Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Notes from different corners of the world.
Sept. 10 1997 3:30 AM

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

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       Hypothetical question: If you had occasion to phone the Central Intelligence Agency and chat with an agent, do you think you would remember doing so a year and a half afterward? It is hard to imagine even a jaded Washington power broker answering that question in the negative. The odds of forgetting would become even more remote if you called the CIA not once but twice, spoke to a spook named "Bob," and asked for unethical favors he said he couldn't perform.
       Yet this is what Don Fowler wants you to believe happened. In a full day of testimony, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee maintained that he simply had no recollection of calling Langley on behalf of Roger Tamraz. Tamraz is an Egyptian-born wheeler-dealer who donated $300,000 to the DNC in hopes of improving the Clinton administration's attitude toward his scheme to build an enormous oil pipeline from the Caspian to the Mediterranean. He got his chance to pitch his scheme to Clinton, though the plan went nowhere. Fowler, who in March denied categorically that any such conversations had taken place, told the committee today that he had searched his memory high and low, "at every hour of the day," but could recall nothing about ever talking to the CIA.
       Unfortunately for Fowler, "Bob," as the CIA insisted he be identified, remembers the phone calls quite well, and told the committee about them in detail in a deposition. Though the CIA wouldn't let him testify in public, the agency provided edited copies of Bob's sworn statement and of the contemporaneous memos he was apparently rattled enough to write after both conversations. The first time, Fowler said Tamraz was a friend of the DNC, and that he wanted to get in to see the vice president, who had been advised by the national security staff to steer clear of Tamraz. In the second call, Fowler complained about the attitude of a National Security Council official who was skeptical of Tamraz, and asked Bob for a copy of a document he had sent to the NSC evaluating him. Both times, Bob declined to help. Equally implausible was Fowler's claim not to remember a three-page memo from his own assistant that noted Tamraz's "significant financial and ethical troubles" and warned him to "pay attention to these warning signals!"
       Fowler's testimony called to mind the appearance back in July of his old Republican National Committee counterpart Haley Barbour, who made a similarly implausible claim of a mind untouched by troublesome information. (Barbour said he didn't know that money he was borrowing came from Hong Kong--even though half a dozen people told him so.) On the surface, Fowler the phlegmatic South Carolinian and Barbour the theatrical Mississipian don't have much in common. Gangly, unpolished, and charisma-free, Fowler is Ichabod Crane to Barbour's Porky Pig. But their denials were remarkably similar in substance. In both cases, there was an overwhelming circumstantial case that the witness knew what he said he didn't know. And in each case, the witness clung like a barnacle to his preposterous profession of ignorance, secure in the knowledge that while they might not believe you, they can't nail you for saying you don't remember. Both performances recalled the Steve Martin joke about how to make a million dollars and not pay any taxes. First, make a million dollars. Second, don't pay any taxes. When the IRS knocks on your door, say, "I forgot."
       Calling Fowler a liar may be giving him the benefit of the doubt. If his intercession with the CIA was as unmemorable as he claims, it would suggest that he and the DNC went to bat for sleazebags with deep pockets so routinely that they didn't give it a second thought. There was a good deal of additional evidence to this effect. Susan Collins of Maine, who likes to begin every question with the phrase "Would it surprise you to learn ...," dumped out some details of another episode in which Fowler seems to have delivered not just "access" but "influence." Fowler and others at the DNC lobbied the Interior Department on behalf of a consortium of Indian tribes in Minnesota that gave the party $288,000. Their goal was to stop another tribe across the border in Wisconsin from setting up a casino to compete with their own casino. Interior bureaucrats had ruled provisionally in favor of the Wisconsin Indians. Thanks to the DNC's intercession, Interior political appointees reversed the ruling in favor of the Minnesotans.
       It seems that Fowler didn't do all this fixing because he's sleazy. He did it because he thinks it's how the system is supposed to work. A trained political scientist who now teaches at the University of South Carolina, he explained to the committee that he sees this kind of middleman role as the true purpose and value of party organizations. "I have long believed that one of the principal functions of a political party is to serve as a link between government and the people," he said in his opening statement. "I thus believe it is fully appropriate for the head of a national political party to secure a meeting for a supporter with an administration official or even to advocate a worthy cause." He noted that members of Congress do the same thing all the time.
       The problem is that when Fowler left his classroom for party headquarters, "the people" inevitably became "the donors," and only the really big donors at that. His vision of intermediation degenerated into a system of selling favors. With the help of his theory, he seems to have eliminated even the problem of shame.

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