Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Notes from different corners of the world.
Sept. 17 1997 3:30 AM

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

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       Suffering from a nasty head cold, I was in no condition to attend the hearings today. Thanks to Rupert Murdoch, I had the alternative of watching in my pajamas on the Fox 24-hour news channel, which has been valiantly carrying them live despite pitiable ratings.
       The lead-off witness was Karl Jackson, an Asia specialist who worked in the Reagan and Bush administrations, and who happened to have attended what may have been the most egregious of the White House coffees in June 1996. Jackson was invited, along with a couple of visiting Thai businessmen, by Pauline Kanchanalak, who channeled $253,000 in illegal foreign money to the DNC and who has since fled the country.
       Jackson remembered the coffee in impressive detail. After DNC chairman Don Fowler made a few opening remarks, John Huang said: "Elections cost money, a lot of money. I am sure that everyone in this room will want to support the re-election of the president." Jackson asserted that he was startled by this. "My reactions were mixed--disbelief tinged with a bit of anger," he said. "Disbelief at what I had witnessed in terms of someone mentioning money in front of the president in the White House--in a series of discussions of policy matters with foreign businessmen. It violated everything I was taught in four years in the White House."
       To Republicans, this account constituted a smoking gun--a solicitation for campaign funds in the White House itself. Democrats, however, did their best to mitigate the damage done by Jackson's story. Carl Levin returned to his familiar theme that Ronald Reagan and George Bush also used the White House for fund-raising purposes. Bob Torricelli argued that the Thai coffee was not a fund-raiser because there was no ticket price and because some of those attending were foreign nationals who couldn't legally contribute. Richard Durbin tried to impeach Jackson's credibility by suggesting he was a Republican partisan who remains close to Dan Quayle.
       These were mostly weak points, which made the Democrats sound once again like apologists for the indefensible. Though Levin has a valid case about Republican hypocrisy, the Kanchanalak coffee was pretty clearly worse than any of the fund-raising events held at the White House under recent Republican presidents. This is because, as Jackson noted, it was specifically a policy meeting--a 75-minute discussion in which the Thais made a case for the continuance of China's Most Favored Nation status. Torricelli's point was simply silly. In documents that have come to light, DNC officials themselves often referred to the coffees, which were supposed to bring in $400,000 each, as fund-raisers. To claim otherwise is to insist on a semantic distinction without any real difference.
       Sen. Durbin's suggestion that Jackson was biased may have had something more to it. The witness did seem a bit too enthusiastic, volunteering well-honed sound bites about his shock and indignation at what he had witnessed. Had he known what was going to happen at the coffee, he said, he wouldn't have attended. Had he known that the U.S.-Thai Business Council, with which he was affiliated, was raising funds for the president, he would have resigned immediately. Back when he worked in the Bush White House, Jackson said, "if someone had called me from the RNC, I would have treated the phone as if it were radioactive." His outrage had a scripted quality.
       Nonetheless, Jackson's recollections stood up. Confirmation was provided after lunch by Clarke Wallace, the preppy young executive director of the U.S.-Thai Business Council, who also attended the coffee at Kanchanalak's invitation. Wallace, who seemed slightly terrified but had no apparent ax to grind, said that while he didn't remember all Huang's comments, he was 75-percent certain that Jackson had described them correctly.
       That left Beth Dozoretz, a wealthy and attractive FOB, who was present at the coffee as a trustee of the DNC, as a lone, unconvincing dissenter. As Dozoretz claimed she didn't remember Huang saying what Jackson said he said, Fox superimposed a few salient facts over her name. Her firm gave $51,000 to the DNC in 1996. She personally raised $750,000 for the president. The president appointed her to the U.S. Holocaust Commission. He appointed her husband to the board of the Kennedy Center. Fox also showed a film clip of Dozoretz riding in a golf cart with the president last week on Martha's Vineyard.
      
       The chief drawback to watching the hearings on commercial television is the frequent interruptions for commercials and news breaks--you miss a good 20 percent of what goes on. Another problem is that you don't get to see the documents that are handed out to reporters, which are often more revealing than the testimony. The main advantages are that you see the fronts instead of the backs of the witnesses, which gives you a better idea which ones to believe; and that you can take notes on a laptop (for some reason not allowed in hearing room). You see better, but you miss some of the subtleties that come with a wide-angle view: Fred Thompson's evident dislike of Don Nickles, whom he treats as a spy sent by Majority Leader Trent Lott, and the knowing looks around the room when the clueless Daniel Akaka of Hawaii begins fumbling his way through his sheet of prepared questions.
       It's also nice not to have to rush out at 4 p.m. to file a dispatch. Late in the afternoon, there appeared one final witness who told an elliptical story that cast John Huang in a more villainous light. Rawlein Soberano of the Asian-American Business Roundtable said that Huang, who he knew only slightly, asked him to launder $300,000. Soberano added that Huang told him that his organization could keep 15 percent of this money as a reward. He told Huang that he would do him a favor and act as if the conversation never happened. Huang did not mention where the money was coming from or going to, but it doesn't seem very hard to guess that it was destined for the DNC.

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