What would Abe say? Clinton fund-raising surprises aides back to FDR's days

March 16, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon

WASHINGTON - In defense of their fund-raising-related activities inside the White House, President Clinton and his aides insist repeatedly that they've done nothing that wasn't routine in past administrations.

But neither written records nor the recollection of previous White House officials reveal anything remotely like the booking of $100,000 donors into the Lincoln Bedroom or the use of the Map Room to host 103 White House coffees so that the Democratic Party could tap guests for $50,000 contributions.

And in interviews with historians and former presidential aides back to the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the general reaction is astonishment that anyone would even make such a claim.

"I wish I could tell you there is a precedent, but there really isn't," said Henry Graff, a Columbia University presidential scholar.

"All they do today is raise money - both sides and Congress, too - but putting people in the White House so they'll give money, that hasn't been done before," he said.

"Mrs. Truman would have personally wrung the neck of anybody who even suggested anything like that," said George M. Elsey, ** who served in the White House as a young naval aide to Roosevelt and later Harry S. Truman.

"Never, never, never!" said George Christian, press secretary to Lyndon B. Johnson. "It just didn't happen."

"I just never heard of anything like that before Clinton," said Jerald F. terHorst, press secretary to Gerald R. Ford. "And I covered the White House for 16 years before becoming Ford's press secretary."

But Clinton came to office in an environment vastly different from presidents a generation ago. Restricted by the post- [See Lincoln, 6f] Watergate reforms to contributions of $1,000 from individuals and $5,000 from political action committees, Clinton and his more recent predecessors have felt compelled to spend vast amounts of time raising money.

In John F. Kennedy's day, his primary campaign could be underwritten by a few checks from his father and his father's wealthy business cronies.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was supported by a group dubbed "The Millionaire's Club." And, of course, the image that fueled campaign reform in the first place was of a Chicago financier donating $1.8 million to Richard M. Nixon's 1972 campaign - in cold cash.

Moreover, in today's environment, the Democratic and Republican national committees operate as adjuncts to their presidential campaigns - and are partially responsible for underwriting the tremendously expensive television advertising campaigns launched every four years.

To finance them, both parties have embraced "soft money" donations as high as $100,000 and higher from companies or wealthy donors who either have sympathies with one party or the other - or businesses that depend on government support.

Nevertheless, Clinton's fund-raising methods have prompted a backlash - even from those who raised plenty of money themselves.

From Houston, George Bush's office released a list of the 284 people who stayed in the White House overnight during his tenure in office. It contains significantly fewer people than the 938 invited by the Clintons (most of whom slept over more than once), and Bush aides emphasized that all of the 284 were close friends of the first family or members of the large Bush clan - and that none were invited in hopes that they might make political contributions.

"If the current administration contends they were just continuing a practice that took place when they moved in, this list shows they are incorrect," said James G. McGrath, a Bush spokesman.

"President Bush asked me to reiterate that these invitations were not part of past or future fund-raising activities," he added. "No staff member ever made a recommendation of who the Bushes should invite to the White House. That was just not done. Moreover, the Bushes are fairly certain that in regard to everyone on that list, President Bush or Mrs. Bush or both of them together had stayed in their house previously."

Out in California, the Reaganites were even more indignant.

"Mrs. Reagan considered the White House her home and she was, frankly, appalled when she heard that more than 900 people had spent the night there," said Joanne Drake, a spokeswoman for the Reagans. "The few who stayed there were mostly family or, on rare occasions, very, very close friends. It was never used for any donors - past, present or future."

Outside of members of the immediate family, the only name Drake could produce was entertainer Bob Hope, a longtime Reagan friend from Hollywood days.

"The Reagans were very different from the Clintons," said Michael K. Deaver, deputy chief of staff in the Reagan White House and the aide closest to the first family personally. "Those were sacred places to the Reagans. He wouldn't even take his coat off in the Oval Office."

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