Clinton responds to smell of money

BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

We don't know how much more Mount Rushmore can take.

Newt Gingrich and company want to put Ronald Reagan's smiling granite mug up there on the South Dakota mountainside, right up alongside Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Stan Chesley, Cincinnati's extraordinarily omnipresent class-action lawyer and political fund raiser par excellence, apparently dreams of Bill Clinton's visage someday crowding the mountainside among the immortals.

Bill Clinton, Mr. Chesley said Tuesday night at a $10,000-per-couple Democratic fund-raiser held in a fancy tent in his Amberley Village back yard, ''is the greatest president this country has ever had.'' Not one of the greatest. Not the greatest president of the decade. Not pretty good for a guy from Arkansas.

No, he said greatest. Period. Case closed.

No one huddled in the cold in Mr. Chesley's tent stopped chipping away at his or her mango ice cream long enough to protest, but, then again, few presidential historians can afford $10,000 for dinner. You might chalk this up to harmless hyperbole, like saying that aging ex-jock you hired to speak at your high school sports stag was the greatest first baseman in the history of baseball.

Then again, if the president of the United States were willing to drop what he was doing to come to your home, trailing a 30-car motorcade up your quiet suburban cul-de-sac, impressing the neighbors to no end and making your reputation as a certified big shot, you might want to make your own instant historical judgment on the man.

History, schmistory.

But most of us are never going to have the opportunity to make that call.

The president of the United States is not going to come to our houses, even if we fire up the grill and mix up a batch of that secret family recipe barbecue sauce and cook up a mess o' ribs, all you can eat.

This president responds to the smell of money, and there was a lot of it in that frigid tent Tuesday night in Mr. Chesley's back yard.

Presidents have always been at the center of fund-raising for the political parties; they are, after all, the biggest possible drawing card for the well-to-do.

But, when it comes to shuffling the president off to political fund-raising events, there was a time when the White House - any White House, not just the Clinton version - would go far out of its way to find some kind of public event for the president to attend. Speak at a local university. Visit the local Head Start program. Don a hard hat and tour the local defense plant.

Then, official duties completed, the president could slip off almost undetected to a gathering of elite party donors.

But, after the 1996 campaign, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) was left with such a massive debt that there developed an extreme sense of urgency about political fund raising, and the old conventions flew out the window.

Hence, you see situations like last Tuesday's, where Mr. Clinton came to Cincinnati for the first time in 15 months for the sole purpose of raking in dollars for the DNC. No one even pretended there was any other reason.

It is difficult for the Clinton White House and the DNC, given the beating they took over some rather questionable fund-raising practices in the 1996 election cycle, but, with the Chesley event, they were willing to risk presenting the image of a money-grubbing president hobnobbing with the super-rich to wipe out that debt. And when the president attends such an event, it means he is seen by few who have not paid the price of admission. Even with Mr. Clinton's high approval ratings, the White House knows storm clouds are gathering, and no one wants to risk having some solid citizen along a rope line shouting unpleasant questions for the president not to answer. So, unless you were one of the unfortunates stuck in their cars behind police barricades during rush hour Tuesday as the motorcade sped by, you would have had no idea the president of the United States was in town.

Honk if you see Bill.

Howard Wilkinson's politics column runs on Sundays. Call 768-8388.

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