Politicians see gifts as entitlement

THE CONTROVERSY over the Clinton gift-taking scandal is more than diverting. It's educational, though not in the way the key players hope.

Republicans profess to be shocked at the behavior of the gift-taking Clintons, but the claims ring hollow. Surely by now the GOP critics are hard-pressed to be shocked by anything the Clintons do. After all the scandals and supposed scandals of the Clinton years, making off with a couple of couches and china hardly seems worth noting.


In the good old days, the presidential couple were accused of killing Vince Foster and covering up his death. By comparison, this latest imbroglio is like suspecting Bonnie and Clyde of stealing a Hershey bar from a dime store.

Democrats have not been any more impressive in their arguments. Their best line is that the Reagans and Bushes also took gifts. This is supposed to be evidence of Republican hypocrisy. But inadvertently, it's proof of Democratic hypocrisy as well. For when the Reagans and the Bushes took gifts Democrats complained.


Nancy Reagan, you'll recall, had to swear in 1982 that she wouldn't continue to accept gowns from high-fashion designers when Lesley Stahl revealed on "CBS News" that the first lady received many for free. Only Nancy's skit at the annual Gridiron Club dinner lampooning Washington politics silenced the Democrats.

Remember? Dressed in frumpy rags, she appeared on stage singing: "I'm wearing second-hand clothes, second-hand clothes/They're quite the style in the spring fashion shows/Even my new trench coat with fur col-lar, Ronnie bought for 10 cents on the dol-lar."

End of the clothes contretemps.

Will Hillary try a similar stunt? It would certainly make politics fun a little while longer. And we might be in need of fun after a few months of Laura Bush as first lady.

What is most difficult is determining which side's arguments are more appallingly inconsistent.

The Democrats' defense of Hillary and Bill is, at bottom, a defense of the rights of privilege. This is Republican territory. In fact, it goes beyond anything the Republicans ever claim. They insist that the reason the rich are entitled to live better than the rest of us is because people basically are free to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Not even Republicans claim public servants are entitled to the fruits of other people's labor.

Before the Republicans celebrate the Democrats' new appreciation of privilege, they should consider the inconsistency in their own argument. Republicans have insisted that gifts to politicians - more commonly called donations - are acceptable as long as they are disclosed. We can see the weakness in this argument. The gifts to the Clintons were disclosed but smell nonetheless.

The reason is simple. Disclosure of the names of donors does not improve our understanding of their motives. Whether they expect to obtain favors in return for their beneficence is unknown and unknowable. Inadvertently, then, the Republicans have given the supporters of campaign finance reform a powerful argument in favor of a substantial change in the system.


If gifts to the Clintons are unethical, then gifts to politicians in general must be as well, at least large gifts. But don't expect to hear Republicans making this argument anytime soon. It's at variance with party orthodoxy.

Historian Richard Shenkman is the author of "Presidential Ambition: How Presidents Gained Power and Got Things Done."