February 27, 1997
For two straight days President Clinton denied there was any improper use of the Lincoln Bedroom and other White House functions in raising campaign funds for his 1996 re-election campaign. Jim Lehrer leads a discussion with Ann Lewis, assistant to the President, and White House Deputy Director of Communications, and three regional commentators who disagree with the President's view.
JIM LEHRER: We go first again tonight to the continuing White House money story. For two straight days President Clinton has denied there was any improper use of the Lincoln Bedroom and other White House functions in raising campaign funds for his 1996 re-election campaign. But also for two straight days he's been hammered on many editorial and op-ed pages who disagree. Washington Post columnist William Raspberry was among many who spoke out today, writing: "Selling--nights in the White House is so crass a thing, so close to the possibility and appearance if not the actuality of corruption--and such god-awful judgment on Clinton's part--that I cannot imagine any defense of it." Well, we test the Raspberry premise now with Ann Lewis, assistant to the President, and White House Deputy Director of Communications, and three regional commentators who share Raspberry's views to varying degrees. Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe; Lee Cullum of the Dallas Morning News; and Robert Kittle of the San Diego Union Tribune.
Lee Cullum, "crass" was Raspberry's word. What word would you use?
LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: Yes, it is crass. It's vulgar. It's terrible taste. The Dallas Morning News had two editorials this week, not one but two, calling for a special prosecutor in this matter. You know, the White House has simply gone too far. I'm not naive. I know that people have given money to presidents for years, and, in return, they get certain courtesies. Maybe they get invited to a party every now and then, and certainly somebody calls them up if they place a call and say they've got problems, but this has been a systematic selling of the White House in bits and pieces. It's gone too far, and it's way out of hand. It is crass.
JIM LEHRER: Crass, Ann Lewis?
ANN LEWIS, White House Deputy Communications Director: If that were true, if those accusations were true, crass would be a mild word. The White House is a very special building. I have the privilege of working there every day. And I truly feel it's a privilege. President and Mrs. Clinton have the privilege of living there. And they know it is a privilege. They also have the privilege of sharing that opportunity with their friends.
And one of the reasons we made all the list public of the people who had stayed at the White House over these four years, those 938 names, was so the public could see for themselves how many of these people were old friends, literally friends from high school, friends from college, friends from Arkansas, people the Clintons had known for 20 years, and how they had reached out to their friends partly because, as I say, they really wanted to share this wonderful opportunity, and partly because, as President Clinton has said, he believes it's an important to keep meeting and hearing from people. But I have to repeat anyone who was invited to the White House came as a personal guest. Anyone who was there was there because the Clintons chose personally to extend hospitality to them. I think that's a very important distinction, and one that should not get lost in some of these headlines we're seeing.
JIM LEHRER: But the headlines we're seeing, the op-ed page pieces today, the columns were really tough, and the editorials all over the country. We had a stack of them that we looked at--that I looked at a while ago. They don't buy what you just said. They don't think there was a connection between those people coming and fund-raising.
ANN LEWIS: Again, I can understand the concern if all this information, people are hearing it for the first time, and then look at that list, and say, wow, some of those people were fund-raisers and supporters. But then again, let's use some examples. Let's take someone that the President met as a roommate in college who later turns out as a supporter of his campaigns. He didn't get invited as a supporter. He got invited because he's a friend, who then also supported him. I would have to say, if I turned it into a reverse, I would hope my friends, the people who knew me best, would support me when I became a candidate. I would hope the people who had known me over the years would also support my question to be President of the United States. But what's most important is that I would keep in contact with my friends and that I would continue to reach out to people, both people I had known and people I was meeting along the way. And I think as the public sees the list again, hears people speaking for themselves and saying I came, it was lovely.
Here's from some hometown friends from Little Rock who say they heard we were going to be in town, and they asked us to stay, and they asked our family to stay, and it was the most special thing that could have happened; I think it's very important for people to get that perspective.
JIM LEHRER: Robert Kittle, you have been harsh. You and your newspaper have been harsh in criticizing this. After hearing Ann Lewis, do you see it any differently?
ROBERT KITTLE, San Diego Union-Tribune: I'm sorry. I just don't buy it, and I don't buy it because we have it in the President's own handwriting in the documents that were released by the White House this week the evidence that he was encouraging these overnights in the White House, these sleep-overs in the White House for money. It was in connection with the memo that suggested how much could be raised by inviting guests to the White House. The President said in his own handwriting, please give me the list of the top ten contributors and those who can give $50 or $100,000. And he said let's begin the overnights right away.
It is simply incredibly naive for anyone to expect that a person who gives $50,000 or $100,000 after sleeping over at the White House does so for no other reason than the pleasure of sleeping at the White House and being a friend of the President's. You know, only inside the Washington beltway is this myth perpetuated that there's no connection between large campaign contributions and buying influence and buying favors. The American people don't buy it. It just won't wash, I'm sorry. It's just not believable. We understand that money is the mother's milk of politics, and unfortunately, a lot of people are very cynical about that. But the reality is that the President was using the White House in a very tawdry way as a kind of very profitable Motel 6 to raise money for the Democratic Party to help himself to get re-elected. To suggest there's no connection between the money and the sleep-overs is crazy.
ANN LEWIS: Well, I'm not crazy. I'm quite sane. And let me go back to the very same memo that Mr. Kittle was talking about which starts with a list that was given him by Terry McCullough who was about to be the--
JIM LEHRER: Given to the President.
ANN LEWIS: It was given to the President.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
ANN LEWIS: Said here are your top ten supporters on the first page. Of those top ten supporters the majority were not invited to stay overnight at the White House. If, in fact, Mr. Kittle's--excuse me--but rather simplistic expression is this must have been about money were true, those would have been the first people invited. That wasn't so.
Second, interestingly, today we did a year-by-year analysis of how many people would come. We found that more people stayed at the White House in the two years before that memo than in the two years after. The reasons are pretty clear. By 1996 the President and Mrs. Clinton the second half of that year were spending a lot of time going around the country campaigning. They weren't home. The people they invited in the first two years as their personal guests they had more time and more chance to entertain.
But think for a moment at the context here, Jim. Think what the President is doing in 1995. Leading a fight against a Congress that had shut down the government twice, that was trying to cancel the Department of Education, roll back environmental regulations. Think of all he achieved in those difficult times. He took on the tobacco companies. We have regulations that will start tomorrow against marketing tobacco to children. He stood up to the National Rifle Association so that we have those laws still on the books banning assault weapons and the Brady Bill. That's what he was doing in 1995. He was leading the country as president, as he should have been.
JIM LEHRER: What about Mr. Kittle's point--this has also been made a major point by many people in the last 24 hours, was the President's personal handwriting said, hey, give me the names of the others.
ANN LEWIS: As the President has said--and I think we can go back and look at this--he had a conversation with Terry. Remember, he had asked Terry McCullough to be his campaign finance chair for the campaign. Terry went out, being very good, and asked people who had supported the President in 1992. He came back and in the conversation to the President said, "You know, some of your old friends, some of the people who really worked hard for you in ‘92, think they've been left out; they haven't heard from you." Again, after that meeting with Terry, thinking his in his own office with his own staff about this, made a list of three things. He said, one, I'm going to move forward on the program Terry recommended, and all that's in the memo; we will start bringing people--
JIM LEHRER: That's why he wrote that in--
ANN LEWIS: Yes. And second, he said, I want to know who those people are who gave or raised $100,000. I want to thank them when I see them. And third, he said--and this is where we see the word "overnights"--maybe there are some of these old friends I ought to be bringing back in so I can see them in a less formal, non-official setting.
JIM LEHRER: Mike Barnicle, how does this look to you?
MIKE BARNICLE, Boston Globe: Oh, man, Jim, this is--I'm getting tired just listening to this. You know, let's give the President all of those admirable accomplishments that Ms. Lewis listed. Depending on your point of view, they are admirable, and he did, indeed, work in 1995. I have no doubt of that. I don't think most people do. But clearly, on the record, there was an insatiable appetite for huge sums of money, millions and millions of dollars, to be raised for the campaign, for daily polling data that they would incorporate into speeches, for focus groups that they would use for reference in terms of strategy, millions of dollars were raised. I assume that occupied a good portion of the President's time.
When he had come to explain it a few weeks ago, it's no, no, no, that was the DNC doing that. Well, now it turns out that it was little more than the DNC. Here is the problem with President Clinton I think. I think many, many people look at him and they admire many things about him, but they view him as the sort of the teen-ager who leaves the house with the car keys, takes the car. He's gone for a considerable amount of time. He comes home. You ask him, "Where have you been; who have you been with, what have you done?" and you never get quite a straight answer. You have to extract the truth.
People get tired of extracting the truth from this President, and the fact that we've gone from Churchill in the White House during World War II to Chevy Chase in the White House today I think has a lot to do with people's level of expectation of both this President and the government. This is the White House. It's a House that belongs to us, children learn about in school, burned down in the 1800's. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation there. And now it's for rent.
JIM LEHRER: Now it's for rent, Lee Cullum? Is that the message from this? Do you read it that way?
LEE CULLUM: Well, I do, Jim. If I'm not mistaken, a brochure was put out. Now to the President's credit, I think he wrote a memo saying this is terrible; this is awful. He underscored awful. And it certainly was awful. A brochure from the DNC outlining the benefits for contributing. But, you know, I'm inclined to agree with Mike Barnicle. And maybe I romanticize the White House, but I believe appropriately distinguished citizens should be invited to stay there, people who have genuinely served the public good. That's what makes sense to me. I think--you know, I think back to the days of LBJ, and he was hardly pure--I know that--but in those days Bob Strauss chaired a President's Club here in Dallas, co-chaired it, and I think you gave a thousand dollars and you got to be a member of the President's Club. And what you got in return was you got to go to a local hotel and hear Hubert Humphrey make a speech. This has become a very slick, sophisticated operation compared to that. And it's simply gone too far.
JIM LEHRER: Gone too far?
ANN LEWIS: Well, let me go back. I started by agreeing with some of what Mike Barnicle said. First, as I think he and I would agree, the President in 1995 achieved a lot that was admirable and we ought all to be thankful for. This economy, this country are moving in the right direction. Second, campaigns today cost too much, and the President has said that. They cost too much money, and you have to spend more money than--you have to spend more time than you should raising it. That's why he so strongly argues for campaign finance reform, has endorsed specific legislation, has brought people into the White House to say it. On the other hand, I've got to argue again very strongly, one, just as a matter of fact, for example, this campaign didn't take focus groups. There was so much exaggeration out there about what campaigns are like that I want to get back to reality.
JIM LEHRER: But the point that all three of these folks are making, and that all these editorials are making is that, yes, campaigns need money; yes, people are invited to the White House who are favorable to the President, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But this particular President, this particular campaign went too far. You will not--you do not agree with that.
ANN LEWIS: The example I keep hearing is but--again, people were staying at the White House because they were contributors. They were not. People stayed at the White House because they were personal guests. Mike Barnicle and Lee Cullum said they should be distinguished citizens. Look at that list. We have some very distinguished citizens. Look at the numbers of governors. Look at Kathleen Battle. Look at the sort of world class Americans we can all be proud of. And then look at the ordinary people, the people from Arkansas, the people that the Clintons had known in high school and college. They kept bringing in their friends, and let me leave that with one more point. We have a President here who says I'm going to keep reaching out and talking to people and listening to them because I don't ever want to be isolated. And this is the first chance I have sitting over coffee in the family quarters sometimes in the morning, having breakfast. This is sometimes the only chance I have in the course of a day to talk to real people about what's happening in the real world. I'm going to get isolated from that.
JIM LEHRER: Robert Kittle, are discussions like this only happening inside the beltway? You mentioned that before. Is this kind of thing being discussed in San Diego?
ROBERT KITTLE: I think it's being discussed, but unfortunately, I think an awful lot of Americans are rather blase about this, and they are blase about it because it's--that sort of reflects that cynical view that politics and all politicians are corrupt and that money buys everything and that money makes the difference. And, you know, that's the unfortunate thing about this. And, of course, it's not the President's personal friends that anyone is concerned about. It's not Chelsea's friends who were invited to the White House to spend the night. It's those people who, as the New York Times reported this week, contributed $9.1 million to the Democratic Party's coffers, who in the case of a number of people quoted by the New York Times, fund-raisers approached them and let them know that if they were $50,000 contributors or $100,000 contributors, there would be an invitation to have coffee with the President, or to spend the night in the White House. And it's that. It's that pervasive, pernicious influence of money in the political process that people certainly ought to care about.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
ANN LEWIS: Can I just point out, Jim, that even in that article, that particular charge that people were told they could spend the night in the White House was not made. There is a kind of exaggeration around this that's been going on. I hope we can get back to the facts, so people could see for themselves because they're going to be much more comfortable when they do.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you all very much.