Campaign Funding Too Unseemly For Presidential Testimony

It is not surprising that ex-candidate Robert Dole has offered to appear before Sen. Fred Thompson's campaign-finance investigating committee and not surprising that President Clinton has declined to appear.

Only one president in history has testified in public before a congressional committee, and he probably wishes he hadn't. In October 1974, President Gerald Ford went up before a House Judiciary subcommittee to explain about his pardon for ex-President Richard M. Nixon.

Straightforwardly, Mr. Ford said that White House chief of staff Alexander Haig had raised with him, as vice-president, the question of a pardon for Nixon if he agreed to resign. Ford found himself, before the committee, in the position of having to deny that he made a deal to get the presidency.

On the question of campaign-fund abuses, the risks of testifying would be much greater for Mr. Clinton than for his election opponent.

Both are on record as having discussed the advantages of diverting soft money to buy television time. Dole called it "generic" money, run through the Republican National Committee. Clinton said, on a White House tape, that the TV ads bought with "soft" money were "central" to his lead in the polls.

But, because Mr. Clinton is by nature a more hard-driving, hands-on campaigner than Dole, indications are that he was more actively involved in the production of the political commercials.

Bob Woodward's book, "The Choice," says that he went over every line of the scripts.

Both candidates, in accepting taxpayer money under the federal election law, promised not to use money from any other source for their campaigns.

But, more serious than the sources and the uses of "soft" money was what hard benefits the contributors may have obtained.

Obviously, a president is in a better position than an ex-senator to dispense favors.

There have been allegations of unseemly quids pro quo, like presidential meetings with a Chinese arms dealer and a Lebanese-American pipeline promoter.

But the most serious situation yet to surface was the Interior Department's denial of permission for a group of native Americans to open a gambling casino in Wisconsin. It would have been in competition with an existing casino that contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Clinton campaign.

What is known of this case looks terrible: a call from Air Force One after the president had been approached by a casino representative in a receiving line, a warning from a presidential adviser that "we legally cannot intervene with the secretary of Interior on this issue." That followed by the fact of Secretary Bruce Babbitt's intervention.

This case may well give rise to the next appointment of an independent counsel. One can understand that Clinton would not want to testify in public about the sources, the uses, and especially the rewards of soft money.

Under the circumstances, he is not likely to be the second president in history to testify in public before a congressional committee.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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