September 12, 1997
Traditionally, the ambassadorship to Mexico is not considered a high profile position. But thanks to Senator Jesse Helms and Bill Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts, the nomination has proven to be one of the political dramas of the summer. NewsHour political commentators Mark Shields and Paul Gigot talk with Jim Lehrer about this and other DC dramas.
JIM LEHRER: For analysis of this and other Washington matters of the week, Shields & Gigot, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. Paul, it was great political theater. Was that the last act we just saw?
A RealAudio version of this report is available.
September 11, 1997:
Sandy Berger, Clinton's National Security Advisor, testifies before the committee.
September 10, 1997:
The President asks Congress to grant him so-called "Fast Track" authority to negotiate new trade deals with other countries.
September 9, 1997:
Former Democratic National Committees Chairman Don Fowler talks about meetings between big donors and administration officials.
September 4, 1997:
Two senators and a reporter discuss the Justice Department investigation into Gore's action.
September 4, 1997:
Tom Bearden reports on the first day's hearing back from the August break.
August 8, 1997:
Gigot and Tom Oliphant discuss Weld's nomination for the ambassadorship to Mexico.
June 6, 1997:
Shields and Gigot discuss Weld's possible nomination for the ambassadorship to Mexico.
March 3, 1997:
Margaret Warner discusses Al Gore's press conference with two senators.
February 27, 1997:
Jim Lehrer leads a discussion on the accusations against the White House campaign financing team .
February 25, 1997:
Elizabeth Farnsworth discusses the growing DNC fund raising scandal with White House Special Counsel Lanny Davis and chair of the House investigation Dan Burton (R-IN).
Browse the Online NewsHour's campaign finance and Congressional coverage.
"He should probably stop taking Spanish lessons..."
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: I think that was the curtain coming down on the nomination of Gov. Weld. He should probably stop taking Spanish lessons and try--
JIM LEHRER: Something else.
PAUL GIGOT: --you know, Hindi or something else.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Mark? You donít think the Biden approach, which the President just endorsed, as well, of putting the heat on Senate Majority Leader Lott is going to bear fruit?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: No. I donít think Bill Weld is going to be confirmed by the United States Senate in 1997 as Ambassador of Mexico. Jesse Helms is certainly in his display. Thank goodness for televised hearings, which we never had for generations, took the reputation of the Senate, which had been elevated in recent weeks at the point where Bill McIntyre, the Republican pollster, said had the highest favorable rating in the country since 1974, at the time of Watergate, and you know, really raised questions about how things are done in Washington. But I donít think there was any question, Jim, that the White House in the final analysis, when crunch came, UN bailout, expansion of NATO were more important to them, and they didnít want to alienate Jesse Helms, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, over that, than Bill Weldís being ambassador to Mexico.
JIM LEHRER: Well, letís talk about the issue of a committee chairman doing what he did, and as Sen. Helms said--we just heard him say it--that thereís precedent, 154 times the last 10 years. Now, whether thereís precedent, is this a legitimate function of the United States Senate for things like this to happen?
PAUL GIGOT: I actually think it is. I mean, you can argue that anybody deserves a hearing. I would tend to think that that is probably correct, but the power posited in a chairman that sometimes can be misused is necessary for the smooth running of the Senate. One of the ways in which the House, I think, has gone downhill since reforms after Watergate in 1974 is that the powers of the chairman will weaken. And you began to see everybody begin to do end runs in the organization without that kind of discipline and without that kind of experience can begin to have--to be problematic and not function. Thatís why you have chairmen who really are very, very powerful.
JIM LEHRER: But what about Markís point that in this climate people donít like Washington anyhow?
PAUL GIGOT: Sure.
Do Helms' actions confirm the worst things people think about Washington?
JIM LEHRER: And does that not confirm some of the worst things that people think about the Congress of the United States, that one man can do this? Thatís a question.
PAUL GIGOT: I donít think itís a big deal, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: You donít?
PAUL GIGOT: I donít. I mean, if this were a Supreme Court nomination, a Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, somebody the President really wanted, I think, but in this case part of what the President is doing here is mischief-making on the Republican side. He knows itís just stirring the pot. He knows this creates problems for Trent Lott, and I think, and Bill Weld has not handled himself well, or diplomatically in this whole thing. So I donít know--I think itís great theater, itís great entertainment. I donít think it amounts to much in the long run.
MARK SHIELDS: This man should have a hearing. That is the ultimate American fair play argument. Isnít everybody, irrespective of whether their family arrived here 20 minutes ago from crossing the Rio Grande, has been here for four centuries, isnít he or she entitled to a fair hearing? And I think that argument is persuasive.
"Jesse Helms, whatever you think of him, is a tiger. And what Bill Weld has with him on his support is a lot of tabby cats."
But, Jim, thereís a rule on Capitol Hill. And the rule is if you have a legislative interest, if thereís something you want to accomplish, you want on your side one tiger, rather than 100 tabby cats, you want one legislator who gets up in the morning and says, what do I do--five things between now and noon--to get this passed, as opposed to a hundred people saying, well, Iím with you, and Iíll write a letter for you, and donít you worry, and thatís the last thing they do. Jesse Helms, whatever you think of him, is a tiger. And what Bill Weld has with him on his support is a lot of tabby cats. He has a lot of people who are for him. I donít mean theyíre being hypocritical, but the nomination and confirmation of Bill Weld is not the most important thing to them.
JIM LEHRER: But what about Sen. Lugar, whoís going out on a limb against his own leadership and on an issue that doesnít have anything to do with Bill Weld? Heís just talking about the process of the United States Senate.
Dick Lugar: out on a limb alone.
MARK SHIELDS: Heís been out on that limb. I mean, Dick Lugar, Richard Lugar, whoís a very respected member of the Senate, and ran a very respectable campaign for President, unsuccessful, but respectable in 1996, where he kept his self-respect and the self-respect of his supporters, has had a long and contentious and personalized relationship with Jesse Helms. I mean, thatís nothing new. I mean, he is--
JIM LEHRER: No. But I was saying about--heís taking on the Senate when--his Majority Leader as well.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes, he is. Yes, he is. And I think that logic is on his side. I think if you carried the case to 1000 Americans, 990 would stay with him. But the problem with Bill Weldís case is: Bill Weld doesnít have anybody for him. I mean, whoís for Bill Weld? Bill Weld is a Republican whoís culturally and socially liberal and economically conservative. All right? The only thing is thereís no organizational constituent groups that are saying, boy, weíve got to get Bill Weld confirmed because in the final analys, Bill Weld... Bill Weld has going for him people who donít like Jesse Helms, which a lot of people, includes a lot of people, maybe even some people on this panel.
PAUL GIGOT: Itís an ambassador to Mexico. I mean, this is not a big-time job. So I think the stakes--I mean, thereís other Republicans--Dick Lugar tried to start a revolt against Jesse Helms. People--nobody came to his aid. And thatís because thereís no pressure on the Republican rank and file in the Senate to move. Thereís not a single person in the country, maybe outside of Massachusetts or the Weld family, that is going to vote against a Republican in 1998 because Bill Weld is not made ambassador to Mexico.
JIM LEHRER: What about the other option thatís being talked about that President Clinton might make a recess appointment of Weld, when the Congress goes out, when it recesses, and then Weld could serve for a year, and both Sen. Helms and Sen. Lott have said donít do that, but he may do it anyhow?
PAUL GIGOT: Erskine Bowles, the chief of staff at the White House, went to Jesse Helms with that offer--or I guess Trent Lott with that suggestion in August, and he turned it down flat. So I think the Presidentís calculation would have to be, do I risk irritating the Majority Leader and the chairman--I need--on the other things that Mark talked about just for the--
JIM LEHRER: So both you all think this thing is over, huh?
MARK SHIELDS: Itís over, Jim. And Iíd say one thing. Sen. Bob Kerrey, Democrat from Nebraska, in the Senate Campaign Committee, Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, very bluntly, when asked, he said, Democrats arenít going to win back the Senate in 1998. And they arenít. And the reason they arenít, Jim, is that in the 11 states of the Confederacy 22 Senators, 10 years ago in those states there were 16 Democrats and six Republicans. The chairman of the committees, the Senate included John Stennis of Mississippi, Bennett Johnson of Louisiana, Sam Nunn of Georgia, Lawton Chiles of Florida--theyíre all gone. All right. Twenty-two senators from the South are no longer-- 16 Democrats and six Republicans--there are 15 Republicans and seven Democrats. And after this year there will be more Republicans and fewer Democrats. Just as the Democrats held the Senate for a generation based upon that Southern bastion of support, the Republicans are going to hold it, and Bill Clinton knows that heís going to be dealing with a Republican Majority Leader, heís going to be dealing with a Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
JIM LEHRER: So he has reason to back off too, I see.
PAUL GIGOT: Sure does.
JIM LEHRER: All right, now, on the Senateís campaign finance hearings this week, was it another bad week for the Vice President and the Democrats, Paul?
Campaign finance: evidence that the Vice President knew about fund-raising problems?
PAUL GIGOT: I think it was, particularly for the Vice President. We had a couple more examples, evidence, documentary evidence, memos from White House and Democratic officials suggesting that the Vice President was involved from the start and knew of--or should have--these were memos informing him of the scope of the fund-raising problems. We had another memo from Harold Ickes, the former deputy chief of staff in the White House, who really ran the campaign from the White House side, suggesting to the President that--a memo to the President and the Vice President saying the first $20,000 of whatever you raise is going to be in hard money, which is the kind that could trigger the independent counsel statute.
JIM LEHRER: That goes--because it goes to candidates.
PAUL GIGOT: Candidates, thatís right. And so itís--
JIM LEHRER: As distinguished from soft money, which goes to party building activities. I always have to explain that. Go ahead.
PAUL GIGOT: In any case, itís more trouble, legal trouble, and I think that what it does is it raises more pressure on the attorney general, Janet Reno, to trigger that independent counsel statute.
JIM LEHRER: How do you read it, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I think the attorney general, having drawn the distinction herself that the Vice President was not involved because heíd only been making soft money calls now, the calls turn out to have raised hard money. And, Jim, itís tough to generate much sympathy for people to give $100,000 a year to a party. Iím the first person to stipulate that. But if theyíre asking somebody to give $100,000, all right, and they think itís a soft money contribution, that is, itís not limited by the law or anything of the sort, and $20,000 of it is sent without their prior approval in hard money contributions that means if theyíve given on their own another six or seven thousand dollars, theyíre in violation of the law.
JIM LEHRER: Itís illegal.
MARK SHIELDS: So, you know, thereís a lot of restiveness and restlessness in the ranks. I think thereís a chilling effect. I think the chances of the appointment of an independent counsel went up this week.
JIM LEHRER: Another issue that was raised this week, Paul, was by former Democratic Chairman Don Fowler, and he said--I paraphrase--but he said, hey, yes, I set up meetings between administration officials and contributors to the Democratic Party; thatís my job; thatís a legitimate function of the political process.
"Thatís the problem here. No judgment was exercised at all. It was a free-for-all. It was anybody in the door."
PAUL GIGOT: He has a point. If youíre a fund-raiser, youíre going to try to get as much access as you can, but itís also the job of the officials in government to have a sense of propriety and decorum and ethics about when you go over the line. And bringing in contributors who want the President of the United States, the commander in chief, controller of foreign policy, into the CIA, and into the national security apparatus of the United States, when the National Security Council says, stay away from this guy, thatís going over the line. Thatís--I mean, there is judgment involved in these things. Fowler has the point. Thatís the problem here. No judgment was exercised at all. It was a free-for-all. It was anybody in the door.
JIM LEHRER: If they contributed money?
PAUL GIGOT: If they contributed, yes.
JIM LEHRER: Mark.
MARK SHIELDS: This is Mr. Tamraz weíre talking about, who was warned by the--the Democrats were warned about it by the National Security Council. Widely circulated, widely heralded as a guy that you want to stay away from, radioactive politically--so what happens in February of this year--our good friends, the Senate inner circle, led by Sen. Lott, invite Mr. Tamraz to join them--because theyíre one of a select few. I mean, this is what the money and politics is about. They donít care if this guy, who he is--what heís doing--what heís charged with, or anything of the sort--if you get the money, youíve given in the past--come on in, and guaranteed access to committee chairmen, maybe not to the National Security adviser but this is--this is really--
PAUL GIGOT: Thereís a huge difference, Mark.
MARK SHIELDS: I donít know if it is. I mean, what youíre basically doing is youíre buying access; youíre guaranteeing access to a big contributor--six figures.
JIM LEHRER: And you think thatís different if itís National Security--I mean, somebody at the White House versus somebody on a committee staff of the Congress?
PAUL GIGOT: Committee staff, Congress, even an individual Senator, I mean, you--when youíre talking about somebody who can make foreign policy decisions, the Presidentís commander in chief; he can effect a pipeline policy in Central Asia, which is what Tamraz wanted. Some Senator on the Foreign Relations Committee really canít.
MARK SHIELDS: Senate inner circle membership guarantees you access and a meal of your choosing with the chairman of your choice.
PAUL GIGOT: They ought to pay you for that.
JIM LEHRER: Have a nice weekend. Iíll see you next Friday.