Deeds belie words on campaign finance


REMEMBER these words?

"No controlling legal authority."

Al Gore got slammed for proffering that phrase as an excuse for the sleazy fund raising he did when he was vice president.

Now, recall these words: "I don't know the man well, but I've been disappointed about how he and his administration has conducted the fund-raising affairs. You know, going to a Buddhist temple and then claiming it wasn't a fund-raiser is just not my view of responsibility."

That was candidate George W. Bush, capitalizing on Mr. Gore's missteps during last year's presidential campaign.

He was right to point out the Clinton White House's ethical problems. And we assumed that meant he wouldn't behave the same way once he got into office.

We were wrong. After the Bush White House's equally irresponsible fund-raising activities and its lame attempts to rationalize the irrational, Mr. Bush doesn't look much better than the Democrats he slammed during the campaign.

Two times this week, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney held receptions for big donors. Mr. Cheney sponsored Republican fat cats in his official residence. (Can you say Lincoln Bedroom?) A letter sent to those attending the president's fund-raiser crowed about giving access to senior administration officials. (Can you say White House coffees?)

Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, wants people to believe there's a meaningful difference between the way the Clinton White House and the Bush White House treated donors.

The vice president's event, he claimed, was simply a "thank you" to folks who were generous enough to contribute at least $100,000 to the cause, whereas the Clinton administration's events were staged in hopes of raising money.

Yeah. Sure. There's a difference in the fund-raising tactics, all right, but it's more like the difference between cash and credit. The result is the same: Swapping one thing for another -- money for access.

There's nothing illegal about the fund-raisers held by Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. No one knows that better than Mr. Gore, who can tell you about the lack of "controlling legal authority" to prohibit such events.

But the Bush White House's trek through the fund-raising gantlet serves a useful purpose: It refocuses our attention on campaign finance reform.

The troubling fund-raisers should provide new fodder for arguments now taking place in Congress over whether to ban the soft money that buys too much access for those who can pay the price.

Whether in cash or credit, this kind of pay-to-play politics presents real problems in our democracy.

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