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The Issue Isn’t Merely a Legal One, Mr. President

Now revealed as having taken a direct hand in turning the White House into Washington’s most posh bed and breakfast, President Clinton professes to see as “entirely appropriate” his actions linking invitations to the executive mansion to campaign contributions. “I don’t think there’s a legal issue here,” he said this week, once again seeking refuge in a lawyerly evasion over an issue of ethical propriety.

On the law, which bans solicitation of political contributions on federal property, Clinton may be right. But on the question of appearances, of how it looks when the president is seen explicitly encouraging the swap of sleepover privileges for generous campaign contributions, he misses the point entirely. “Clearly it’s excessive and stinks to high heaven” is the way a senior House Democrat put it to The Times.

Yes, invitations to the White House have often in the past been used to reward or solicit political support. But it’s hard to conceive of the White House guest book in any previous administration filling so quickly with names--938--of people invited to spend a night under the president’s roof during a first term. Many of these the president’s staff describes as “Arkansas friends” and “longtime friends,” leaving unclear whether their friendship was manifested by how much money they contributed to Clinton’s campaigns. That leaves many others, as documents released by the White House show, who were expected--not least by the president--to show appropriate gratitude for their White House invitations, whether before or after the event.

Clinton seems to imply that saying there’s no legal issue here disposes of the matter. It doesn’t. The president crossed the line between what political custom accepts as permissible partisan favors done by a chief executive and activities that by going too far embarrass the institution of the presidency.

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It all gets back, of course, to the dismal and demeaning connection between raising big money and running for public office, between raking in political donations and handing out political favors. The answer isn’t just to investigate dubious fund-raising practices, though that should be done, but to sever that destructively corrupting connection.


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