President not for sale but can you spare a dime?



WASHINGTON -- In purely political terms, President Clinton's decision to accept private contributions to pay his legal bills is awkward at best and potentially damaging at worst.

There is, of course, ample precedent for a public official who is being investigated by a special prosecutor to raise money to pay lawyers' bills. Several have done it recently, some of them by holding "testimonial" dinners to allow their friends to make up a pot.

But no president has done it while occupying the Oval Office -- Richard M. Nixon created such a fund after he left office -- so the picture of the leader of the free world passing the cup is likely to be disconcerting enough to reinforce the perception of Clinton as an embattled figure in particularly serious trouble. That image may not be accurate, but the president would be kidding himself if he did not recognize that it is extremely widespread.

The decision to allow lobbyists to contribute is particularly risky. Clinton and his advisers can say that "no one buys a president" for a $1,000 contribution, which is what congressmen always say when they are rationalizing their acceptance of contributions from political action committees for labor unions, corporations and other special interests. The only difference there is that the limit on PACs is $5,000.

But it is also true that big contributors to politicians do enjoy a level of access that may not be granted to most constituents. No one imagines that Clinton is going to do some lobbyist a favor because he sees his name on the list of friends who have helped with $1,000. But it would be naive to believe that everyone in the White House and the administration is not going to be very much aware of who gave what.

The lobbyist question is particularly awkward in light of Clinton's campaign denunciation of the 12 years of Republicans in the White House as "nothing less than an extended hunting season for high- priced lobbyists and Washington influence peddlers." That bit of political history will not be overlooked by the Rush Limbaughs of the world.

The answer is the essence of pragmatism. It may be true that lobbyists have not been excluded because such a policy would be a nightmare to enforce, but it is also true that the fund is going where the money is. When you are talkingabout legal bills of $1 million to $2 million a year, it takes a lot of contributors to carry the load.

Clinton obviously cannot afford such costs on his $200,000 annual salary, and his constituents will understand that much, although they also may wonder why he has to have lawyers who charge $400 an hour or more -- another aspect of the case that contributes to the picture of a president in very serious trouble indeed.

The White House's sensitivity on the issue was apparent in the way the fund has been structured. The chairmen are symbols of probity, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh and former Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. Among others, the board includes another former attorney general, Elliot Richardson, and two highly respected former members of the House, Barbara Jordan and John Brademas. No corporate or PAC money will be accepted; no fund-raising galas held.

There seems no realistic alternative. If Clinton were involved in litigation growing out of his conduct as a federal official, it would be reasonable for the government to undertake his defense. But the Whitewater investigation centers on events that occurred while he was governor of Arkansas, as does the Paula Jones civil suit.

Nor can the lawyers perform the services pro bono. Even if they were so inclined, that would be seen as an in-kind contribution and easily depicted as just another form of currying favor with the White House.

It is hard to challenge the White House contention that, in the words of press secretary Dee Dee Myers, it is "in the best interest of the country to have these bills paid." A president has too much to do to be worrying about scraping up the money for his legal bills.

But the picture of Bill and Hillary Clinton being protected by the fat cats who can afford $1,000 is not one that his campaign managers would prefer to offer to the electorate when the 1996 campaign begins early next year.

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