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Jewish World Review March 17, 2000 / 10 Adar II, 5760

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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It's the lying, stupid -- AMERICANS HAVE DEMONSTRATED they don't care much about campaign finance reform. John McCain hoped to ride the issue from a victory in the New Hampshire primary straight into the White House, but got thrown on Super Tuesday. Bill Bradley never even managed to mount up. And voters in California bucked a campaign finance reform initiative on the ballot there last week, rejecting it by 2-to-1. What hope is there, then, that new revelations about the Clinton-Gore 1996 campaign finance scandal will damage Al Gore's chances to become the 43rd president? Plenty.

Al Gore's problem isn't his dubious campaign fund-raising activities per se. By now, everyone knows Gore made fund-raising calls from his White House office, and attended a fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles, where unsuspecting monks and nuns gave illegal contributions to Gore aide Maria Hsia, who was found guilty a week ago of five felony counts for her involvement in the scheme. But few people understand or care much about the intricacies of campaign finance laws, so they are neither surprised nor particularly exercised about Gore's actions.

No, Gore's problem isn't so much what he did, but what he said. He lied --over and over again -- to investigators, to the media, to the American people. On the subject of the phone calls, first, Gore denied making them on White House phones, then, when telephone records confirmed that he had, he said they were legal because he asked only for so-called soft-money donations to the Democratic Party for party-building activities.

But last week, the Los Angeles Times revealed evidence that suggests not only that Gore mischaracterized what happened, but that he deliberately lied about it, and continues to do so to this day. What's more, the L.A. Times story implies that the White House withheld from investigators crucial documents that contradicted Gore's account for more than a year, and that Attorney General Janet Reno ignored the evidence when she twice decided not to appoint an independent counsel to investigate the matter, despite the strong recommendation of F.B.I. Director Louis Freeh and her own chief investigator, Charles G. La Bella.

Gore claimed to investigators that he thought he was soliciting only contributions to the Democratic Party, not to the Clinton-Gore campaign, which would have been illegal. On the basis of this testimony, Reno absolved Gore in December 1997, saying: "Evidence found by the investigators shows that the vice president solicited only soft money in these calls, not hard money."

A year later, however, investigators uncovered notes written by Gore's deputy chief of staff, David M. Strauss, that contradicted Gore's testimony.

The Strauss notes document Gore's participation in strategy discussions on how to split the money he raised on those infamous phone calls between soft-money and hard-money accounts. Gore claimed to investigators that he wasn't really paying attention during these strategy meetings because he drank a lot of iced tea, which necessitated frequent trips to the bathroom. Call it the weak-bladder defense.

But the Strauss notes tell a different story, as did former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta when investigators questioned him. According to both Strauss and Panetta, Gore was present and attentive when the discussion turned to splitting the money he raised between hard- and soft-money accounts. What's more, photographs taken by the ubiquitous official White House photographer show Gore poring over documents describing the proposed split.

So, what does Al Gore say to these new revelations? It's all old news. Well if he means his own mendacity is old news, I suppose he's right. After all, this is the same man who claims to have invented the Internet, and to have been the model for the movie "Love Story." Gore also says he has always supported "a woman's right to choose," even though he voted pro-life 84 percent of the time when he was a Congressman; and says he supported the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation when he was in the Senate, despite the fact Sen. Feingold wasn't even elected until after Gore became vice president.

Gore now says his past loose fund-raising ethics were a mistake, and he wants to make campaign finance reform the top issue in his bid to win the White House. But it's not campaign finance reform that worries most people about Al Gore. It's the lying, stupid.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate