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Dressed dapperly as usual, in a gray pin-stripe suit, a white shirt with French cuffs, and a maroon tie, Fred Thompson looked older, more sophisticated than when he first became famous as minority counsel to the Ervin committee hearings on Watergate in 1973. The then-unknown thirty-year-old Nashville attorney had grown up in a small, rural Tennessee town. The son of a used-car dealer, he had worked his way through college and law school. Sporting fashionable long sideburns, Thompson looked then more rough-hewn than he was. He had been selected by Howard Baker, the Tennessee senator and ranking Republican on the Ervin committee, over legal lions who considered themselves far better qualified for the job. But as the gruff but alert young attorney questioned witnesses, he established himself as no one to be fooled with.
On July 16, 1973, Thompson, in his deep, sonorous voice, asked Alexander Butterfield, who had been in charge of day-to-day operations of the Nixon White House, "Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the President?" The large crowd of people who had managed to obtain seats in the Senate Caucus Room fell silent.
Butterfield replied, "I was aware of listening devices, yes, sir." Thompson became a national hero. (Thompson knew the answer, having been briefed by the committee staff member who had interviewed Butterfield.) When the Ervin hearings ended, they were considered a great success—and so was Thompson.
Now, twenty-four yearslater, on October 23, 1997, after twelve weeks of hearings by his own Senate committee into another presidential election scandal—and of attacks from the Democrats on his committee, and of delays and obfuscation by the White House, and of sabotage from within his own party—Thompson had had enough.
Quietly, reflectively, he said to the committee room something that had been building within him. It wasn't the sort of thing that senators say, at least in public.
Speaking slowly, Thompson, who had come to the Senate in late 1994, said, "I haven't been here a long time. Maybe things have changed.... Maybe it is more partisan. Maybe it is the times that we live in."
Thompson added, "You didn't hear Howard Baker spending all of his time trying to dredge up something on Democrats."
Unintentionally, Thompson had put his finger on what had happened to the country, and what had happened to him as he tried to conduct his hearings.
When he accepted the invitation by Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader, to conduct the hearings on the Clinton financial scandals in the 1996 elections—a position several senators had sought—Thompson thought he was taking on a familiar role, a logical extension of the part he had played in the Ervin hearings. But he was stepping into a new, far more partisan, far more poisonous state of politics than he had experienced then.
Lott was pleased with his selection. Thad Cochran, Lott's fellow Mississippi senator, said, "Trent especially was very excited that Thompson was eligible to be chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee and run the hearings. He thought Thompson would be an excellent choice, because of his manner and because he would bring back memories of Watergate. At first, Trent had what appeared to be total confidence in the ability and judgment of Fred Thompson to handle his job."
Thompson, who had sought the role of conducting the hearings, was confident as well. The Ervin hearings had gone smoothly enough. So, Thompson had noticed, had the Iran-Contra hearings of 1987, on the bizarre dealings in which the Reagan administration secretly sold arms to Iran in exchange for release of American hostages in Lebanon and diverted some of the profits from the sales to clandestinely aid the Nicaraguan Contras. Those hearings, jointly conducted by a Democratic chairman and a Republican vice chairman (an unusual arrangement), stopped short, by prior agreement of the chairs, of taking the issue to Reagan. They thought the country couldn't go through another impeachment.
Thompson, six-foot-five, with a baritone voice and a craggy, mobile face, had tremendous presence. Not conventionally handsome, he dominated a room with his height, his voice, his charisma. He was also, though this was little understood by people who didn't know him well, a very funny man—a quick wit, a searing mimic—and he had a big, belly-shaking laugh. He particularly enjoyed the company of people who made him laugh.
One day during the hearings, when he and John Glenn, the ranking Democrat, were going after each other with particular bitterness, Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, uncharacteristically praised Thompson. Thompson shot back, "Now, don't ruin the spirit of the morning, Senator Durbin."
Thompson's origins showed through in the colloquialisms that popped out on occasion. At a press conference one day, Thompson said, "My daddy once said of an investigator, `He couldn't find a blackbird in a bowl of milk.'"
After the Ervin hearings, Thompson played character roles in his fourteen-year movie career, and he made eighteen films; a couple of them, such as The Hunt for Red October, were famous. His acting range wasn't extensive; he was the heavy, or the good guy—a CIA director, an admiral, usually the one in command. The movie career intersected with a lucrative law practice, in which he was of counsel to a major Washington law firm, commuting between Washington and Nashville. He was mainly a trial lawyer and thought of himself that way. (He played one in his first movie, Marie, based on a case in Tennessee he had tried and won.) Fifty-six years old, divorced, and the father of three children (he had married quite young), Thompson squired beautiful women and had had a major romance with country singer Lorrie Morgan. When he pondered a presidential candidacy, he considered whether life as a bachelor President would be tolerable in this age of scrutiny. (In March of 1999, Thompson, who had made no real move to run for the 2000 presidential election, let it be known that he wouldn't do so.)
In 1994, in his first try, to fill out the remaining two years in Al Gore's Senate term, Thompson started out behind an incumbent Democratic congressman with Harvard credentials. He ran as a folksy man of the people, utilizing a gimmicky red pickup truck. Aided by the anti-incumbent wave in 1994, he whooshed past his opponent in the last two months of the election. In 1996, he won a full six-year term by another large margin. Thompson retained the lesson that he could start behind and still win. In 1994, shortly after he had been first elected to the Senate, Thompson was already considered such a political star that in December of that year then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole selected him to give the Republicans' official response to a speech by President Clinton on his economic program.
On Tuesday, March 11, 1997, the Senate Republicans gathered for their weekly lunch in Room S 207, the Mansfield Room, which the majority party uses, on the second floor of the Capitol. The Republican leaders sat at a long table beneath a portrait of George Washington, the other senators at round tables. The atmosphere was unusually tense. Three important senators—including Lott—had already become upset with Thompson for wanting to broaden the scope of the inquiry beyond just the activities of the Clinton campaign in 1996, for supporting campaign finance reform (Thompson had cosponsored a major campaign finance reform bill since 1995), and for telling the Democrats on the committee that he wanted to be "fair" and "bipartisan." Another Republican said, of Thompson's early dealings, before the hearings began, with the Democrats on his committee, "Fred showed an awful lot of patience, and Trent and others thought Fred had leaned over too far to try to accommodate the Democrats."
The other two Republican senators who were particularly down on Thompson were Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, the Senate's leading opponent of campaign finance reform, a man who had great influence on—virtually amounting to control over—Lott on this subject; and Richard Santorum, a brash freshman from Pennsylvania, a strong ally of the religious right, who had a way of inserting himself into all sorts of policy matters before the Senate Republican leaders. A Republican senator said, "Mitch McConnell started telling Trent, You're going to create a monster here. Thompson is going to be beyond control and influence. He doesn't care about the Republican Party. He's not loyal; he's not a team player; he wants to be President."
Unlike the overwhelming majority of his own party, including its Senate leaders, Thompson believed that consideration of new reforms had to be a part of examining what had gone wrong. To McConnell, Thompson, by signing on as a cosponsor of a broad campaign finance reform bill, was threatening the majority's status by seeking to change the rules by which it had been elected.
As it happened, McConnell was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 1997-98, a role he had long sought; since the committee raises and dispenses campaign funds, it gives whoever fills it substantial power over his colleagues. McConnell's goal was to maintain and preferably expand the Republican majority in the Senate. Lott said in February 1997 that unlimited campaign spending—which Republicans felt gave them the advantage—was "the American way."
But at the moment, Thompson's greatest sin in the eyes of these three Republican senators was that he agreed with the Senate Democrats that the hearings shouldn't cover just "illegal" acts—the Clinton campaign's apparent acceptance of contributions from foreign nationals—but also "improper" ones. In fact, some of the controversial activities in 1996 were arguably legal (taking advantage of a loophole) or on the margin. The expanded definition, backed by the Democrats, meant that the committee's inquiry wouldn't be limited simply to fund-raising by the Clinton campaign in 1996. Some Democratic strategists wanted to press the issue of the scope of the inquiry because they figured the Republicans would have a hard time explaining to the public why they wanted to restrict it.
Under the broader definition, the committee could explore not just the Clinton scandals but also the abundant evidence from the 1996 election of fundamental changes, and not for the better, in our election system. The most significant development was that both parties had made egregious and unprecedented use of funds known as "soft money."
Soft money is funds that, through a loophole, are outside the fund-raising laws for federal campaigns. Those laws prohibit unions and corporations from making direct contributions to such campaigns, and they limit the amount that individuals can give to federal candidates and to a political party. The limits for such "hard money"—so called because, unlike soft money, it comes under the limits of the law—are $1,000 per individual per election (a primary, the general election, and any runoff) and $5,000 per election by political action committees, or PACs, maintained by labor or business or other interest groups. Hard money goes directly to individual candidates and the political parties. Under the law, individuals' overall donations to a party are limited to $20,000 per year.
Through the soft money loophole, corporations and labor unions can make direct contributions to the political parties, and individuals can make unlimited contributions. Soft money could be given to the parties for the purpose of "party-building activities"—such as registration and get-out-the-vote drives. But the definition of such activities had been stretched over the years, and in 1996 it snapped. Though soft money can only go to the political parties, the parties have found ways to spend it to help individual candidates. The distinction between hard and soft money has become a fiction. Outside groups and the political parties themselves used soft money to pay for ads that they deemed "issue ads," by claiming falsely that the ads were for the purpose of discussing an issue and weren't for the purpose of electing or defeating a candidate.
"Issue ads," paid for mainly with soft money, are attractive to the parties and outside groups as campaign tools because the soft money can be raised in large amounts. Unions, corporations, wealthy donors, and the political parties could merrily evade the legal limits established in the 1974 campaign reform law.
"Issue ads" paid for with soft money had been utilized sporadically before 1996, but their unprecedented use in 1996 by the political parties and outside groups transformed our politics.
In another big breakthrough, of sorts, in 1996, in legally questionable acts, groups running the phony "issue ads" had actually collaborated with party committees and the candidates' campaigns in targeting races and running the ads.
"Issue ads" were a handy way of making indirect contributions, of circumventing the contirbution limits in the 1974 campaign reform law, and, just as important, the long-standing bans on direct contributions by corporations and unions. In numerous races in 1996, the outside ads drowned out the voices of the candidates themselves and determined the issues in the race.
An inquiry into "improper" acts, being urged by the Democrats, was dangerous to Republicans because it could examine activities in 1996 by the Republican campaign committees and their outside allies such as the Christian Coalition, the National Right to Life Committee, and the National Rifle Association. Democratic committees and allies, such as the AFL-CIO, would be subject to examination as well. In the Thompson committee's organizing meetings early in 1997, another influential Republican, Majority Whip Don Nickles, of Oklahoma, who acted as Lott's representative on the committee, had warned Thompson against allowing the Democrats to call in groups allied with the Republicans. Thompson was also being warned by Republicans not to be generous with the Democrats in their requests for subpoenas.
Lott, McConnell, and Santorum had taken it upon themselves to preempt the resolution authorizing the inquiry that came out of Thompson's committee, which they considered too broad, and to write their own resolution. Their resolution covered only "illegal" activities, and this was the one that was now before the Senate. The Democrats had threatened to filibuster unless the investigation was broadened. That morning, Lott put off further consideration of the resolution until the Republicans could talk the matter over at their weekly lunch.
Lott was taken by surprise at the lunch. More Republican senators than he had anticipated spoke for broadening the Thompson committee's mandate.
Arlen Specter, a moderate from Pennsylvania and a committee member, argued that the public would respond badly if the hearings didn't cover soft money. He and others also argued that if the resolution was limited to simply "illegal" matters, the President's people could maintain that they didn't have to produce documents on a given subject because no illegality was involved. This might rule out, he said, such subjects as the sleep-overs in the Lincoln bedroom for big contributors and the hundred-some White House coffees for donors.
Susan Collins, a freshman from Maine who had formerly served on the Senate staff of William Cohen, now the Defense Secretary, made her first statement as a senator at such a meeting. She told her Republican colleagues, "I can't vote against an amendment that adds `improper.' I don't know how I could explain a vote like that. It would be politically and substantively a mistake." Collins was already suspect in the eyes of her more conservative colleagues: She was from the Northeast, a moderate, and had worked for the independent-minded and moderate Cohen.
John McCain, of Arizona, who was sponsoring a major campaign finance reform bill, told his fellow Republicans that it would be "very difficult for us to vote against [broadening the hearings] because the American people expect us to investigate not only illegal but also improper actions."
Dan Coats, a conservative from Indiana and respected in the Senate as an honest and decent man, spoke in even stronger terms against limiting the scope of the hearings. McCain had been in touch with him and Collins the day before. Lott had asked Thompson, in effect, not to lobby against him; Thompson agreed to that, but left no doubt as to what position he'd take.
The lunch went on unusually long and became unusually tense. At one point, Lott instructed staff members to leave the room.
Santorum spoke against broadening the scope, arguing that the Senate's responsibility was to investigate illegal matters only. Santorum suggested using as a precedent the resolution for the Watergate committee; he looked pleased with himself, thinking he had scored one against Thompson. Someone suggested that Thompson explain what was in that mandate, and Thompson replied that the Watergate resolution called for an investigation of "illegal, improper, or unethical activities" in the 1972 presidential election. Santorum was crushed: He had been trying to help Lott and he ended up strengthening Thompson's position.
Thompson also told his fellow Republican senators, "It's important for the American people that we have a broad charter, and that they think we're being evenhanded."
Two unexpected senators, Ted Stevens, of Alaska, and Pete Domenici, of New Mexico—both tough-minded and right-of-center—also spoke for a broader scope. That brought the group of Republican senators calling for widening the hearings to ten—enough, when combined with the united Democrats, for it to pass the Senate by a comfortable margin.
Lott, seeing that he was outnumbered, ended up cosponsoring the amendment to expand the jurisdiction of the committee, which that afternoon passed the Senate unanimously.
When the vote was taken, Lott joined with the rest of the senators for a vote of 99-0. Afterward, Lott looked like a man who had been mugged—which, in a way, he had been.
As a part of the price for letting the hearings go forward at all, rather than conducting a filibuster, the Democrats scored one of their deadliest hits by forcing a cutoff date of December 31, 1997. Minority Leader Tom Daschle, of South Dakota, had insisted on this point, in the face of arguments from some Democrats that they would look like lackeys of the White House. Daschle finally told his colleagues, "I'll take the public hit if people are behind me."
The cutoff date would end the hearings before the 1998 election year and impose on the committee a finite period of time in which to gather material, depose possible witnesses, hold hearings, and, if necessary, compel the cooperation of those under investigation. The Democrats didn't want the hearings to spill over into the 1998 election year. The deadline was to have a significance not foreseen at the time.
Lott, a prickly man, had a sort of jumpiness about him. He had been an effective whip under Bob Dole, an energetic vote counter and rounder-up. Lott was upbeat (when he wasn't in a bad mood), peppy; he rallied his troops with lines like "We've got to all stick together"—a throwback perhaps to his days as cheerleader at "Ole Miss." He had come to the Senate from the House in 1989 and though he had been close to Newt Gingrich, who had become the House Speaker, there were now strains between the two men, based largely on the different pulls on them from within their institutions. But while Gingrich liked to think of himself as a man of ideas (even if they were sometimes inconsistent and shallow), Lott had no such pretensions. He was a mechanic; his bent was on making the place work. He was far more interested in process than substance. He lacked the polish and the patience to deal well with Republican senators who were of different viewpoints and style. He often had a glint in his eye that suggested that he thought he was very clever. And he took defeats personally.
Now Lott was in his ninth month as majority leader, having taken over from Dole in June 1996, and was still proving himself.
Lott was in a very bad mood when he lost out on the scope of the hearings. When asked by the press afterward if the Republican moderates had staged a coup against him, he snapped, "No, they did not."
Washington is full of quickly changing wisdom, and the wisdom in late 1996, after the Republicans had picked up two Senate seats, for a 56-44 ratio, was that Lott would be the king of Washington. By early March, Lott had already lost a battle on a Constitutional Amendment requiring a balanced budget, which he favored. So his loss over the scope of the campaign finance reform hearings led to a new wisdom that questioned his effectiveness.
Lott never forgave Thompson for beating him at this early point.
In July 1995 two House committees were to hold joint hearings—a sign of how rewarding the Republicans thought the hearings would be—on the Clinton administration's horrendous blunder on April 19, 1993, in Waco, Texas. Eighty-six men, women, and children were killed when the building housing the Branch Davidians, headed by cult leader David Koresh, was accidentally set on fire during a raid conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. The nation had watched in horror as flames engulfed the large compound. The President at first ducked responsibility, hid out. He was upstaged by Attorney General Janet Reno, who went from network to network that night taking responsibility and was praised as a hero, even though her judgment regarding the attack was to be questioned.
The two committee chairmen had every reason to feel that the hearings would embarrass the Clinton White House. Then, on the first day of the hearings, a fourteen-year-old named Kiri Jewel appeared. Her mother had been killed in the fire. Holding her father's hand, she told the rapt congressmen that Koresh had raped young women in the compound, including herself when she was ten years old.
Don Goldberg, a White House aide assigned to protect the Clinton administration during the Thompson hearings, told me later, "They couldn't restore Koresh." At the time of the Waco hearings, Goldberg was the chief Democratic staff member of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, and in the course of that and other threatening hearings for the Clinton White House—the firing of the seven travel office employees, the mysterious accumulation of over four hundred FBI files, mainly on former Republican officials, in the White House office of a political hack—he had worked closely with the White House. The Clinton people were sufficiently impressed with his talents that he was hired in late 1996 specifically to handle difficult congressional hearings.
Goldberg, a lanky, bearded thirty-eight-year-old, candidly explained to me the White House strategy for adversarial hearings by the Republican Congress. "It's an obvious strategy," he said. "On the Hill, if you don't have much to go on, you decry the partisanship, and the print reporters will write in the first or second paragraph, and the TV stories will begin, `In a hearing mired in partisanship,' and then they get to the subject of the hearing and you've won. That's Damage Control 101."
Goldberg further explained, "In a hearing if you're playing defense, the goal is not to get your message out, the goal is to keep the other side from getting their message out. Then you've won. The `partisan bickering' is standard fare. If you get your message out, that's a bonus."
Thus, by the time the Thompson hearings got under way, the Clinton White House had changed the rules of the game on congressional hearings. It had perfected the art of wrecking potentially troublesome hearings—by offering as little information as possible, as slowly as possible, and by casting the hearings as "partisan." To the Clinton White House, there was no such thing as a legitimate hearing into their activities; it therefore set forth to delegitimize any inquiry it considered adversarial. Every hearing was a war zone. This approach hadn't been taken ever before in such a systematic way.
On top of that, Thompson was facing a decline, if not abandonment, of the media's interest in covering hearings, and a shortened attention span on the part of the public, which made it all the harder for the real story of the hearings to get through.
The many avowals of cooperation from the White House notwithstanding—"I think we have a vested interest in making sure the facts come out, that we continue to cooperate," said White House spokesman Michael McCurry on June 6, 1997—the White House had no intention of cooperating with the Thompson heatings.
John Podesta, then deputy chief of staff to the President and manager of the White House strategy for the Thompson hearings, and Goldberg urged the "partisan" strategy on the Thompson committee Democrats. A wiry man of forty-nine, with a keen political intuition and, unlike some of his colleagues, a sense of right and wrong, Podesta had taken charge after a worried emissary from Vice President Gore's office asked him to do so. The Gore people felt that the White House management of the campaign finance scandal needed to be more focused. Podesta's importance in the Clinton White House was ironic. He had left in 1995 largely because he had fallen into disfavor with Mrs. Clinton for having written a report on the travel office that attributed to her a role in the firings.
Though some of the Democrats on the committee worried at first about appearing to be tools of the White House, most of them and their staff followed the "partisan" strategy: not only in the hearings themselves but in the hallways and in phone conversations as well. One couldn't get down the corridors outside the hearing room, in the Hart Senate Office Building, without being approached by one Democratic staff member or another, or a representative of the Democratic National Committee, or a White House aide, who said, "Isn't it awful how partisan these hearings are?" or variations thereof. The strategy was as obvious as it was successful.
The White House aides were particularly worried about John Glenn. Glenn was one of the nicest people in the Senate, but not the brightest; he had an equable temperament, a straightforward Ohio friendliness, and though a national hero for his participating in the first American space flight to orbit the earth, in February 1962, he had no airs. But Glenn turned uncharacteristically partisan in the course of the hearings, and a lot of people wondered why. The answer began at the White House. His niceness worried the President's strategists. Glenn's initial instinct was, in fact, to be cooperative with Thompson and to keep his distance from the White House. The White House and its closest allies on the committee made sure that this didn't happen.
A White House aide said, "The concern was that Thompson would start with charges against the Democrats, and Glenn would say, `Thank you very much for these important hearings. We hope they'll be fair.' It was a joke among us." He added, "There was a lot of pressure on John Glenn to step up his partisanship in the first three months."
The White House counted on Minority Leader Tom Daschle, of South Dakota, to help. Daschle's mild manner, his prairie-preacher aspect, masked a tough, smart partisan; his fierce legislative tactics were in large part behind Bob Dole's decision in 1996 that staying in the Senate was hurting his presidential candidacy. Don Goldberg was in constant touch with Daschle's chief counsel, Glenn Ivey, a smart, smooth attorney who had been the chief strategist for the Democrats in the Senate hearings in the Clintons' unfortunate 1978 Whitewater land deal. Ivey became one of the major strategists for the Democrats throughout the hearings, and was the principal conduit between the Democratic leadership and the White House.
From the outset, two new Democratic senators, Robert Torricelli, of New Jersey, and Richard Durbin, of Illinois, were particularly forceful in pushing Glenn to be more partisan. Torricelli and Durbin had just come from the House of Representatives, where partisanship and rough tactics had been more prevalent than in the Senate. Glenn didn't appreciate their efforts, but then higher authority weighed in. The White House was working with Torricelli and Durbin, and also with Daschle, who in turn went to work on Glenn.
At an early meeting of the committee Democrats, Glenn set forth his own position that none of them should be in touch with the White House, that their approach should be bipartisan. Durbin and Torricelli objected. On one occasion, Torricelli and Durbin were so concerned that Glenn was being too deferential to Thompson that they went to Daschle and asked for help. According to one participant, they told Daschle, "We love John Glenn, but this isn't working." For some time after that, in meetings in Daschle's suite of offices in the Capitol, Daschle himself urged Glenn to be more partisan.
Carl Levin, a four-term senator from Michigan, also felt that Glenn should be tougher. Levin's top aide, Linda Gustitus, a veteran of many hearings, was also in close touch with Goldberg at the White House.
Glenn was also pushed to be more confrontational by two of his closest advisors: Leonard Weiss, his longtime aide, and Mark Mellman, his pollster. Weiss spoke frequently with Goldberg. The White House called on Mellman for help in getting Glenn to be more partisan. Mellman, a stocky man with a short, black beard and thick, dark hair, played an almost unnoticed role in shaping the Democrats' strategy. The White House aide said, "Mellman was responsible for the Democrats' overall message, `partisanship,' as opposed to defending the White House. He was able to line them all up." Mellman also counseled Glenn to follow a strategy of saying that there had been wrongs on both sides and that therefore there should be campaign finance reform (which most Republicans were likely to oppose). Glenn followed that advice.
Torricelli also conferred with the President himself from time to time to keep him informed about what was going on in the committee and to listen to Clinton's complaint, which he made often and elsewhere as well, that he was being picked on unfairly. Clinton, whose capacity for self-pity seemed boundless, complained to Daschle (once in a postmidnight call) and to his own staff. A Clinton aide said to me, "He's quite rightly feeling that everybody does do it, and he got outspent by two hundred million."
Clinton, mixing two different points, maintained to his listeners that it was unfair for the media to conclude that there was a one-sided campaign finance problem when the Republicans actually raised more money than the Democrats (as they always did) in 1996. Torricelli told me in the course of the hearings, "He feels it's extraordinary that the media has come to the conclusion that there was a partisan campaign finance problem, especially when, after all, the Democrats lost the race for funds to the Republicans."
A White House aide bragged to me that at one point during the hearings, when Don Nickles attacked fund-raising coffees at the White House, a response was in Durbin's hands within five minutes of Nickles's charge. (When Nickles was the chairman of the Senate Republican campaign committee, he wrote a letter inviting people to then-Vice President Dan Quayle's home for a fund-raiser on September 23, 1990.)
A White House team, working under Podesta and the White House counsel's office, monitored the hearings from their offices, while Goldberg and others—depending on how big a day they expected—patrolled the situation on the Hill, sometimes in the committee room, sometimes in the corridors just outside it, and sometimes (though this was kept secret) from Vice President Gore's seldom-used office in the Dirksen Building.
Lanny Breuer, the White House special counsel, spoke with the committee's Democratic counsels every day. Sometimes the White House monitors got advance word of what the Republicans planned the next day from the press, who had been briefed by Michael Madigan, the chief majority counsel, and called the White House for a response. Or the White House would learn of reporters working on a story based on leaks from Capitol Hill. Podesta told me in an interview, "There was always a possibility to detonate an incoming story."
The White House team met every morning in Podesta's spacious office, on the main floor of the West Wing, a short walk from the Oval Office, to review what would happen that day, and how to react to it. They would discuss, Podesta told me, "Did we have a story to tell? Are there holes in their story? What's our story? Which committee members could we deal with?" Don Goldberg said, "All the decisions are message: What's our first spin?"
At first, the White House team leaned toward detonation through a "document dump"—dumping on several members of the press a bunch of documents on a story White House aides knew the committee Republicans were about to break, so as to reduce its impact. Then, finding that this maneuver created a big news story of its own, drawing attention to something they would rather not draw attention to, they moved to leaking a prior response to selected reporters.
Thus the White House itself, knowing what was coming in the press and on the Hill, put out the story of Roger Tamraz, a naturalized American and shady international financier and big donor who had received appointments with high-level officials over the Objections of a member of the National Security Council staff. During a break in the hearings, Goldberg told me that the White House had been tipped off the night before by reporters that a certain matter would be raised in the hearings that day. He said, "We have more people working reporters today, to get the counterstory line out."
The young Turks on the committee, working with Daschle, managed to get Glenn's first choice as minority counsel as well as his own spokesman replaced by people with more partisan instincts, more edge. All of these goings-on were motivated by one controlling fear. As Durbin said to me, "It was clear from the outset that this wasn't just another investigation. It concerned the future of the Democratic Party." Durbin's concern was that if the party took too much of a beating in the hearings, contributors might turn away, or that the campaign finance rules would be changed to the Democrats' disadvantage.
By June, even before the hearings had begun, the effects of the pressures, on the chairman and the ranking Democrat, led to some very ugly scenes. After a meeting of the committee Democrats with Daschle, Glenn, at a press conference, threatened a boycott of the hearings by Democrats over the number of subpoenas the Republicans would allow them. The next day, at another press conference, Torricelli questioned whether Thompson had the "personal integrity" to handle the investigation. This was a bit much for Thompson, especially given that Torricelli had a somewhat unsavory reputation. (He had, among other things, held a fund-raiser in the home of a convicted felon.)
Thus, Thompson, caught between his own party leaders and the White House, was in a vise even before the hearings began.