This week we learned that George W. Bush let big campaign fund-raisers sleep over at the Texas governor’s mansion. His Republican opponent, John McCain, is trying to make a big deal of this, calling it a “disgrace” comparable to the “mechanism that Bill Clinton used in 1996” when he let big soft-money contributors sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House. Bush is of course busily trying to deny this obvious comparison–“These people are relatives and friends,” he says.
That may be true. (If you raised $100,000 for kausfiles you’d be my friend, I’ll tell you that.) Still, the bedroom-selling charge now applies to both sides of the likely presidential race, at least to some extent. For that reason, this might be an auspicious time to ask calmly, without a partisan edge, what was so terrible about the “selling of the Lincoln Bedroom” in the first place.
The key point in this regard was made by Charles Peters of the Washington Monthly late last year, and as far as I can tell has been totally ignored. It’s this: Clinton’s blatant exchange of a night at the White House for campaign cash made his fund raising cleaner rather than dirtier. Why? Because the key question with campaign contributions is always “What are these guys getting in return?” The great danger is that it will be something that corrupts the pursuit of the public interest–a regulatory favor, “access” to and influence with administration officials, etc. But with the Lincoln Bedroom, we know that at least a large part of what rich donors got in exchange for their contributions was something relatively harmless: the glamour of staying in the White House, and the ability to brag about it to friends and family.
As Peters put it, “Decent politicians get down on their knees and pray for innocent favors they can do for their contributors. How much better to offer a night’s sleep at the White House than a change of administration policy on an important issue.” He concludes: “Thank God for the Lincoln Bedroom.”
I know this isn’t something Peters just made up during the implausible pro-Clinton hysteria that gripped his magazine during the Flytrap scandal. I used to work for Peters, and he was always telling me how “show-business money is the only clean money, because they just want to come to the party!” Today, of course, show-business dollars aren’t clean anymore. The Hollywood “money” people–stars as well as executives–have big issues pending before the federal government: copyright issues, trade issues, FCC rules, syndication rights, etc. When they give cash, they are (no less than, say, oil and gas executives) likely to expect something more than a party invitation in return. Give Clinton’s fund-raising team a bit of credit for coming up with something much more glamorous than a party but equally anodyne–something rich people might be willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for, something they’d be satisfied with even if they got very little else for their money. (If you think rich people are too sophisticated to get excited about staying overnight at the White House, then you haven’t met the same rich people I have.)
This is not to say that Clinton’s 1996 fund raising wasn’t a scandal. It was, but mainly because he so blatantly opened up and exploited the legal loophole that allowed him to spend millions in unregulated “soft money” on what were essentially campaign ads. There was also a nasty shakedown aspect to the money calls made personally by Vice President Gore to business leaders.
But that has nothing to do with the fund-raising mechanism Clinton chose. If you’re going to raise millions in questionable soft-money donations, it’s hard to think of a more ethical way to do it than renting out the Lincoln Bedroom. (Indeed, Gore might have been forced to be a bully because he didn’t have a glamorous bedroom to rent out.)
The checks that are really suspicious, after all, aren’t the ones some happy mogul and his sweetie mail in a few days after a serotonin-fueled slumber party at 1600 Pennsylvania. The checks to worry about are the ones handed over by grim lobbyists amid soggy hors d’oeuvres in dreary hotel ballrooms, in exchange for … what?