It Didn’t Start With Lincolngate

The celebrated pseudo-scandals known as Whitewater, Travelgate and Filegate are passing into history, along with the Office of the Independent Counsel, leaving the national press corps with the unhappy prospect of contemplating its own embarrassment. For a long, long time they told us that these matters were very, very important, and now every case has turned out to be inconsequential (except, of course, to those citizens unfortunate enough to be mangled by partisan prosecutions and yellow journalism). But rather than dwell morosely on these disappointments, the press has turned to a reliable tradition of the entertainment industry.

They’re giving us scandal reruns.

In recent days, the old Lincoln-Bedroom-for-sale story has risen once more from the dead files of the 1997 campaign finance investigation. It is identical in every way to the tale told three years ago, except that now the alleged beneficiaries of the sordid scam are Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton and Democratic Presidential nominee Al Gore.

Readers are supposed to be shocked again-profoundly and terribly shocked-that the President and the First Lady have invited various people to dine or stay over at the White House during the past year or so, including about a hundred who have given to her campaign or to the Democratic Party.

A well-known Washington columnist for a major newspaper sternly complains that the “First Couple have not repented their 1996 fund-raising outrages, when they sold Air Force One, the Lincoln Bedroom and lots and lots of coffee … Lately they have packed state dinners with politicians, donors and journalists they hope will boost Mrs. Clinton’s Senate campaign.”

Please pardon a slight yawn at these stunning revelations. Unless and until someone can prove-rather than merely insinuate-that these slumber parties were contingent on donations or were somehow used to shake down the guests, these exposés will remain just as unimpressive as they were the first time around.

As every well-known Washington columnist knows very well, Presidents have long used invitations to the White House to cement their relationships with journalists, elected officials and major donors. Anyone who examines the guest lists of state dinners dating back long before the Clintons took up residence there will find names of politicians, reporters, business leaders and others whose favor was desired by the occupants of “the People’s House.” The highest take ever recorded was $1.8 million, handed over in cash by a generous guest of the late Richard Nixon.

Where else was poor old Nixon supposed to entertain his generous pals? Even the saintly Jimmy Carter used to host his biggest contributors at dinner in the East Wing. As Ronald Reagan once put it in his genial way, the President and his family “live over the store.” That was back in 1987, when Mr. Reagan was pitching a group known as the Republican Eagles to ante up another $10,000 or so for the sake of the Grand Old Party.

If there was ever a truly tasteless incident in the annals of White House hospitality, it may have been the spring night when a certain radio personality plopped down onto the ancient rosewood bed bought by Mrs. Lincoln. Rush Limbaugh had been pouring vitriol on President Bush, who responded by inviting the mighty yakker for an overnighter on June 3, 1992. “You’ll never guess where I am,” he crowed in telephone calls to his relatives from the hallowed boudoir. According to James Fallows, “From that day forward Limbaugh never said a word on his show that could be construed as hurting Bush’s re-election effort.” Which is another way of saying that Mr. Limbaugh, previously an adversary of the President, suddenly became a Bush buddy.

Speaking of the Bush clan, those who are outraged by the Clintons’ guest policy shouldn’t anticipate any major change if George W. Bush is the next resident of the White House. Last March, in a study that was almost universally ignored by the national media, the scrupulously nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity calculated that guests at the Texas governor’s m ansion had accounted for at least $2.2 million in donations to Dubya’s Presidential campaign.

Among the guests were scores of Bush best friends, some of whom also happened to be big contributors to his political treasury, along with more than a few politicians and pundits whose support he hoped to gain. Invitations to his official residence were surely the most innocuous inducements at Mr. Bush’s disposal to raise the carloads of cash that won him the Republican nomination. He and his “Pioneers” are the most successful fund-raisers in American political history by far, and there are more than a few Bush benefactors who have profited from decisions he made as governor. Many more hope to profit from decisions he may someday make as President. And if they stay over at the White House, the sleeping arrangements will be considerably less important than the favors they take home with them.

It Didn’t Start With Lincolngate