Sometimes, it may be best to keep the blinders on ON POLITICS

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

April 28, 1992|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- President Bush says it's "outrageous" that a corporate executive is reported to have coerced an employee to ante up $1,500 for a Republican fund-raiser featuring the president as speaker. Yes, and Claude Rains as the French police chief in "Casablanca" was "shocked, shocked" to hear that there was gambling going on at Rick's cafe.

After a lifetime career in Republican politics, during which he has been involved in hundreds if not thousands of similar fund-raising dinners, Bush would have to had worn blinders all these years not to be aware how corporate supporters -- of Democrats as well as Republicans -- routinely put the arm on their executives to kick in for political candidates.

What makes the case to which he referred of particular note is the fingerprints left on the body. William P. Neiss, fired from a Wisconsin marketing firm after balking at buying a ticket, has filed suit and produced letters from the firm's executives hinting fairly explicitly that refusal could jeopardize his future with the company.

In one letter, as quoted in the Washington Post, a company executive wrote that he "would like to know who is going to be part of the long-term growth of this operation," and would judge by who attended the dinner. In another, Neiss was told attendance would determine "what kind of cloth you're cut from."

Neiss and other regional managers were asked to buy one ticket or "buy or fill at least one table" at $20,000 for what was called "The President's Dinner," although the money was being earmarked not for his re-election campaign but for the Republican congressional campaign committees.

Anyone who sold $92,000 worth of tickets, the employees were told, would be entitled to have his picture taken with the president. Does Bush think those dinner guests ushered in to pose with him at such dinners have won a door prize?

Robert Teeter, Bush's 1992 campaign manager, asked on NBC News' "Meet the Press" whether this arrangement amounts to "a for-sale sign on the White House," offered the defense that it's always been done this way. "Historically it's been an annual dinner where the president has traditionally spoken," he said, and "also may have had a fund-raiser, a reception at the White House for people who have been active in helping organize and run that dinner."

Teeter did allow that "I don't think anybody is very happy with the current finance system in the state of politics today," adding that "the president's proposed a number of reforms to change it." Those proposed reforms, however, do not include public financing of congressional elections that would replace the current system in which employees' arms are so often twisted.

Public financing is part of the Democratic campaign finance reform package that has passed the House and is about to come up in the Senate, but Bush has already indicated he will veto what he calls "incumbent protection" legislation. Meanwhile, the incumbent in the White House cheerfully cooperates with the old system that uses him and the trappings of his office as a magnet, sometimes coercively, for campaign contributions.

The complaining lawsuit comes on the heels of another fund-raising gaffe by the Bush-Quayle campaign in Michigan. Although corporate contributions to presidential candidates are prohibited by federal law, the campaign in its listing of members of a dinner's host committee identified five corporations.

A Bush-Quayle spokesperson was quick to say the listing was all a "mistake," and that contributions came from individuals in those five firms, as permitted by law.

And guess who is on the record against bundling? George Bush, shortly after becoming president, called for ending the practice.

In this election year marked by political scandal stories of a personal nature, this sort of behavior that winks at the law doesn't seem to ignite the ire of voters anywhere near as much. At least the country can be grateful that their president seems to be shocked, shocked to hear that it's going on.

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