President Clinton and former President Reagan both appeared before the Senate campaign fund-raising hearings Wednesday - on dueling videotapes played by lawmakers eager to land partisan blows.
One minute, there was Clinton shaking hands with contributors and oh, so earnestly explaining to them how essential their big checks were to his campaign. Then Reagan, in his aw-shucks manner, offered heartfelt gratitude to his financial supporters of years gone by.
For Senate investigators who have been frustrated in their efforts to track down key players in the donations controversy, Wednesday’s film fest offered some consolation.
With the push of a button, embattled Democratic fund-raiser John Huang instantly materialized before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. So did controversial businessman Johnny Chung, restaurateur-turned-check-collector Yah Lin “Charlie” Trie and - in frame after frame - the president himself.
With Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., the committee chairman, acting as narrator, the panel screened a highlight reel from the latest batch of White House videotapes - seen as damning or innocuous depending on viewers’ political stripes.
“I guess this is the Senate’s version of going to the Blockbuster video store,” quipped Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who said he is troubled by what he heard on both the Clinton and the Reagan tapes.
Thompson said the Clinton tapes provide evidence that the president’s re-election campaign violated federal election law by using Democratic National Committee funds to pay for advertising clearly aimed at re-electing the president.
“This was total control,” Thompson said of the White House’s connection to the ads. “We’ve never seen that before in the history of American politics, as far as I know. What you had here was a sham situation.”
In one tape, which Thompson called “extraordinary,” Clinton explains to donors how he was able to get around the $1,000 contribution limit to his campaign by using unlimited “soft money” donations to the DNC.
“We realized we could run these ads through the Democratic Party, which meant we could raise money in $20,000 and $50,000 and $100,000 blocks,” Clinton told supporters at a White House gathering on Dec. 7, 1995. “So we didn’t have to do it all in $1,000 and run down what I can spend, which is limited by law, so that’s what we have done.”
Thompson said the committee would send a legal brief to Attorney General Janet Reno explaining how it believes the Clinton-Gore campaign violated election laws and urging, once again, the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the matter.
But Democratic committee members argued that both major parties paid for ads aimed at assisting their presidential candidates in 1996 and also said the practice was within the law. As for the Clinton videos, Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, said, “I didn’t see a whole lot there myself.”
When Glenn had control of the play button, Reagan’s face appeared on video screens. He was shown at White House gatherings thanking donors for their support and urging them to continue to aid the Republican cause.
“It’s a bipartisan problem and these tapes show it,” Glenn said.
Thompson, however, came to Reagan’s defense. “You didn’t see anyone there (in the Reagan videos) hugging the president, taking the Fifth Amendment and leaving the country,” Thompson said.
As the volley continued, Democrats displayed a 1996 media interview with then-GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole, in which he explained how the Republican National Committee had aided his campaign with a so-called issue ad.
“We can, through the Republican National Committee, through what we call the Victory ‘96 program, run television ads and other advertising,” Dole said. “It’s called generic. … It doesn’t say ‘Bob Dole for President.’ It talks about the Bob Dole story.”