The Money Lenders

President Clinton and Vice President Gore are breathing a sigh of relief this morning. In truth, they have been given the chance for a second wind.

Attorney General Janet Reno’s decision not to seek an independent counsel to examine Clinton and Gore’s fund-raising activities lets the two men off the hook - only on the narrow question of whether they improperly solicited campaign contributions by telephone.

It does not end their time of challenge.

The two most prominent figures in the government still face questions about how much their zeal to raise money warped their commitment to govern, whether the administration has an agenda for the three remaining years of its tenure, whether Clinton has the muscle to have his way on Capitol Hill and whether Gore has the agility to win the Democratic presidential nomination in the year 2000.

Reno’s decision doesn’t answer any of that, but it does make it possible for Clinton and Gore to fashion plausible, positive answers to a those questions.

Clinton and Gore cast themselves as reformers but defended themselves - in legal briefs, in press conferences and in public appearances - by citing the rules of the very system they had sought to transform.

The two men came to Washington on a wind of change, propelled by their own vows to end politics-as-usual and to chase the money lenders out of the temple of government. In reality, they have fallen victims to the political culture, spending much of their time cultivating financial sources, sometimes in the very highest temples of the government, including the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House.

The irony is that Reno’s decision in the two men’s case may further blunt the drive to overhaul the nation’s campaign finance system. Her decision spares Clinton and Gore - and preserves the political culture they disdained.

The fund-raising issue has been a double burden for both men, and a double distraction. The need to raise money - first to chase away any competitors for the 1996 nomination, then to keep pace with the furious fund-raising program undertaken by the Republicans - distracted an administration that came to Washington to change the country and the political culture.

But the Clinton team succeeded at the money game not wisely but too well, and the effort to fight off inquiries by reporters and congressional investigators provided yet another distraction, a kind of echo effect. Presidential administrations are difficult enough to mobilize when they are on the offensive. They’re next to impossible to mobilize when they’re on the defensive.

The comparisons between Donorgate and Watergate have been overwrought, but one does apply. The pages of Stanley I. Kutler’s breathtaking new book, “Abuse of Power,” which consists of 675 pages of transcripts of President Nixon’s Watergate conversations, makes it clear that a president and an administration under siege have little attention, appetite or aptitude for the broader political goals that it presumably came into office to achieve.

“As far as the country is concerned, they do not want the President spending his time horsing around with all this …,” Nixon said in a conversation with White House counsel John Dean on a March morning in 1973. “They want him to be spending his time on something that is a little bit more important.”

Indeed, once an administration becomes overwhelmed with worries about lawyers and special counsels and independent investigations, it can no longer “focus like a laser beam” - the phrase is Clinton’s, used in the heady days between his election in 1992 and his inauguration in 1993 - on the agenda of change that won the White House.

Even so, the fund-raising scandal has left a vapor of unseemliness over the entire capital. And it is not over.

In the next few weeks the Justice Department will decide whether to pursue indictments against Charlie Trie, the onetime Little Rock restaurateur for whom fund-raising was apparently more than a side dish, and Maria Hsia, who has been charged with laundering money from Buddhist nuns to the Democrats.

These are potentially smelly fish, but ultimately they are small fish.

Following Reno’s announcement Tuesday, Sen. Fred D. Thompson, R-Tenn., who headed the Senate inquiry into fund-raising abuses, said that Reno overlooked substantial evidence of fund-raising abuses by Democrats.

“What we are seeing here is an interpretation of the independent counsel statute that was not contemplated by the people who passed it,” Thompson said. “We are seeing it being used in a way that renders it useless. We are seeing it being used as a shield.”

But in a sense, Thompson was asking Reno to do what his committee could not achieve after months of hearings.

The Reno decision spares the country the specter of another investigation.

In a season when they have been battered by Congress, challenged by Iraq, upbraided by allies, dogged by investigators and written off by commentators, Clinton and Gore haven’t had much to smile about. Tuesday they did. But the tarnish will linger, as will the political challenge ahead of them - the equal, in its own way, of the legal hurdle they narrowly cleared.

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