- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2000

There was something more than a little surreal about Sunday's New York Times headline, "Gore to Embrace Campaign Finance as Central Theme." Only the day before, the newspaper reported new, very damaging details about the contentious deliberations and unseen maneuverings among Justice Department officials that came within a whisker of triggering an independent counsel investigation into some of Mr. Gore's shadier campaign finance practices. (Known at the department as "Gore I" and "Gore II," Justice's inquiries didn't even touch on the infamous Buddhist temple fund-raiser, about which department investigators never even asked Mr. Gore.)

And that's not all. The day before the New York Times report, the Los Angeles Times revealed excerpts of a long-sealed memo by Charles LaBella in which the former chief campaign finance investigator for the Justice Department slammed top Justice officials for "intellectually dishonest" double standards, "gamesmanship" and legal "contortions" in their failures to initiate independent inquiries into the fund-raising abuses of the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign. Such abuses, which Mr. LaBella described as "a pattern of conduct worthy of investigation" involved not only Mr. Gore, but also President Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and former White House aide Harold Ickes, now a key adviser to Mrs. Clinton's Senate campaign.

The political dust from these bombshells hadn't settled indeed, the Los Angeles Times story prompted Rep. Dan Burton, chairman of the Committee on Government Reform, to issue a fresh subpoena ordering Janet Reno to hand over by today memos by both Charles LaBella and FBI Director Louis Freeh when Mr. Gore professed his newfound zeal for making campaign-finance reform a centerpiece of his presidential bid. "I made a mistake going to that Buddhist temple," he told the New York Times, picking up the reform banner and re-fashioning it as a personal fig leaf. "I made a mistake in making telephone calls from my office. And I have learned from those mistakes… . I have a passion for campaign finance reform that is fueled in part because of the pain of those mistakes."

Does this non-apology apology remind you of anyone Bill Clinton, for instance? (Of course, Mr. Gore still needs work. He may have slipped in a reference to "pain" as effortlessly as the Great Lip-Biter, but he didn't seem to know exactly what it meant. When asked, "What is the 'pain' that you felt?" Mr. Gore replied, "Making mistakes and acknowledging them," which scores a tad low on the empathy meter.) In calling for the overhaul of the campaign finance system, Mr. Gore is following the Clinton-Gore apology strategy, honed over many years and many sins. It works like this: admit mistakes, feign contrition and profess growth. Or, as Mr. Gore put it, "When you acknowledge a mistake, that is an opportunity for growth… ."

Perfunctory and meaningless no matter how often repeated, the non-apology apology is designed not only to choke off questions in the throat and neutralize concerns in the heart, but also, mirabile dictu, to restore the vice president's personal political virtue. Frankly, it's enough to make the eyes cross as if John Dillinger had somehow come back as a poster-boy for gun control; or if Carry Nation were found running a micro-brewery; or if King George III suddenly stuck a feather in his cap and launched a taxpayers' revolt.

The question is, will Mr. Gore's strategy work? It all depends on George W. Bush. "Campaign finance reform starts with having people who are going to obey the laws that exist," Mr. Bush said, soundly enough, ridiculing Mr. Gore as someone who will "say anything to get elected." We need to hear more of the same a stronger, clearer message from Mr. Bush condemning the egregious lack of ethics in the Clinton-Gore past, and what that means for a Gore future.

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