Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Notes from different corners of the world.
Sept. 19 1997 3:30 AM

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

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       As readers of Dante know, Evil is more compelling than Good. This dynamic obtains not only in literature, but also in congressional hearings, where charismatic bad guys sometimes succeed in turning the tables on their righteous interrogators. The frisson of today's hearing was watching to see if Roger Tamraz, the first certifiable villain to testify before the Thompson committee, would emerge as a seductive scoundrel, like Oliver North or G. Gordon Liddy.
       Based on what happened yesterday, he began at a considerable disadvantage. Instead of an enraptured Fawn Hall, Tamraz was preceded by an appalled Sheila Heslin, who movingly described her unsuccessful effort to stop him from running his Caspian oil pipeline directly into the Oval Office. Nor did Tamraz have the advantage of a winning personality. With offhand arrogance and a puckered scowl that remained imprinted on his face through most of the day, Tamraz read an opening statement filled with self-justifying and self-pitying claims about how he had been unfairly maligned in Washington as a result of being unfairly maligned in his native Lebanon.
       What Tamraz did have going for him was an extraordinarily open cynicism about how Washington works. He announced at the outset that he believed deeply in the "American way," which he subsequently defined as a system of slightly attenuated political bribery. To work within this system, you must be persistent. "If they kick me through the door," he told Sen. Levin, "I'll come through the window." Reclining in a desultory slouch at the witness table, Tamraz dryly responded to Sen. Lieberman's question about whether he got his money's worth for his $300,000 contribution to the DNC by saying that next time he would have to give $600,000.
       These lines drew big laughs from the bleachers and from the dais, where a few senators engaged with Tamraz in badinage. Describing the social events at which he managed to meet Clinton, Tamraz explained that, "the fight begins when you get into the White House. Then there's a gorilla [sic] fight to get close to the president. First, the president is surrounded by the ladies. They swarm around him ..."
       "This one doesn't," Susan Collins shot back.
       What the self-deluded Tamraz seemed not to realize, however, was that most were laughing at him, not with him. The most amazing moment of the day came when he stunned the committee into silence by boasting that he was winning them over. Describing his attempts to cultivate politicians through infusions of last-minute campaign cash, Tamraz explained that he saw himself not looking for immediate results, but cultivating long-term relationships. "Just as I am doing here today," he added, without evidence of irony.
       What ultimately cast Tamraz as an unsympathetic witness was that, despite his refreshing bluntness about the process, he wasn't being candid about the facts. He had convenient memory lapses about his relationship with Don Fowler at the DNC and "Bob" at the CIA, who at the end of the day actually issued a statement disputing Tamraz's account. Asked by Don Nickles about a Los Angeles Times report that he offered Boris Yeltsin a $100-million campaign contribution, Tamraz replied that there was "no truth to that." When Nickles asked him again, Tamraz replied, "These are security matters which I can't discuss." Nickles amazingly failed to follow up, leaving hanging the imputation that the CIA was involved with Tamraz in efforts to rig the Russian election.
       Two even less appealing rogues joined Tamraz at the witness table: Kyle Simpson and Jack Carter. Both were officials at the Energy Department in 1995 and 1996--Simpson still works there. The two constitute the missing link between Mack McLarty at the White House and the pressure brought to bear on Sheila Heslin at the NSC on Tamraz's behalf. Simpson got the call from McLarty about Tamraz. His colleague Carter made the call to Heslin about helping him out.
       The minds of both men were predictably blank about all of this, and what little they did remember contradicted each other and Heslin. Simpson swore that McLarty said nothing to him about Tamraz's campaign contributions, and that he said nothing to Carter about them. Carter swore that Simpson did tell him about the contributions, and acknowledged that he did mention them to Heslin. But he insisted that he was merely calling her for information about the administration's policy, not to pressure her to let Tamraz into the White House, as she testified. Carter was shrewd enough not to dispute what the sainted Heslin said yesterday, but he didn't recall any of the good bits--that he told her McLarty wanted Tamraz to see the president, or that Heslin should quit being a Girl Scout. In his own defense, Carter said his wife said he had never used words like that in 31 years of marriage--as if calling someone a Girl Scout was a highly profane insult. Sen. Bob Smith expressed the prevailing consensus when he called this testimony "garbage."
       While several Democratic senators, including Durbin and Lieberman, joined in the condemnation of Tamraz, others, like Glenn and Levin, continued to play at defense attorneys. This strategy has looked more and more foolish in recent days, but it was truly shocking that the Democrats would take the everybody-does-it line today. Tamraz's remorseless abuse of the system was both outrageous and exceptional. Republicans have surely sold access, but there is no example of them selling so much of it to one person so brazenly and so foolishly. Certainly, the mass-mail solicitations Tamraz got from the RNC, which Glenn kept bringing up, were not the same thing as his arrangements with the DNC. As Sam Brownback quite legitimately noted, Tamraz gave large sums to the Republicans in the 1980s in hopes of getting to meet Ronald Reagan and never succeeded.
       Fred Thompson, by contrast, tried to focus both on Tamraz as egregious example and on the system which permitted him to flourish. "Do you think you have a constitutional right to have your business deal personally considered by the president of the United States?" he asked the witness. Tamraz insisted that the system worked that way for big companies like Boeing and AT&T, and he saw no reason why it shouldn't work the same way for him. Thompson was staid as ever, but his revulsion was clear. "I've never been one to complain about the lack of broader coverage," he said. "But I think if more people had a chance to hear what we've heard the last couple of days, we would wind up with a little bit of a different system than we have now."
       Thompson has had a good week. I'm quitting the hearings for now with the sense that his argument for campaign-finance reform is finally starting to get some traction among his colleagues and with the public. It still has a long way to go, but we may eventually look back on today's hearing and realize that Roger Tamraz's one unintentional good deed was to make the case for change irresistible.

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