Clinton fails to 'just stop' and think before speech

ON POLITICS

January 27, 1995|By JACK WITCOVER & JULIUS WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- If Bill Clinton were a quarterback and Bob Dole a linebacker, you'd have to say the president got sacked by the Senate majority leader the other night when he advised Congress in his State of the Union address to "just stop taking the lobbyist perks."

Dole immediately called "a cheap shot" the president's pitch for a voluntary congressional withdrawal from the lobbyist trough. The Senate Republican blitzed Clinton by observing that "when we have lobbyists contributing to the president's legal defense fund, I think he'd be a little careful about bringing that up."

Dole was referring to the Presidential Legal Expense Trust Clinton established last June. That is the fancy name for the fund he set up to pay his legal bills involved in defending himself in the investigation of the Whitewater deals and in the sexual harassment suit brought against him by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones.

At the time, the White House made much of the fact that no contributions would be accepted from political action committees, corporations or labor unions. But for some reason not clear to this day, money from lobbyists was deemed acceptable. With a limit of $1,000 set, it was argued, no lobbyist ++ could buy influence with that paltry sum.

If ever there was a disaster waiting to happen, this was it. Even when Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan won Senate passage of a bill barring acceptance of lobbyist money for legal defense funds last year, Clinton clung to the taking of such money.

When you consider how much time was spent by White House strategists and wordsmiths, and by the president himself, in crafting this State of the Union speech supposedly so critical to putting him back on track with the voters, it is mind-boggling that he would lead with his chin by attacking lobbyist gifts that he has been accepting.

Too late to take the sting out of Dole's direct hit, the handlers of the Clinton legal defense fund announced afterward that the president had decided to stop accepting them.

There is the obvious question of why Clinton agreed to take lobbyist money in the first place. Then there is the fact that he waited until the Republicans had control of Congress, and thought to be more on the receiving end of such perks now, to call on Congress to give them up voluntarily.

Although the president did propose that the Democratic-controlled Congress last year enact lobbying reform, he didn't make any serious effort to push for it. That didn't stop him, however, from making a grandstand play on the issue in Tuesday night's State of the Union speech, referring to Republican rejection on the first day of the new Congress of two lobbying reform proposals by Democrats that they, and he, knew would go nowhere.

Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause, which has been pressing for lobbying reform, says the president should be credited, nonetheless, with putting the issue before Congress again, provided he follows up effectively this time. And ending his own taking of lobbyist money for his legal defense fund, Wertheimer says, is better late than never.

But the matter of judgment remains. One of the major gripes among fellow Democrats about the Clinton White House is that, even after the reorganization that brought Washington veteran Leon Panetta in as chief of staff, it lacks sufficient political savvy. Detractors still refer to "the kindergarten" of young and/or inexperienced aides whose voices seem to carry weight. That those who serve the president could let him make a proposal that left him so nakedly open to Dole's counterpunch reinforces the complaint.

The original decision to take lobbyist money for the legal defense fund spelled potential trouble for the president from the very outset. The matter of a legal defense fund in itself was a dicey one as far as ethical appearances were concerned. So Clinton should have followed his own advice and "just stopped" taking lobbyists' money for the fund before he ever began. And if he didn't get advice to that effect, he should have known better himself.

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