The Veep and the Big Creep


WASHINGTON— The political theme this election season is turning out to be all porn, all the time. Just as Republicans have already started to snake-bite their opponents with the president’s sexcapades, the Democrats appear to have come up with their own lewd plan. Showing weakness in the polls, they want to fight back by depicting Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr and key Republicans as a bunch of dirty old men pulling a Pee-Wee Herman in the back of an adult theater. And everybody else, it seems—Henry Hyde, Dan Burton, etc.—is subject to having their past peccadilloes exposed.

The Democrats think that by raising the stakes they can escape any real possibility of impeachment. They still believe, as one congressman speaking on the condition of anonymity said, that Clinton’s deep emotional bond with the American public will defeat impeachment. “Clinton has really touched a lot of hearts of Americans,” the congressman said. “An awful lot of people just won’t buy this.” As for the Republicans, their hysteria over sexual content may knock them off track—don’t forget how uncomfortable these guys got while being forced to discuss the famous Coke can that was adorned with Clarence Thomas’s pubic hair.

Now that Starr’s report and most of the supporting materials have been made public, both sides have abandoned all pretense of bipartisanship and settled in for a protracted struggle. Of course, nobody can predict what will happen in such a volatile situation, but conversations with Democratic sources who have long worked inside the Beltway suggest one likely scenario. The House Judiciary Committee will hold hearings—probably after the election—and vote for impeachment along party lines. The full House will then take up the matter and also vote for impeachment—again, along party lines. The outcome of a trial in the Senate, probably next spring, is anybody’s guess.

The wild card in any scenario is Starr himself. His grand jury is still in session, and some legal observers believe he will now move to indict several lesser White House figures, possibly Clinton’s key lawyer, Bruce Lindsay, and presidential secretary Betty Currie, along with Bill’s backroom bud Vernon Jordan. There also has been considerable discussion over whether Starr could indict the president, but this would end up being fought out within the context of much larger constitutional issues.

The wider political landscape is also a critical factor in determining how impeachment proceedings will play out. Republicans have hesitated all year to push impeachment for fear that removal would give Vice President Al Gore two years to consolidate power and then easily go on to win the presidency in 2000.

But almost simultaneously with the conclusion of Starr’s investigation came Attorney General Janet Reno’s decision to launch a preliminary probe of Gore’s role in soliciting funds for the Democrats during the 1996 campaign. Now Gore may end up with his own special prosecutor, and his luster as a presidential candidate is quickly tarnishing. This has changed the dynamic on Capitol Hill—other Democrats are now starting to emerge as strong presidential contenders. Dick Gephardt, the House minority leader, whose prior campaigns for the presidency never got far off the launching pad, is now much better positioned. And there is talk that former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, Nebraska’s Bob Kerrey, and even Mario Cuomo—the last as a sort of moral voice outside the Beltway—are gaining on Gore.

Recent events also indicate the reinvention of Gingrich, giving a shot in the arm to the Speaker’s presidential prospects. All next year Newt will be center stage in the impeachment proceedings. The Republicans want to drag out those proceedings as long as possible, keeping Clinton captive and hoping to find something that will tie in Gore. Most important, the Republicans, with increased margins in both the House and Senate, and a lifeless president before them, will finally be able to push forward their social and political program as an unopposed juggernaut. That means privatizing Social Security, turning the income tax into a flat tax, nixing the Department of Education (possibly ending federal aid for schools), and dramatically stepping up defense spending.

The 90-day preliminary inquiry that Reno ordered last month will look into whether the vice president lied to investigators in 1997 when he was questioned about his telephone solicitations to campaign donors from the White House. While Gore and his lawyers maintain that the VP has done nothing wrong, there is evidence that he solicited “hard money” (campaign funds that are used to directly support candidates) from his government office—a clear violation of federal election law.

Gore has denied any knowledge of how the money he helped raise was going to be used, and therefore any knowledge that he might have been breaking the law. But a belatedly produced 1995 White House memo suggests that Gore and other campaign officials had discussed exactly what to do with that cash. Various witnesses have also said Gore could have known that the funds were being diverted to hard-money accounts.

While this inquiry sounds narrow, and too inside-baseball to capture the public imagination like the Starr Report has, it could easily widen into a lengthy and broad investigation of Gore’s activities. Such a probe could expose the shady political players that Gore has associated with, and further dampen his presidential prospects.

One of the individuals on Gore’s ’96 solicitation list was Chattanooga, Tennessee, real estate developer Franklin L. Haney, an old school chum, with whom the vice president liked to discuss telecommunications policy. Haney made an unsuccessful bid for governor of Tennessee in 1974.

At the time he was on the list to be courted for campaign funds, Haney was a key player in developing a Washington, D.C., office project known as the Portals, which is to become the new headquarters for the Federal Communications Commission. The decision to put the FCC in the Portals was controversial, since the office is located in an isolated corner of Washington and will cost 27 percent more to rent than the FCC’s previous building. Haney got involved in 1995 and quickly refinanced the deal and won favorable lease terms with the government. A few weeks later, he contributed $230,000 to the Democratic National Committee and five other state Democratic parties. Up to that point, Haney’s largest political donation had been $15,000 in 1994. Gore, while acknowledging his friendship with Haney, denied any quid pro quo, saying he had no role in the selection of developers or the FCC’s decision to move.

In 1995—the year Haney got involved in the Portals—he hired another Gore associate, former congressional aide Peter Knight. By then, Knight was a hotshot Washington lobbyist and would soon be chair of the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign. Knight consulted Haney on a variety of financing and real estate matters, including the FCC move to the Portals.

Knight, closely associated with Gore over the years, has been in the news on several occasions involving campaign-finance­related controversies. It’s been widely reported, for instance, that Knight arranged questionable private dinners for clients with a top Energy Department official who also once worked for Gore. As the Associated Press reported, “Some of those clients got several extensions of Energy Department funding or new contracts from the department after Clinton took office, and made donations to the Democratic Party around the time of key decisions.” Knight and his clients have all denied any wrongdoing.

Another person Gore solicited from his White House office was Nathan Landow, a wealthy Maryland developer. Landow has been in the news recently because of his friendship with Kathleen Willey, the White House aide who complained President Clinton groped her in a hallway. Landow is reportedly under investigation by Special Prosecutor Starr for possibly obstructing justice by advising Willey not to tell Paula Jones’s lawyers the president had fondled her. Landow denies this.

Landow’s political troubles date back 20 years, but more recently he’s been accused of muscling the Cheyenne-Arapahoe Indians, who have been pressing claims to their ancient land. Tribal leaders said that during the run-up to the ’96 election, Landow told them if they wanted any action they should hire Knight and give Landow’s company 10 percent of the royalties of all future oil, gas, and mineral projects on the land. Again, Landow denied any such wrongdoing.

Landow has also been accused of arranging a sweetheart real estate deal for Webster Hubbell, Clinton’s former top Justice Department aide who went to jail. Landow denied the report and threatened to sue.

Despite these troubles, Landow has been a longtime and important funder of Al Gore. When Gore called in December 1995, asking for a contribution, White House records show that Landow’s response was recorded in a scribbled note by Gore: “You’ll have it in hand in one hour.”

With the vice president’s problems—and investigation—lurking in the background, Clinton is now engaged in the political fight of his life. But the president may yet be able to carve a pathway out of this mess. Washington insiders have been speculating lately on the possible “Agnewing” of Gore (during the end of the Nixon regime, Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced from office for wrongdoing). The envisioned scenario has the vice president resigning under pressure for his own illegal activity—the sort of political misdeeds that make Clinton’s failings look like what they really are: mere lying about sex. Having been offered a sacrificial lamb, the nation enters a period of healing and renewal, and Clinton rebounds in the new climate of forgiveness (especially if, as some suggest, he appoints Colin Powell vice president).

Then, however, there is the Nixon scenario. In that one, the VP resigns first and then, several months later, so does the president.

Research assistance: Jennifer Del Medico, Center for Public Integrity, Center for Responsive Politics