Of campaign funds and Senate hearings, but no smoking gun

November 12, 1997

The Los Angeles Times said in an editorial Monday:

THE GHOST of Watergate stirred again in Washington at the end of October -- on the very day that Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., closed his Senate hearings into 1996 campaign fund-raising abuses and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., grudgingly agreed to allow a vote on campaign finance reform legislation early next year.

On that day, a transcript of previously undisclosed Nixon White House tapes was published, a quarter-century after the bungled burglary at the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex.

It must have been a gut-check for loyal Thompson aides frustrated by months of failure to come up with a smoking gun to tie the Clinton-Gore White House to a scandal of Watergate proportions.

In the Oval Office on Aug. 1, 1972, Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, talked about using a secret White House slush fund -- illegally diverted campaign money -- to buy silence from the Watergate burglars.

''It's very expensive,'' Haldeman said.

''That's what the money is for,'' Nixon responded. ''They have to be paid. That's all there is to that.''

In the end, Gerald R. Ford pardoned Nixon after he resigned the presidency in disgrace. And just a few weeks ago it was Mr. Ford who urged that Congress pass campaign reform legislation to close the gaping loopholes in the post-Watergate reform laws. Jimmy Carter and George Bush also have joined a growing chorus of eminent senior politicians in the quest for reform.

This year's hearings by Mr. Thompson's Senate Governmental Affairs Committee not only failed to produce evidence of chicanery on the Watergate scale, but also they did not even fulfill Mr. Thompson's personal promise of proof that the government of China plotted to spirit money into the 1996 campaign.

But the hearings did produce plenty of testimony -- much of it already aired in the media -- that both parties, the Democrats more sensationally, pushed the campaign laws to the legal limit and perhaps beyond in their quest to raise funds for the last election. Mr. Lott has promised a Senate vote by March, but passage of a bill is far from certain. Still, that gives Messrs. Ford and Bush plenty of time to bend ears and twist arms, and !B perhaps remind senators of the sort of abuse that can occur in the absence of clear, strict campaign finance laws.

Pub Date: 11/12/97

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