Features

Giving Hillary a free ride

National | Reporters are silent on the first lady's use of military planes for campaign travel

Issue: "Dr. Laura: Taking static," April 8, 2000

On March 24, a House Appropriations subcommittee released a report showing that Hillary Rodham Clinton's trips to New York on military aircraft last year for her Senate campaign cost more than $182,000 over a seven-month period, with taxpayers footing 80 percent of the bills.

In a separate study that counted more trips over a longer period of time, the Republican National Committee (RNC) found flights by "Mrs. Clinton and her entourage" into and around New York cost a lot more-$905,000-with taxpayers getting back only about 3 cents on the dollar. The RNC report included $630,000 for highly expensive trips aboard Air Force One with President Clinton that the House analysis did not cover. Congressman Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) said it cost the Air Force $3,705 an hour for the least expensive aircraft that was used. He added that he was still mystified that Mrs. Clinton has used chartered aircraft for a book tour, but not for a political campaign.

But what really makes this story interesting is its comparison to the political firestorm in the spring of 1991 over personal trips then-White House Chief of Staff John Sununu made using military aircraft. The Washington Post broke that story in April, and aggressively drove the story for months. In the 68 days after breaking its story, the Post ran 27 news stories, and 11 of those were published on the front page. By contrast, the Post has yet to investigate Mrs. Clinton's travel on its own, and it gave the House Appropriations report about 500 words on page six.

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With Mr. Sununu, the Post kept hammering the story with new details. Mr. Sununu criticized other aides for using military planes. Mr. Sununu used planes to help ease a tight family budget. Mr. Sununu took eight months to repay some travel costs. Mr. Sununu took a limousine trip to a New York stamp auction. Meanwhile, the Post ignored military aircraft usage by Washington's Democratic heavyweights, including then-House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin, who hitched a ride on military aircraft with his girlfriend for a Colorado ski trip.

The newspaper's approach to Mr. Sununu, the former governor of New Hampshire, may have been flavored by retiring Executive Editor Ben Bradlee's opinion on how he would be received by official Washington: "A jack-leg governor from a horse's-a- state. How could he play with us in the big leagues?" The furor over Mr. Sununu seemed less about outrage over government waste (the Post never endorsed a bill by House Democrat Paul Kanjorski to rein in government travel) and more about conducting politics by other means.

Unlike Mr. Sununu, the first lady is using taxpayer-funded aircraft for explicitly partisan and political purposes. While presidents have traditionally used these perks in running for reelection, what should the rules be for a first lady running for the Senate in New York? In effect, the taxpayer is making an in-kind contribution to one side of a Senate campaign, but reporters aren't attempting to address the ethical quandary. They're barely touching the story at all.

Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report last week ignored the Republican allegations of military plane misuse. Time gave them a couple sentences in a story critical of her opponent, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

The same protective dynamic surrounded the subsequent report that the State Department's inspector general is conducting a criminal investigation of Tony Coelho, chairman of Al Gore's presidential campaign. Investigators found numerous financial irregularities when Mr. Coelho was head of the U.S. exhibition at the World's Fair in Portugal in 1998. Mr. Coelho listed 85 sources of income and a net worth of more than $10 million in his financial-disclosure forms. But he leased an $18,000-a-month apartment at U.S. taxpayer expense in Portugal. Once again, the media are moving very slowly, if at all, to inform the public. U.S. News and Time gave the story a couple of paragraphs; Newsweek ignored it.

As the New York Senate race maintains its singular status as the only congressional election the national media watch, Mrs. Clinton maintains her status as a regular beneficiary of a positive press that does not report her ethical slipperiness.

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