WASHINGTON -- When former Democratic National Chairman Don Fowler rather surprisingly acknowledged to the Boston Globe the other day that DNC aides followed up White House coffees with President Clinton by soliciting 1996 campaign contributions from attendees, White House special counsel Lanny Davis kissed it all off as "neither surprising nor inappropriate."
Mr. Fowler himself insisted there was no set scheme of hitting on the attendees before the coffee got cold.
The president's press secretary, Mike McCurry, made it sound quite normal and expected. "The president would wonder why he was doing all those coffees (358 by the Globe's count) if they hadn't had some follow-up," he said. "The question," he went on, xTC "is whether the president directly solicited funds during these occasions, and he did not."
Making such solicitations at the White House would be illegal. Technically, maybe, President Clinton didn't pass the hat or go around the room with his hand out. But the pitch was pretty unsubtle.
As Mr. McCurry elaborated: "The purpose of those (coffees) was introduce people to the president's program, to talk to people who had contributed, talk to people who might contribute. And an assumption was that the national committee in an appropriate way would follow up with those who had a chance to hear the president talk about his program for the future."
Chairman Fowler was even more candid. Coffee attendees, he said, "wouldn't get the message (to contribute) at the meeting," he said. "Somebody would call them (later) and ask them. One would be naive to say that the call was purely coincidental. . . We never tried to mask that these coffees were sponsored in one way or another by the Democratic Party. These coffees were just part of a larger program."
Other parts, we now know, included overnights in the Lincoln Bedroom and other rentals for high-roller contributors -- all, to be sure, "friends" of the president. But Mr. Fowler's remarks, says Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, "puts icing on the cake, confirming that access was sold at the White House."
For example, the Seattle Times the other day quoted some Washington state attendees at a White House coffee as saying that after it they were dispatched to the Clinton-Gore campaign headquarters for a briefing at the invitation of the DNC. One of them, the paper said, dropped off four checks but without, she said, being asked.
Clinton, DNC inseparable
All this, however, makes abundantly clear that the DNC in the 1996 campaign was not some distant entity removed from the Clinton political operation but an integral part of it, despite the president's verbal attempts to separate it.
National committees always have been hitched up to the presidential campaigns, but most often in the past in providing nuts-and-bolts help, not acting as a collection agency.
Indeed, for many years it was an axiom in national politics that when one party held the White House, its national committee would be reduced to a shell, with the real politics practiced out of the White House itself. National committees in the past most often played a major role only when the opposition party held the Oval Office. No longer.
One reason may be the way the federal campaign finance laws have permitted end runs on the limits in presidential races through the national committees. The committees have become repositories of millions in "soft" money -- funds legitimately shelled out by corporate interests ostensibly designated for party-building and voter turnout but really supplementing spending for the presidential campaigns. "The parties have become the bankers," Mr. Lewis says.
All this adds to the juicy menu of campaign finance excess soon to be chewed over by the Senate committee investigating the whole mess and chaired by Republican Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee. And once again, the White House is being forced to retreat from first efforts to minimize an act of money-grabbing involving the president as the prime bait.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.