WASHINGTON -- The conventional wisdom here is that Sen. Fred Thompson's investigation of abuses in fund-raising for the 1996 campaign was less than a resounding success. But it may be premature to reach such a verdict.
As political theater, the public hearings were not much fun unless you enjoyed watching Don Fowler, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Bruce Babbitt, current secretary of Interior, squirm in their chairs while trying to explain their relationship with the White House tough guy, deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes.
Indeed, the most engaging witness may have been the most politically amoral -- Roger Tamraz, the big operator who gave the Democrats $300,000 so he could get into the White House and promote his plan for financing a Middle East pipeline. He made it plain that he had no interest in the ideology or program of the Democratic Party or, for that matter, in President Clinton's future. And his only regret seemed to be that he should have spent $600,000 if he expected that White House access to buy anything.
Just why we should expect to be entertained by congressional investigations isn't clear. But, as Mr. Thompson himself noted in shutting down the public phase of the inquiry, the dramatic revelations of the Watergate hearings a generation ago have raised expectations of similar headline-grabbing disclosures whenever the television cameras are turned on a witness.
As a partisan exercise, the hearings by the Senate Government Operations Committee also fell far short of the extravagant expectations of some Republicans. The testimony confirmed that Mr. Clinton and his minions were shameless in their use of the White House to raise huge amounts of unregulated soft money contributions. But it also became clear that the Republicans, too, exploited the same loophole in the present system of regulating political spending, if it can be called that.
No political hero
In a narrower political sense, the hearings also have failed to produce a political hero who now might entertain great notions of running for president on the basis of his or her new renown. If there was a single "winner," it may have been Sen. Susan Collins, the freshman Republican from Maine, who was persistent and probing in her questions without becoming a showboat.
There was little reason, however, to believe the inquiry did much for Mr. Thompson's obvious interest in the White House. Certainly no one came away with the kind of instant national stature that another Tennessee senator, Democrat Estes Kefauver, realized from hearings on organized crime two generations ago. But these days Americans are more accustomed to seeing their politicians on television and much less impressed by what they see.
But, viewed over several months, the hearings did manage to attract some popular attention and to make two general points.
The first is that the whole system put in place after Watergate is a joke. The presidential candidates each received about $60 million in public funding for their campaigns last year but relied far more on the soft money spending -- $138 million by the Republicans, $124 million by the Democrats. With that kind of money available with few strings attached, the $1,000 limit on individual contributions became more of a nuisance than a meaningful deterrent to those who would buy their way to political influence.
The second lesson taught by this experience has been that the Republican Party is far more determined than the Democratic Party to prevent any significant reforms. That became clear when Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle succeeded in persuading all 45 Democrats in the Senate to endorse the McCain-Feingold reforms now awaiting action.
The onus on the Republicans is heavy enough so that some of the most politically astute are bringing some pressure on the leadership to take some action before they have to run for re-election a year from now. Both Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Speaker Newt Gingrich are now talking about bringing the issue to a vote sometime next spring, a sudden departure from the Republican position that even more unregulated money would be dandy so long as it had to be reported publicly.
Thus, though it may be fair to say Fred Thompson has failed to produce a dramatic success with his hearings, it is equally accurate to say that the whole process has clarified the issues. In Washington these days, even that much is more than we have come to expect.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 11/05/97