WASHINGTON -- All politicians are guilty of shameless behavior from time to time, but President Clinton could retire the cup with his attempt to blame his 1996 campaign's fund-raising scandal on the Democratic National Committee.
In an interview with the Fox News Channel, Mr. Clinton said, "The first time I found out that the Democratic Party had taken any money that was not from American citizens, I was sick at heart and I was angry that the checking hadn't been done."
In an interview with Gannett News Service, he again blamed the DNC and added: "You must protect your contributors from their own enthusiasm. Even if they're not deliberately trying to undermine it, you have to be able to be checking these things."
This is a mind-boggling line of defense coming from Bill Clinton. Although it seems obvious that DNC procedures lacked a certain vigilance, it should not be forgotten that the two leading figures in the foreign money scandal, Charlie Trie and John Huang, were sponsored by Mr. Clinton himself.
Mr. Trie was the president's old buddy from days when Mr. Clinton ate at his restaurant in Little Rock. Mr. Huang, an executive of the Lippo bank with its Arkansas ties, was the man who was given places at the Commerce Department and the DNC because the White House wanted him there. So the failure to check them out initially might be understandable.
But there are several levels of shamelessness in Mr. Clinton's diverting the culpability to the DNC. For one thing, it ignores the fact that it was Mr. Clinton himself who installed those running the committee, including the party's two national chairmen at the time, Don Fowler and Sen. Chris Dodd.
More to the point, the Clinton campaign and the DNC were run not by the DNC but by Harold Ickes, then the deputy White House chief of staff. As the president's designated agent, he ruled with an iron hand and was the principal force in fulfilling the Dick Morris strategy of raising huge amounts of soft money for the early stages of the Clinton campaign.
Nor should the president's own role be overlooked. He embraced the Morris strategy and, as indicated by documents already passed on to congressional investigators, was aggressive in going after those big contributors.
The president was the one who asked for the list of fat cats and declared himself ready to start inviting overnight guests to the White House as part of the program.
Finally, Mr. Clinton's decision to blame the DNC's inadequacies seems to imply that this was some separate entity to which he was not connected. But the president is the leader of his party and, as such, responsible for what it does, just as he is responsible for the successes and failures of government departments.
But the flaws in the existing system go far beyond the issue of foreign contributions. There are, for example, equally serious questions to be answered about fund-raising telephone calls from the White House that clearly violated the spirit if not the letter of the law -- the so-called "controlling legal authority."
We already know from White House memos and telephone logs that Vice President Al Gore made 44 such calls. Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton claims he cannot remember whether he made any himself -- a lapse that is hard to understand from a politician with a memory for detail as prodigious as that of the president.
Then there are the ultimate questions about what the generous contributors got for their money. We already know that many of them bought access not available to everyone -- the opportunity to meet with the president in person and discuss issues on their minds, perhaps over coffee and perhaps after an overnight stay in the Lincoln bedroom.
What we need to know, of course, is whether they got anything more concrete by influencing policy or personnel. The president insists that did not happen.
The bottom line is that the fund-raising scandal of 1996 involves a great deal more than a few illegal contributions that slipped by the DNC. Mr. Clinton's attempt to turn the fire in that direction is only a political smoke screen.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from the The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 8/08/97