A curious coffee klatch at the White House

October 08, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- There is nothing intrinsically sinister about the White House videotapes. We do not see President Clinton, in living color, putting the arm on contributors over coffee.

But the long delay in delivering the tapes to the Senate investigating committee is a classic case of political stupidity. The comparisons with the White House audiotapes that sank President Richard M. Nixon 23 years ago are inevitable, if not entirely legitimate.

There is even a new version of the unfortunate gap that will recall the 18 1/2 minutes missing from that critical Watergate tape.

In this case, the White House Communications Agency (WHCA) failed to capture the audio on just one of the 44 coffees -- as it happens, the one June 18, 1996, at which John Huang has been accused by a Senate witness of making a direct appeal for campaign contributions. This may have been a totally innocent mechanical failure by WHCA, but it is a strange coincidence.

The tapes that were made successfully do have some interesting moments, however. We see the president shaking hands with Mr. Huang and with Roger Tamraz, the controversial financier who has testified he gave $300,000 to the Democrats so he could get a chance to make his pitch to President Clinton for an oil pipeline he was promoting.

And we see and hear Don Fowler, then chairman of the Democratic National Committee, showing a finely honed sensitivity about the niceties of accepting money in the White House.

A contributor is heard saying, "I have five checks for you." To which, Mr. Fowler replies, "As soon as this thing is over, I'll call you. I'm sorry, I can't take this. I apologize to you, and we'll get it done."

The White House tried to depict the tapes as exculpatory. "Holding this type of event was legal and appropriate," says Lanny J. Davis, the special counsel assigned to putting the White House spin on these matters. "There is no suggestion that there was any solicitation for money."

This means, apparently, that we are supposed to believe that this was just good old Bill Clinton having a few close friends in for a cup of coffee.

But, unsurprisingly, the Republicans are putting a different construction on the long delay in making the tapes available. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a member of the investigating committee, suggested the White House "may have crossed the line of obstruction of justice" by not producing the material earlier.

One specific problem is the way the tapes were withheld from Attorney General Janet Reno. The White House notified the committee of their existence last Wednesday, met with committee investigators Friday and gave them the videotapes Saturday, the same day they were delivered to the Justice Department.

The problem there was that on Friday, apparently unaware of the tapes, Ms. Reno had granted Mr. Clinton what amounted to at least partial absolution. In a letter to Congress, she said there was no evidence at this point to justify appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the president.

Janet Reno's finding still may be entirely valid. But it is now clear that she made that finding without having access to potentially incriminating -- and, at the least, politically explosive -- videotapes. In the vernacular of politics, the attorney general has been hung out to dry.

The most damaging aspect of the episode, however, is the reinforcement of the picture that has developed for months of the White House coming forward reluctantly and belatedly with pertinent files even while insisting it has been fully cooperative with the Senate committee and the Justice Department.

On the face of it, this pattern has appeared to be the familiar one of a public official under fire stonewalling until investigators or the press turn over one stone after another. It makes you wonder if they'll ever learn.

The videotapes disclosure has opened a whole new avenue for investigation and political exploitation.

The White House has provided what amounts to selected excerpts from 44 coffees, but the Washington Post quoted a Senate investigator to the effect that there were tapes made of 150 fund-raising events.

Congressional investigators in search of a smoking gun will want to see those as well. And Janet Reno obviously will be hesitant to make any final decision on a special prosecutor without seeing them.

The bottom line is that the White House has committed a blunder that may have repercussions for months -- and probably well into the next election campaign.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 10/08/97

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