In recent weeks, Americans have learned much about the evils of placing money above ethics. Unfortunately, the lessons came at the expense of the reputation of the president.
Information has trickled in through daily news reports. Here's an update on some of what has been learned so far about Democratic Party fund-raising efforts:- Wealthy campaign contributors were offered a night at the White House for money, turning the president's historic residence into a type of hotel.
- The president held a number of so-called "coffee klatches" at the White House to impress wealthy supporters. Among the guests was Chinese arms dealer Wang Jun, who happened to be the subject of a massive Justice Department sting involving rifles destined for California street gangs.
- Documents show the administration particularly targeted Asian contributors, setting a target of $7 million from that ethnic group alone in an effort to bolster the president's support base among Asian-Americans.
- Now comes word that the nation's top federal banking regulator attended one such gathering, which was organized for political supporters. Treasury Department officials generally try to stay as nonpolitical as possible. Some of the bankers in attendance said they weren't aware it was a political gathering.
- In all, more than 100 such events have been held for 1,300 potential contributors.
President Clinton hardly holds a monopoly on questionable behavior, but this blatant access-for-money strategy is reprehensible. It cheapens the nation's highest office and makes a mockery of the idea that presidents serve the people and make decisions based on convictions and sound arguments.
Money always has been an influential part of the American political process. Politicians need it to wage campaigns. History is replete with examples of leaders who have sought gain in exchange for votes or influence. But seldom has it been revealed on such a grand and obvious scale.
So far, the administration's response has been to say nothing illegal was done, that they weren't aware of everyone who attended (hence the Chinese arms dealer) and that the media, in their eyes, is racist for saying Asian-Americans were targeted, even though the story came from White House documents.
Here would be a better response:
Clinton has put campaign finance reform near the top of his second-term agenda. Specifically, he has endorsed bills that would limit the amount candidates may spend on elections and would, presumably, also favor stricter limits on donations from corporations and other outside sources.
He could go far toward making such reform a reality by acknowledging that his own fund-raising strategies were not in the nation's best interest, apologizing and proposing limits on such efforts for future presidential aspirants.
That wouldn't erase the embarrassment of what already has happened, but it at least would let Americans know the coffee-klatch-strategy won't become a normal part of the nation's political process.
And it would show that he, too, has learned that money should not be the most powerful tool of persuasion in a democracy.