Shakedown in Hamptons on a Clinton vacation

September 05, 1999|By Richard Reeves

SAG HARBOR, N.Y — SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- "It's a vacation," said the spokesman for Hillary Rodham Clinton as the American royals dropped down on the cash fields called the Hamptons. "She wants to enjoy the scenery and see her friends."

That is the language of politics. "Friends" means folks who can pony up, say, $25,000 a couple for a nice dinner and some Clinton vaudeville, featuring the sitting president and his wife standing for election to the U.S. Senate. "Vacation" is the first lady's word for bringing in the sheaves. Her husband, the president, likes to call it "the people's business" -- as in, "I'm doing the people's business."

They stopped by for less than 48 hours and picked up a couple of million dollars. The cheapest event cost $250 a head, which got more than a thousand heads into an airplane hangar with the royal couple.

Wag the dog

There were, they say, 100 people at the $25,000 event. One of them was the fellow who persuaded the White House to accept a young friend named Monica Lewinsky as an intern. That event was at the oceanfront home of the producers of the film "Wag the Dog," the one about a president starting a fake war in Albania to divert attention from an Oval Office sex scandal -- which goes to show that even when you make fun of Bill Clinton, he gets a piece of the take.

That is the point of political finance these days. Unless you are an officer of the People's Liberation Army, you can pretty much get what you want at auction, from internships or an ambassadorship to a small (one hopes) country, to the kind of congressional comma or regulatory agency hearing that can move tens or hundreds of million dollars your way.

Money doesn't talk anymore. Money rules! That is not the Clintons' doing, by any means. I will not embarrass my president, right or wrong, by going into detail about why he sees himself as a great advocate of campaign finance reform.

And, in fact, you usually can get more for your money by being the largest contributor to a fool congressman nobody pays attention to, but who does get his grubby fingerprints on obscure but potentially profitable legislation.

With the president, many of the big givers get nothing more than bragging rights. That is one reason why the press is kept away from these events.

Here is the best part: A significant part of the payers dislike either the Clintons or being shaken down by the Clintons. And it is a shakedown for many who are just there paying protection money. They groan and gripe in the off-season, but they pay up when the call comes.

As a matter of fact, once you get on a list as a giver, the calls and begging letters come most every day. The price of freedom is constant ringing.

That anger makes the story of the Committee for Economic Development so fascinating. The CED is a 60-year-old bipartisan public policy institute financed by some of the country's biggest corporations, including General Motors, Xerox and Merck.

Twenty of its member executives, led by Edward Kangas, chairman and chief executive of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, the accounting firm, have endorsed a ban on unlimited campaign contributions.

That puts them at odds with Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican promoting a bill that would eliminate most current contribution limits.

Hitting them up

Mr. McConnell, chairman of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, recently wrote a letter urging big shots to resign from the CED. None has. The reason, says the president of the organization, Charles Kolb, is: "These people are saying: We're tired of being hit up and shaken down. Politics ought to be about something besides hitting up companies for more and more money."

Good for them. Maybe their stand will bring some change for the better. But I doubt it. Politicians, the shake-down artists, aren't interested in change anymore. They want to come to the Hamptons to see friends and fill their suitcases with folding currency.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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