mr. X," when he had distinctly asked for both classified and unclassified versions. How this related to matters at hand was not explained. Torricelli began defending Janet Reno and found his way into a disquisition about what it was that made some people dislike Bill Clinton so much. "I don't know the quality, but I hope I never share it," he said. The press section again exploded in laughter, the obvious rejoinder being, "But you do!"
       After a Republican caucus lunch and a vote that put paid to the McCain-Feingold reform bill, Ickes was finally sworn in at 3 p.m. He read a long opening statement, which boiled down to three words: Screw you all. "I know it is customary for witnesses to express their great pleasure to appear before you, but because I am under oath, I am unable to say I share that sentiment," he began. As expected, he was totally unrepentant in every respect. Ickes said it was perfectly legitimate for the president and vice president to engage in fund raising. His effort to manage the campaign from the White House was modeled on previous Republican efforts by James Baker in 1984 and 1992. Ickes finished with the formulaic call for campaign-finance reform. McCain-Feingold having died on the floor of the Senate less than an hour previously, this declaration seemed not just deeply cynical but somewhat tasteless as well.
       He returns tomorrow to answer questions.

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