Was Clinton wrong to offer donors coffee and overnight stays at the White House?

President set to publish internal papers amid public furore over funds

Money, it has been famously remarked, is the mother's milk of American politics. However, as the deepening furore over Presidential coffee sessions and White House overnights for major Democratic donors show, one of Mr Clinton's preferred means of raising it may be less nourishment than poison for the system.

The publication this week by the White House of hundreds of internal documents was inten-ded as a pre-emptive strike to head off even more damaging leaking by Congressional Re- publicans preparing for full scale hearings on allegedly abusive political fundraising by the Democratic National Committee. However, the net effect has been to intensify the controversy, and to strengthen the likelihood that Janet Reno, the At- torney General, will be forced to appoint an independent counsel to investigate the entire practice.

Whether Mr Clinton has done anything wrong is doubtful. Whether he did anything which Republican Presidents Bush or Reagan did not do is equally doubtful. Beyond argument, though, no White House incumbent has ever thrown himself with such zeal into the fundraising business as Bill Clinton.

In a handwritten memo from January 1995, he endorsed rewards like coffee sessions, golf games, lunches and dinners for major contributors, before add-ing: "Ready to start overnights right away ... Give me the top 10 list [of donors] back, along w/ the 100,50,000" - in other words, the list of those giving $100,000 and $50,000 to the Democratic party.

In one sense, the very timing of the memo explains everything. Two months before, the Democrats had lost control of Congress and Mr Clinton's pro- spects of a second term seemed abysmal. Desperate, he turned to his former political strategist, Dick Morris, who urged an immediate start on "generic" advertising to prepare for the 1996 election. This campaign, more expensive and starting sooner in the electoral cycle than for any sitting president in history, cost $1m (pounds 600,000) a week, later rising to $2m, according to Mr Morris. Mr Clinton is said to have personally vetted every spot. The total cost of the TV ads in 1995 and 1996 was $85m, far beyond the normal resources of the DNC.

As President, Mr Clinton has the right to invite whom- ever he likes to sleep in the White House private quarters, and the actual list contains few real surprises. Of the 938 invited, 370 were "Arkansas friends", a further 266 were "long-time friends and supporters", and 128 were officials and dignitaries, including John Major.

Among Hollywood luminaries on the list are Stephen Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Candice Bergen and Richard Dreyfuss. Fonda's husband, CNN tycoon Ted Turner, is there, as is John Kluge, the fourth richest man in America, and the California diet guru Dean Ornish, who has advised the Clintons on diet and lifestyle.

Nor is there anything wrong, per se, in lavishing favours on major donors. The New York Times calculated yesterday that the 938 between them had contributed $10.2m.

The crucial question, upon which the appointment of a special counsel will hinge, is whether invitations were issued or "sold" in return for a previously agreed donation - which would be illegal - or merely extended as a means of saying thanks, and keeping in touch with old friends. Mr Clinton insists on the latter. "The Lincoln Bedroom was never sold," he said defiantly this week.

But after months of revelations, ranging from Vice President Al Gore's participation in an April 1996 fundraiser at a Buddhist Temple, to guests with criminal connections at White House coffee sessions, and $1.5m of dubious contributions from Asian sources which the Democratic party has been forced to return, public credulity may be close to snapping.

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