MARCH 7, 1997
Following a Clinton news conference our regular pundits, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot, discuss the President's spin on the recent scandals surrounding the financing of his 1996 campaign.
JIM LEHRER: Now, some Shields & Gigot analysis of how the President did and other happenings of this week. Mark Shields is a syndicated columnist. Paul Gigot is a Wall Street Journal columnist. And, Paul, how did the President do?
RECENT NEWSHOUR LINKS:
March 6, 1997:
Elizabeth Farnsworth explores the legal issues surrounding the campaign fundraising money trail with two attorneys.
March 4, 1997:
Presidential historians, journalist/author Haynes Johnson and William Kristol, editor and publisher of The Weekly Standard discuss money and politics.
March 3, 1997:
Vice President Gore said he did nothing illegal or wrong when he solicited funds for the 1996 presidential campaigns.
February 27, 1997:
Jim Lehrer leads a discussion with Clinton spokeswoman Ann Lewis about "renting" the White House to the "highest bidders."
February 25, 1997:
Elizabeth Farnsworth discusses the growing DNC fund raising scandal with White House Special Counsel Lanny Davis.
PREVIOUS NEWSHOUR LINKS:
November 28, 1996:
Margaret Warner discusses campaign finance reform with three members of Congress.
November 28, 1996:
The NewsHour's Kwame Holman reports on this year's efforts to reform campaign financing and how "soft money" may have been the biggest story of this election.
November 18, 1996:
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO) discusses campaign finance reform and his party's role in the 105th Congress.
October 25, 1996:
Mark Shields and Paul Gigot discuss the role of money in this election year.
October 24, 1996:
Ross Perot blasts what he sees as President Clinton's corruption.
October 21, 1996:
Margaret Warner examines campaign money and its sources.
October 21, 1996:
A panel debates campaign finance reform and allegations of illegal foreign contributions and egregious misuse of lots of "soft money".
October 18, 1996:
Margaret Warner reports on the recent emergence of campaign finance issues on the campaign trail.
Oct. 18, 1996:
Ellen Miller, director of the Center for Responsive Politics, participates in an Online Forum on campaign finance reform.
Oct. 11, 1996:
Shields & Gigot debate the latest accusations of campaign finance abuses.
Oct. 6, 1996:
Bob Dole and Bill Clinton discuss campaign finance reform during the first presidential debate.
Sept. 29, 1996:
The leaders of Congress discuss reforming the system during the Debate Night: The Future Congress.
Aug. 16, 1996:
Margaret Warner looks at the corporate lobbying and sponsorship at the national conventions.
June 28, 1996:
Shields and Gigot look at the failed attempt to pass the McCain-Feingold reform.
June 28, 1996:
Ellen Miller participates in an Online Forum on the campaign finance reform efforts.
June 24, 1996:
Senator Feingold defends the McCain- Feingold campaign finance reform bill against an opponent
April 15, 1996:
NewsHour coverage of "soft" money contributions.
April 10, 1996:
NewsHour coverage of complaints against organized labor for millions of dollars in campaign spending.
June 24, 1996:
Senators John McCain of Arizona and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin tried, but failed, to pass campaign reform legislation.
Browse the Online NewsHour's Congressional coverage.
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: Well, I think by his lights he probably did pretty well. I donít think the press corps really laid a glove on him, with all due respect to my colleagues in the press, I thought the best question was Rita Braverís of CBS News who asked about Johnny Chung and his multiple visits to the White House. She was trying to actually elicit information from the President, how could this have happened and so on, and the President managed to change it into a--very skillfully into an answer about how we had dropped our guard in this access. Well, I mean, was it the 12th time that he mentioned it, that he didnít know what was going on, and so I think the President was at his elegantly evasive best, and bested the press corps here.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. What do you think, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Jim, Bill Clinton had an awful week, starting with the Vice President, whoíd been the beacon of virtue in the administration, getting battered around by one of the co-reporters that broke the Watergate case, Bob Woodward, followed up by the story apologists mentioned by the First Ladyís chief of staff taking a $50,000 check in the White House for DNC, and most people would have been hiding.
I was just absolutely amazed at Bill Clinton today. Anybody who wants to question why Bill Clinton is president and Iím not and youíre not ought to look at him. I mean, you talk about resiliency or the energizer bunny, I mean, he just keeps coming. He did it. He was upbeat. He put as good a spin on it as you could. He wasnít defensive. There was no chip on his shoulder. I agree with Paul that nobody laid a glove on him but it wasnít for want of trying. He was in command of himself and of the situation. You know, I just--remarkable. I think most politicians after the week that Bill Clinton had, if they had experienced that, would have been in hiding probably with a bottle of Southern Comfort.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think about that?
PAUL GIGOT: The guy is astonishing. I mean, I think used to think that Ronald Reagan, the gipper, was gifted in his ability to keep his focus and to communicate. Bill Clinton trumps Ronald Reagan. Nobody does it better in that sense of communication and focusing and ability to shift away--subtly away from what the real issue is into the point that he wants to make. But with all due respect to Mark, the press corps didnít ask him, for example, about Web Hubble.
I mean, there was a story in the New York Times this week which was that the--several associates and friends of the President had paid Web Hubble more as a convicted felon than he had learned as a lawyer practicing in Arkansas when he was in a position to be able to testify against or on the part of the Starr investigation. Thatís very serious stuff because it raises questions about the potential hush money. Nobody asked him about that. I wonder how he would have responded to that.
JIM LEHRER: Well, we donít know that, but Mark, just in terms of what the President did talk about and, as you said, all of the problems that were raised, how effective do you think he was in making his side of the story, in telling his side of the story, his side of the argument?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, Jim, his side of the argument is a tough sell. Thereís no question--first of all, he had--the President has a big advantage going in; he is enormously popular in the country. He goes out in the country this week, and he has a wonderful visit to Arkansas, and then he goes to Michigan, where the relentlessly conservative Governor John Engler is joining him at the hip. He wonít let him out of his sight. I mean, Clinton is so popular people are craving to get in the picture with him. So I mean, in that sense there is a disconnect here.
I mean, Bill Clinton remains the most popular figure in the country by a major, major margin. Thereís nobody on the other side who can hold a candle to him, and yet at the same time heís been battered all week long on these stories. I think that the President is about to--appears to be going to make the case on campaign finance to try and--try and change the system and to make himself as one of the--sort of the third sponsor of McCain-Feingold and the charge that the other side is on the defenders of the status quo; that they donít want to change anything. Thatís what--thatís the emerging--with no insight particularly for the information, but that appears to be the emerging strategy. I donít know if it will go, but heís got to do something with that popularity, and in a stronger position to do it as heís ever been in this presidency.
JIM LEHRER: Well, letís go through some of the specifics. First of all, how would you respond to the Web Hubble, the point that Paul made? It didnít come up at the news conference, but this is the most serious shoe to fall so far? It hasnít fallen all the way yet, but itís beginning to fall. Do you agree?
MARK SHIELDS: I think--no--I think it is serious. I mean, the President made his statement today. I think, first of all, we are in a position or a time of political freefall right now. We donít know where the next shoe--if itís going to be a shoe--if itís going to be a shoehorn--we donít know if itís going to be a box of shoes. I mean, this week has just been unprecedented in events and information, so itís tough to sort of stop in the middle and say whatís going to happen with this one.
I donít know if this is going to be a big one or not. I mean, I always thought one of the biggest ones in Watergate that never even got reported was that the Presidentís own lawyer was holding up United Airlines and American Airlines for routes for $100,000 contributions. It kind of got washed over because other things intruded. But, no, this is big, and youíre tied to a policy, and now weíre into China again, and whether, in fact, there was an administration policy was changed. I donít know if those payments, those payments made after the convention, Paul, as you said, I thought they were made after he had left the job and before the conviction.
JIM LEHRER: But we know, we do know about the Vice Presidentís calls, Paul. What do you think about that?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I thought that the offense was probably a misdemeanor, but his defense was a political felony. I mean, the advice he got to go out in that press conference and use a phrase "no controlling legal authority," which is going to go down in scandal history, along with "modified limited hangout," and "thatís inoperative," was bad advice. It made the Vice President look bad. It made him look evasive. It made him look legalistic. And it made him look like he was frankly picking some tips up from his running made, the President of the United States. And thatís not a reputation that Al Gore had. I think the press conference hurt him a lot more, frankly, than did the question of whether or not you raised--he actually made those phone calls with a DNC credit card or with--
JIM LEHRER: Whatever.
PAUL GIGOT: --a Clinton-Gore credit card.
JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about the Gore situation, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think Vice President Gore has a legitimate beef in the fact, Jim, that I donít know where a President who lives in public housing or a vice president who lives in public housing and works in a federal building is supposed to make phone calls. Maybe itís a pocketful of quarters, goes over to the Mayflower Hotel and uses the pay phone. I donít think that was the offense, and doing politics in the White House is not the offense. I mean, when--remember when the esteemed Jim Baker, our good friend, and former Secretary of State left his job as secretary of state to run George Bushís 1992 campaign, where did he go? He didnít go to campaign headquarters. He went to the White House.
So I mean, you know, this politics in the White House is a little bit--thereís a little bit of posing, posturing, and hypocrisy in this. As far as I think itís true that the--he did not serve himself well with the press conference. He put himself on the front page of every paper in the country in response to a story that had been in the Washington Post. And itís certainly the solicitor in chief charge is a tough one because he had been, as I said earlier, the beacon of rectitude in this administration. It certainly makes it tough to explain that case of the Buddhist temple in California--he didnít know what was going on--if he appeared--if he is as zealous and committed a fund-raiser as Bob Woodward reported.
JIM LEHRER: All right. The Maggie Williams case, Paul.
PAUL GIGOT: I think itís mostly technical, frankly, whether where she accepted the $50,000 check, I donít think matters a great deal.
JIM LEHRER: Why did the story get such big play? Why are we talking about it?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think frankly, that and the Gore situation got a lot of play because as evidence of crimes, however minor, they might figure the independent counsel statute and then put more pressure on Janet Reno to name a special counsel, and once that happens, then you have a whole big--that is a very big political story, and I think thatís why a lot of the reporters in town paid attention to it.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Yeah, I do, Jim. I think this is undoubtedly a stampede. There are some people who really believe devoutly, sincerely, honestly, intelligently that there should be a special counsel, independent counsel, appointed, but there are a lot of politicians in shoe leather in Washington on both sides of the aisle, mostly on the Republican side on Capitol Hill, who want an independent counsel for a very simple reason. They donít want to change the way we finance elections at all, and they know darn well, Jim, once you appoint an independent counsel, youíre talking six or seven years, and that saves you from changing the laws in 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, and thatís what was behind Trent Lott yesterday.
JIM LEHRER: Well, so what, where are we now, in the Senate investigation?
PAUL GIGOT: I actually think that what happened in the Senate was a pretty good political compromise. Everybody got a little bit of what they wanted. Fred Thompson still got the--his hearings. There are going to be hearings. The Democrats got a date certain for an end which they wanted. They got the scope widened to include Congress, which they wanted. And they got less money, which they wanted. And the fact is theyíre not going to filibuster now, which would have been embarrassing. So the Republicans, on the other hand, got the scope limited with a couple of other things thrown out that they didnít want covered.
JIM LEHRER: Like reform?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, wait a minute. Thatís a separate issue.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. All right.
PAUL GIGOT: I mean, thatís going to be handled, and it can be handled by other committees. Thereís going to be a debate over--
JIM LEHRER: I think I heard Shields laughing just now.
PAUL GIGOT: If Mark Shields has anything to say about it, thereís going to be a debate about campaign finance reform. Thatís not a problem, but itís going to be investigating whatís not going to happen now, although it could. And a lot is going to depend on Fred Thompsonís skill in handling this. But what may not happen is having people taking the Fifth Amendment--taking, excuse me--yeah, the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination on the same stage with people who happen to write checks honestly.
JIM LEHRER: I see. Mark.
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, first of all, we have a hearing agreed to weíve never had before in the history of the country, and that is weíre only going to investigate illegalities. Illegalities and crimes are investigated and administered and prosecuted by the criminal justice system, not by the Congress. So I mean, that idea--I donít know where that came from, where it leads, except it obviously wants to keep all the attention on the 1996 Clinton campaign. Jim, great slogans in American politics--save Lake Erie, save the children, save the whales--what the Republicans said yesterday was weíre going to save soft money. Thatís what this is about. Weíre going to keep all soft money out of this.
There is nobody--there is no constituency in this country anywhere--people talk about inside the beltway and outside the beltway--there is nobody outside the beltway who thinks, gee, we ought to really preserve this $200,000, $500,000 contribution to rich corporations, to rich individuals, to labor unions, Political Action Committees, so they can give unlimited--so they can buy unlimited access to political leadership in both parties but the only place it is Jim has defended is in the Congress of the United States and in the places where they give it. And I think that to me was the real shame of yesterday, and itís the real outrage of these hearings.
JIM LEHRER: And you guys have been having this argument for weeks.
PAUL GIGOT: We sure have, and I think weíll probably continue.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah, but not right now. Thank you both very much.