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Getting To The Root Of All Evil, With Gusto

SATURDAY, MAY 17, 1997

Scandals? What scandals? Campaign reform? You gotta be kidding. Too much money in politics? No, let the good times roll. Wanna schmooze with a VIP? Just whip out that checkbook, pal.

They might as well have erected a neon sign over the Washington Hilton hotel Tuesday night: “The Casino Is Now Open - Business as Usual.”

OK, no scoop that politicians are shameless addicts in their lust for campaign dough. But after the furor over 1996’s dirty millions, you’d think Washington pols might discreetly lie low, like proprietors of an illicit gambling den after a raid by the cops.

No way. The black-tied, evening-gowned high rollers who traipsed into the Republican gala killed any notion that this spring’s scandals changed life in the Imperial City. These GOP wheeler-dealers - hey, the other guys got in trouble, not us - unabashedly, rapturously flaunted their affluence.

“We raised $11.2 million tonight while the Democrats at their gala only got $4 million,” chairman Jim Welch bellowed to the crowd. “So we have a lot to cheer for.”

Wait a minute: Haven’t big-money scandals erupted in two congressional investigations, Attorney General Janet Reno’s inquiry and a storm of embarrassing headlines? Sure, Dems deservedly take the most heat, but didn’t Republicans give back $102,000 in tainted, Hong Kong bucks? Is there no shame?

Nope. And this glittery Republican shindig, with lobbyists and corporate biggies paying up to $250,000 to rub shoulders with power, demonstrated why campaign reform is dying.

Never mind that a few senators insist the system stinks. These insiders love the aroma.

Certainly, they weren’t dismayed by a handful of 30 outraged do-gooders, most members of Public Citizen, who protested outside the Hilton.

A guy costumed in a furry, black “fat cat” outfit, chomping a cigar and holding white money bags in his claws, circled the hotel on the back of a maroon convertible. He called himself “Loot Gingrich.”

Other protesters chanted: “Five thousand a plate, America can’t afford this date.” They shouted at the arriving glitterati, “Show us the money, what are you hiding?”

Might as well stop a battleship with a BB gun. The Republican cadre, including 2000 front-runner Colin Powell and reformer Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., hurried inside to their Bash With the Cash.

For their dough they got petit filet mignon and salmon crusted with macadamia nuts. Plus warmed-over gags from Bob Dole, 1996 loser who now commands $60,000 a pop for public utterance.

“Somebody asked me why I wasn’t in a tuxedo,” said Dole, wearing a dark suit. “I said I loaned it to Newt Gingrich.” (Dull laughter considering it was a $300-grand joke.)

The fat-wallet crowd was happier to hear Democrats, up to their eyebrows in scandal and debt, maligned.

New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman drew a buzz with her jab at landlord Bill Clinton: “We honor the principles of Abraham Lincoln and not his bedroom.”

Rough-edged party boss Jim Nicholson was harsher on the Dems: “They have yet to return the money from drug smugglers and Chinese Communists.”

But they saved their huzzahs for Gingrich, who hypnotized them with his vision of America - a Republican coup in 1998 and 2000. Newt, the party’s slickest fund-raiser, was wowing the clients who could buy the juggernaut. They proudly wore lapel pins: “Team 100” ($175,000 contribution over four years) and “Eagles” ($15,000 a year.)

Fine. But in the hullabaloo over Clinton’s peddling the Lincoln bedroom and White House coffees, I find it hard to see that Republican tactics are vastly different.

Example: A $100,000 contributor to the Republican gala was granted a power breakfast with Gingrich or Senate leader Trent Lott, access to “the committee chairman of your choice,” a dinner seat with “your favorite VIP.” Throw in $250,000, you also earned a seat on the dais.

Those big numbers, happily paid by such sponsors as Amway and Coca-Cola for access to clout, show why reforming the campaign system is a Sisyphean, uphill battle. Not only do pols refuse to tinker with a process that keeps their jobs, but lobbyists - whether for the Christian Coalition, National Rifle Association or ACLU don’t want the game changed.

Oh, sure, Congress is awash in gimmicks to clean up campaign dough: 57 bills this spring. Even the best idea, the McCain-Feingold gizmo to limit spending for free TV time, is a homeless orphan. The GOP gala proved what reformer Fred Wertheimer says: “There’s only one party - the incumbents.”

Outside the Republican money orgy, protesters stubbornly carried signs: “Honk If You Want To Clean Up Congress.”

Stares and silence. In scandal-mired Washington, the only sound is the KA-CHING of an endless cash register.


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