Geese and ganders

If it was wrong when Clinton did it, it's wrong for "our guys," too

Issue: "Power struggle," May 26, 2001

Certainly the hardest assignment in publishing a magazine like WORLD comes when one of our friends does something we strongly disagree with. Saying something sounds like betrayal. But silence sounds like hypocrisy.

Yet the essence of good journalism is trustworthiness. If you as a reader can't count on us to tell the truth, even about our friends, you shouldn't bother to respond the next time we send you a renewal notice. Maybe you should cancel even before that!

Tom DeLay, since 1985 the able and committed U.S. Representative from Texas's 22nd District, and more recently the Majority Whip and third ranking Republican in the House, has stirred a controversy among many of his closest friends in recent days by joining in a fundraising technique for which the Clinton administration was regularly criticized. In a recorded phone call to business leaders across the country, Mr. DeLay says: "I am asking you to serve as an honorary member of our new Business Advisory Council. As an honorary member, you will be invited to meetings with top Bush administration officials where your opinions on issues like tax reform will be heard."

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Critics of the appeal say it's no different from practices common during the Clinton- Gore years. Fund appeals during those years offered seats on trade missions, overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House, gravesites at Arlington Cemetery-and, of course, meetings with high-level officials. Influence is the name of the game.

According to other stories in the national press-stories not rebutted by the offices of those involved-similar "influence for sale" signs have been posted by Commerce Secretary Don Evans, Education Secretary Rod Paige, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. None of these high officials ever says, of course, that he'll actually change any of his policy positions in exchange for a $10,000 or $25,000 gift. But how is anyone supposed to interpret a come-on that says so specifically: "Your opinions on issues ... will be heard"?

Mr. DeLay, in spite of significant criticism, hasn't explained why he thinks the phone messages are different from what Republicans were so ready to jump on as recently as a few months ago. But Steve Schmidt, representing the National Republican Congressional Committee, says it's wrong to compare the appeal to what the Clinton-Gore people did. "This doesn't involve one-on-one arm-twisting confrontations on Air Force One or in the White House," he argues. "This is an appeal to hundreds of small business people across the country to come to Washington, shake their congressman's hand, and let their voice be heard." Mr. Schmidt says that a regrettable legacy of the Clinton-Gore years is the assumption that all political giving is bad.

He's got a point-but when he goes on to say that the NRCC appeal is "no different from what goes on in Washington every day of every week," he ought to understand how the alarm bells are triggered. "What goes on in Washington every day of every week" is exactly what many of us thought was changing when we supported people like Tom DeLay and George W. Bush.

If I've heard it one time since January 20, I've heard it 50 times. People who have visited the nation's capital say there's a new spirit in town. "I take pride again in calling this my capital," a friend told me when I was there a few days ago. Indeed, I had the same feeling. A sense of honor was being wrapped again around what had been so sullied in recent years.

But such an advantage and such a step forward can disappear in a careless moment, and for nothing more than a mess of pottage. Remember the euphoria of the congressional takeover in January 1995-and then the infighting and incompetence that followed?

But the loss of a moral standard on fundraising is much worse than political infighting and incompetence. Supporters of the new administration expected the highest ethical and moral standards to be put in place, and then to be enforced. What we've gotten instead from this episode is what The Washington Post calls "A Familiar Odor."

The Post's silly answer is to go ahead with the McCain-Feingold reform bill. That is a solution we've already opposed. If ineffective but unconstitutional monstrosities like that are to be kept off the books-and they should be-then people like Tom DeLay need to stand up and resist every hint of financial impropriety. He still has time to hear his friends, check his usually reliable conscience, and do that. He has taken hard stands before, for which we still applaud him. He needs very much to take another hard stand right now.

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