In September of 1995, I attended the Northern California kickoff of the Clinton/Gore campaign. Ten months earlier I had witnessed the panic Gingrich’s victory had provoked in the White House. In subsequent months President Clinton had exhorted amoral operatives, like chief strategist Dick Morris, to do whatever it took to regain political control. After all, since the victorious Gingrich hadn’t played it straight, didn’t the nation’s commander in chief have the right to rise above the rules? I was now curious to see how this logic was playing out.
The luncheon fundraiser took place in the bowels of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, which sits atop Nob Hill. Most of the $1,000-a-seat ticket holders (mine was a gift from someone who’d purchased a table) who crowded into the downstairs ballroom appeared to be genuine Clinton supporters. A senior administration official once told me that nothing under $250,000 really registers on the White House policy radar. Still, in order to qualify for federal matching funds, the Clinton/Gore campaign needed to raise $29 million in contributions of $1,000 or less. Thus, these relatively low-dollar donors were encouraged (by extensive security checks and expensive souvenirs) to feel as if they were entering a subterranean sanctum open only to people of substance.
Musical grace notes were provided by San Francisco’s beloved Glide Memorial United Methodist Church choir, a diverse group crossing both race and class lines. In his preliminary remarks President Clinton alluded to them as the essence of Democratic Party values. During the luncheon, the president’s optimism contrasted sharply with the gloomy mood I’d seen pervade the White House 10 months earlier. To the cheers of some 700 supporters, Clinton attacked the forces of social decay, notably Calvin Klein. “Maybe I’m just getting old-fashioned, but I just came out of my shoes when I saw those teenagers depicted the way they were in those Calvin Klein ads. I thought it was wrong.” (At a subsequent fundraiser in Hollywood, Clinton would initially find himself seated next to, and chatting happily with, Calvin Klein. That event was completely closed to the press and no word or pictures of the two men together ever leaked out.)
On this particular day, a bit of seating luck came my way. As the opening festivities subsided, the man in charge of the event — in fact, the man in charge of all fundraising for the Clinton/Gore campaign — Terry McAuliffe, sat down near me. Several questions had already occurred to me after reading the program. Top billing as “National Finance Board of Directors” was given to Walter Shorenstein (#11), San Francisco’s most visible real estate magnate; Dick Blum, Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s husband; Susie Tompkins (#90), co-founder of Esprit clothing; and Chong Lo, a name then unknown to me. Each had been given a moment in the limelight before Gore and Clinton spoke. Although not on the list, a fifth “director” — Ernest Gallo — was also heralded from the podium. No doubt Gallo’s bundled largesse had reached the requisite level after the program’s printing deadline.
I was tempted to ask McAuliffe about Gallo, since his family had stood out as Bob Dole’s most generous financial backer over the years. In fact, Dole sponsored the legislation (nicknamed the “Gallo Amendment”) that will save the Gallo family an estimated $104 million in inheritance taxes. Of course, the Gallos gave heavily to both sides whenever they had a pressing political need; in 1995, Clinton had helped the Gallo company, which is the nation’s top-selling wine maker, retain $2.5 million in federal market promotion money.
Before I could ask McAuliffe how Gallo’s values fit with those of the Democratic Party, Walter Shorenstein took his turn at the podium, and McAuliffe — to my surprise — proceeded to mock him. McAuliffe said, in so many witty words, that “Old Walter” was so hungry to be seen as the most connected of the connected that he was easily manipulated and something of a fool. I knew that early in his fundraising career, McAuliffe had worked with Shorenstein, so the edge in McAuliffe’s satiric asides unsettled me.
I asked him whether Dick Gephardt, the House minority leader, was upset that Clinton/Gore was raising so much money so early in the campaign. I knew that the bitter succession rivalry between Gore and Gephardt was so familiar in the White House that aides frequently referred to it as “G2.” No, McAuliffe bragged, he’d just spoken to Gephardt that week. The president’s fundraising was succeeding so far ahead of schedule that there would be more than enough money to satisfy everyone else. There was something roguish about McAuliffe’s delivery. He was clearly an intelligent man and charming as well, but what purpose did his cleverness serve?
Sixteen months later, McAuliffe co-chaired the inaugural festivities at Clinton and Gore’s request, but declined their repeated pleas to head the Democratic National Committee. During Clinton’s inaugural week, I read a disturbing puff piece about McAuliffe in the Washington Post. The newspaper that broke Watergate celebrated McAuliffe’s power over the press, noting that with one phone call to Mort Zuckerman, the owner of the New York Daily News, McAuliffe had managed to get reporter Dave Eisenstadt fired. In a downplayed 420-word story, Eisenstadt had raised suspicions about McAuliffe’s connections to Asia-linked political operatives.
Contemplating McAuliffe, I searched for and found an astute source that helped clarify my feelings:
“Did you never observe the narrow intelligence flashing from the keen eye of a clever rogue — how eager he is, how clearly his paltry soul sees the way to his end; he is the reverse of the blind, but his keen eyesight is forced into the service of evil, and he is mischievous in proportion to his cleverness?”
This quote occurs in the midst of perhaps the most famous allegory in Western philosophy — that of the cave in Plato’s The Republic. As you may recall, Plato writes that human beings sit shackled in a cave with their backs to the cave’s mouth. A fire behind them projects shadows from puppets onto the wall in front of them. The people mistake these shadows for reality. Plato believes that anyone able to leave the cave and go into the sunlight would gain the wisdom of seeing things as they actually are. But he also suggests that those lacking moral discipline will use this knowledge in unethical ways.
Despite his disclaimers, Terry McAuliffe (see “Big Game Hunter“) knows a lot more about Clinton/Gore fundraising than any of the $1,000 donors could discern from the shadows projected onto the Fairmont’s walls. Before the Northern California kickoff lunch, for example, the campaign held a private reception at which table captains and large contributors chatted with the president and had their photos taken. Prior to this reception, higher-level donors met with the president in his hotel suite.
Almost all of the funds collected as a result of such transactions throughout the U.S. — and abroad — went toward television commercials. We had no real campaign in a traditional sense because the president spent most of his cash projecting a controlled image to the American public via television. Many midlevel donors engaged in a similarly cosmetic transaction: They could boast to their friends that they had talked with Bill about policy, and that as photos (which now hang framed on their office walls) were snapped, the President of the United States of America had asked about their youngest child by name. (Of course, this president had briefing cards on major donors handed to him right before his meetings.)
The exchange of souvenir photos for cash to buy presidential TV ads is repulsive enough on an aesthetic level. But if we can bear to inspect more closely, we’ll see that this kind of merchandising is also eroding the very foundations of our democracy.
For example, Chong Lo, one of the “National Finance Board of Directors” at the Clinton/Gore fundraiser I attended, had changed her name from Esther Chu after being convicted of felony income-tax evasion. A few weeks before this fundraiser she’d sat with Clinton and Gore and Terry McAuliffe at one of the infamous coffees McAuliffe arranged in the White House Map Room. Within a year she’d be arrested again on 13 charges of bank and mortgage fraud.
At least this little fish was caught. Liu Tai-Ying is chairman of KMT, the $3 billion conglomerate owned by Taiwan’s Kuomintang Party. On the day of the September fundraiser, he flew into San Francisco and rejoined former White House aide Mark Middleton, who took him to meet Clinton at the luncheon. Liu claims his sole purpose was to thank Clinton for allowing the president of Taiwan permission to visit his alma mater, Cornell. But a third party has claimed that at a July meeting held in Taiwan between Liu Tai-Ying and Mark Middleton, Liu offered to donate $15 million to the Democratic Party. An organizer of the September event told me Middleton’s last-minute demand for two reception tickets had come through unorthodox channels.
After Taiwan’s president visited the U.S., the Chinese retaliated with war games in the strait between the two countries. Clinton countered by dispatching two aircraft carrier battle groups. Clinton’s chief liaison to Taiwan at that time, Arkansas lawyer James Wood, told Taiwanese business leaders that these ships cost the U.S. government a lot of money and that some reasonable reciprocity would be appreciated. In 1994, the Taiwanese put McAuliffe’s former law and lobbying firm on retainer. Hillary Clinton had asked McAuliffe to sever ties with the firm and he says he did — two months after the Taiwanese arrangement. McAuliffe repeatedly told Mother Jones he ceased to have a financial connection to the firm. But he did admit that the firm leased him an office during the campaign and continued to cut him checks under the undisclosed terms of the buyout of his partnership.
With the possible exception of Bill Clinton, we are all ignorant about the nature and extent of corruption that pervaded the 1996 presidential campaign. As of this writing, more than enough evidence has surfaced for Attorney General Janet Reno to bring in an independent counsel.
Turning toward the light, Plato said, is initially confusing, painful, even blinding. But if not now, when? We’re in a time of relative peace and prosperity at the same moment our democracy is being stolen and fenced to the highest bidder.
Progressives and conservatives can use differing logic but still come to a common understanding of our current political crisis. Progressives are, of course, not surprised that an unregulated market for buying politicians would spin out of control. An Indonesian potentate’s co-optation of the presidency isn’t significantly different from, say, Dwayne Andreas‘ lifelong, unpunished manipulations on behalf of his food conglomerate, Archer Daniels Midland. But for conservatives, there has always been a clear distinction. Many believe the wealthy should dominate American politics because they have a greater stake in the system’s stability. However, conservatives are beginning to realize that in the new global marketplace the rich no longer necessarily have an enduring stake in domestic welfare.
George Washington, in his farewell address, warned: “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake; since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government…. The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connexion as possible.” Washington’s caution must be extended today to include domestic agents — political or corporate — who operate on behalf of foreign interests over American ones.
Our first president and Plato remain good guides for both progressives and conservatives. In a wise society, the law serves as a code of moral discipline for citizens with differing views. That’s why we must unite in our call for unimpeded, untainted investigations with the full force of law even if — at the end of the day — Bill Clinton and Al Gore share a disgraced exile with Newt Gingrich.