'Donorgate' Isn't Must-See TV - Yet

First week of Senate hearings produce few revelations and lot of political maneuvering

On May 18, 1973, the day after the opening round of the Watergate hearings, the Washington Post's headline read: "Watergate: Not Exactly High Drama."

The same can be said for the first days of this summer's Senate hearings into Democratic fund-raising practices. If the Democrats have their way, the headlines will stay that way - and not skyrocket into a must-see television event like Watergate.

Much has changed since Watergate in the way possible White House misdeeds are handled in the quasi-courtroom of public Senate hearings, making it much more difficult today for legislators to make a compelling case to the public. Partisanship is fierce. Spin doctors clog congressional corridors, ready with a rapid-response on every new and not-so-new allegation. Public cynicism has flourished.

In essence, since Watergate, the American political system has traveled along a steep learning curve of scandal, through Iran-contra and Whitewater, to this year's version. "Whether the curve goes up or down is a matter of opinion," says Suzanne Garment, author of a book on Washington scandals.

From the perspective of President Clinton's rapid-response team, which has set up shop just outside the Senate hearing room, the curve can only look positive. So far, the hearings have produced little new information - in large part because the White House and the Democratic Party have released much of the damaging information in advance.

The Democrats, for example, acknowledged months ago that they had stopped checking out the origin (and therefore legality) of donations made to the party during last year's campaign. So when that point came up again in the hearings, it wasn't news.

The Republicans have also made important allegations that they've made in the past, such as committee chairman Sen. Fred Thompson's opening charge that China was trying to influence US politics through campaign contributions. A revelation of the evidence supporting that allegation would be newsworthy, but the Republican from Tennessee may not reveal it, because it contains classified information. The allegations will be explored in closed hearings.

Of course, the hearings have just begun and many key witnesses have yet to testify, some of them top Clinton advisers, such as deputy White House counsel Bruce Lindsey and former deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes. Anything, in theory, could come out as the hearings progress through the summer.

The most important potential witness is John Huang, the shadowy Democratic fund-raiser who raised much of the party's questionable money and whom Republicans charge could have been operating as a spy for the Chinese government. Mr. Huang has refused to testify, on the grounds that he cannot be compelled to provide self-incriminating evidence.

The biggest news of the hearings so far came on day one, when the top Democrat on the Senate Government Affairs Committee, Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, announced that Huang would be willing to testify in exchange for partial immunity from prosecution. But that story has quickly devolved into a legal discussion about whether partial immunity is even possible, and whether a grant of immunity would hamper the Justice Department's criminal case pending against Huang.

GOP senators oppose granting immunity, because they believe Huang has violated numerous laws - including those against money laundering and fund-raising on government property - and should not be excused from potential conviction.

Some Democrats have also questioned the wisdom of letting Huang off the hook early, but have an easy out. They can hide behind Attorney General Janet Reno, who opposes a congressional grant of immunity. She can't prevent Congress from approving it, but her opinion carries weight.

From the Republicans' perspective, keeping Huang out of the hearing-room hot seat probably serves their purposes more than having him testify. As a mystery-man refusing to speak under oath, he carries a tainted aura. Some Democrats have wanted Huang to testify, because they believe he would shoot down some of the darker theories about his fund-raising. For the Republicans to break through the high ceiling of public ennui, something big - and easy to understand - has to come out of the hearings. The Democrats know this well.

"First of all, you have to tell a story," says Donald Goldberg, the White House's behind-the-scenes director of rapid response.

The first witness, Democratic Party finance director Richard Sullivan, a young party operative who took time off from studying for the bar exam to testify, made no new or startling revelations, and left journalists scrounging for a lead.

So far, there's not much of a story.

* Staff writer Skip Thurman contributed to this story from Washington.

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