At the end of week one, the great campaign finance scandal lacked moxie. The scoreboard read: Republicans 0, Democrats 0, public tuned out.
Of course, the Senate Watergate Committee’s hearings began 24 years ago with a comparable lack of sizzle, the first witnesses now forgotten.
For the record, they were operatives from Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign and his White House and two members of Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department called to testify that a crime indeed had occurred.
Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., chief Republican counsel at those hearings and chairman of these, may have had that history in mind in starting quietly with Richard Sullivan as the first witness before his Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
No cigar-chomping pol, Sullivan turned out to be appealing: 33, preparing for the bar examination, open-faced former finance director of the Democratic National Committee. His selection as the first witness suited the Democrats fine.
His very pleasantness - and absence of startling revelations - played well with the Democratic strategy.
Early on they decided to get out the bad news early. Throughout the spring, whenever the White House sent a bundle of subpoenaed documents to Thompson’s committee, it made copies available to the press. It generated damaging headlines, but the news was stale when it came out again at the hearings. That’s called damage control.
And when the Republicans brought up the ugly facts about millions in suspicious contributions to President Clinton’s re-election campaign, the Democrats turned to their second technique, a so’s-your-old-man strategy.
When Republicans pointed to White House coffees and Lincoln Bedroom sleep-ins, Democrats cited comparable Republican events.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., made much of a luncheon at the Library of Congress hosted by Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995 for GOP campaign workers who raised $45,000. And he waved papers recalling Vice President Dan Quayle’s reception on the lawn of the vice president’s official residence during the Bush administration.
“I don’t think we ought to be like that inspector in the movie ‘Casablanca’ who knows exactly what’s going on in front of him and says that the conduct is shocking, simply shocking,” Levin said.
In return, the Republicans could generate only shards of new information about suspect campaign contributions that previously had been reported.
Of course, it is early. The Republicans could yet produce damaging evidence to support Thompson’s ominous opening charge: “High-level Chinese government officials crafted a plan to increase China’s influence over the U.S. political process.”
So far, while polls suggest that the role of money in politics is a foremost public concern, the public does not seem to be paying attention. To do so would be difficult: No major network is covering the hearings live. In 1973, Watergate dominated the airwaves.
“Thompson is doing all the right things,” Republican commentator Arianna Huffington said. “He knows that in order to get the public’s attention he needs to give them a story line, compelling characters and mystery.”
“But all the main characters of the plot have pleaded the Fifth Amendment,” declining to testify on grounds of self-incrimination, she said. “It’s created a problem in terms of getting the public interested. Half the senators didn’t even turn up by the end of the week.”
Harvard government professor Dennis F. Thompson, author of “Ethics in Congress,” saw the first week as “a lost opportunity” for the cause of campaign finance reform.
“There is a tendency in Congress and the press to find villains, of whom there are always going to be plenty. Usually I’d say, ‘It’s exciting, but that’s too bad because the excitement is distracting us from the real issue,”’ Thompson said.
“But these hearings have not even gotten the excitement going.”