December 28, 1996 in City

First Hustler Cashes In With No-Tell Motel On The Potomac

Sandy Grady Knight-Ridder

Every time I drive past the Lincoln Memorial these winter nights, I’m relieved that Abe’s majestic statue isn’t flashing red neon: “THIS SPACE FOR SALE SEE BILL CLINTON.”

If Clinton can rent out Abe’s bedroom in the White House to any tycoon with a fistful of cash, nothing’s sacred.

Sure, we’ve had an avalanche of post-election exposes about Democrats’ money madness - wads of dough in manila envelopes, tales of Clinton’s working his tin cup coast to coast. But nothing strikes me as being as tackily offensive as Clinton’s dangling a night in the Lincoln Bedroom to big-buck contributors.

Might as well stick a sign on the roof: “FAT CAT HOTEL $350,000 A NIGHT, WE THROW IN BREAKFAST.”

That’s roughly the price a Democratic donor raised for a flop in Lincoln’s room - although Clinton often tossed in a round of golf and a state dinner for biggies. Cynical Clinton aides called it “Motel Six.”

According to the Washington Post, congressional logs and other studies, Clinton booked the Lincoln room during the ‘96 election faster than a hot-bed joint on a Saturday night. He was a busy First Desk Clerk. Consider the white-glove treatment for Steve Rattner, a New York investment banker who raised $750,000, and his wife: Dinner with Clinton in the Solarium, a night in the Lincoln digs, a dip in the White House pool, then a state dinner with Liza Minelli and Judy Collins. Hey, beats Econo Lodge. Supermarket magnates, lobbyists, lawyers, Hollywood producers, oilmen, bankers - put enough scratch in the Clinton campaign kitty, you went first class at the White House B&B.;

Mike McCurry, presidential spokesflack, said of the Lincoln Bedroom perk: “It’s a special way of saying, ‘Thank you for services rendered.”’ He’s wrong.

Understandably, Clinton, desperate to match the Republican war chest for TV ads, worked the fund-raising circuit like no other incumbent - perilously close to The Selling of the Presidency.

But when Clinton peddles a night in the Lincoln room like a raffle prize, he’s selling a heritage that belongs to us.

I’ve never been on the White House grounds without feeling a frisson of history - Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln walked here. There’s something sleazy about turning the 200-year-old mansion into a political flophouse.

And yes, before nit-picking buffs complain, I know Abe didn’t sleep in the so-called Lincoln Bedroom. He used it for Cabinet meetings during the Civil War. But Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman slept in the rosewood bed. And Jackie Kennedy put up a plaque (Nixon tore it down) reading, “In this room lived John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline for two years, ten months … ”

Early on, Clinton began dazzling Hollywood celebs - Chevy Chase, Richard Dreyfuss, Barbra Streisand - with slumber parties. It was an easy slide to rewarding deep-pocket DNC donors with a Night in Abe’s Attic.

Ross Perot said Clinton’s paying off campaign favors with White House lodging “offends my soul - working people, plumbers, electricians, people on the third shift pay the cost of the White House with their taxes.” Ol’ Flop Ears was dead right.

There was nothing illegal about Clinton using the White House bedrooms as giveaways for big-dollar pals. It was part of the 1996 money orgy. Both Democrats and Republicans were guilty of overkill.

But I doubt if any president, even Nixon in his Watergate hubris, hustled campaign dough as fiercely as Clinton. Thanks in part to renting Abe’s room, he helped collect a record $180 million for Dems. And won.

Now the money chase haunts Clinton. Too many weird tales: A convicted drug dealer who got a White House invitation because he gave $200,000. A mysterious Asian gardener who tried to hand $400,000 to the DNC. A former Chinese restaurateur who bundled $640,000 for Clinton’s legal defense fund.

He’s vulnerable to months of gleeful bird-dogging by Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., and independent prosecutor Ken Starr. His honeymoon will be short.

But nothing should spur reform of politics’ money insanity like Clinton’s peddling White House bedrooms like a free night in a Holiday Inn.

Other presidents, including Ronald Reagan, saw ghosts in White House halls. So I wouldn’t be surprised if one of Clinton’s fat cats some night is startled by the bedroom appearance of a tall, craggy man in a top hat.

If he could whip the Confederates, surely Lincoln could end the selling of the White House. Sleep well, Abe.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email