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GOING OVERBOARD WITH FUND RAISING

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It wasn't just Hollywood stars who twinkled at President Clinton's birthday whoop-dee-doo in New York City Sunday night. A bright light was his second-grade teacher. In a brief appearance, she earned laughs by noting she had given young Bill Clinton a C in conduct because he raised his hand too much. At the age of 50, the president may rate the same grade but for a somewhat different reason. Now he is reaching out his hand too much, palm up.

The birthday celebration itself is illustrative of his undeterred enthusiasm for fund-raising. Even the crash of a plane transporting presidential vehicles could not keep the show from going on, for thousands of tickets had been sold and the Democrats were poised to net $10 million.The facts and figures of the party are these. First there was a reception at the Sheraton New York. Some 2,000 people paid from $1,500 to $2,000 to attend, unless they were "birthday hosts," in which event they paid $10,000 apiece. Then the party moved to Radio City Music Hall, where 5,100 guests got in for $250 each. That show of two hours and 45 minutes was beamed by satellite to 89 locations across the nation, where guests paid just $100. An estimated 700 people then went with the president to the Waldorf Astoria for a late dinner, forking over $10,000 each for the privilege.

The Republicans are also busily raising funds, of course, and both parties are breaking records in the amounts they have so far accumulated for use in campaigns. But this president appears to be spending far more time at fund raisers and gathering in more campaign cash than any of his predecessors. Especially questionable are the private, informal dinners Clinton hosts at two swanky hotels in Washington. No more than about 20 donors attend, paying as much as $50,000 and even $100,000 each in order to see the president in person and tell him what they think he should do, says one news account.

Democracy is an expensive proposition these days, and most proposals for campaign reform are abridgments of the First Amendment and would probably be ineffective, to boot. Even so, there is a limit to how far a president can go in the panhandling trade without demeaning his office and making it appear he's considering giving something in return. A high grade for presidential conduct is definitely not deserved.