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Washington, District of Contradiction



Washington, D.C. is a screwy place these days. Which is not to say that it hasn't been before. It's just that sometimes the glaring inconsistencies and flagrant dismissals of truth stand out more clearly than at other times. And it's been one of those weeks.

In the Jewish calender, these days are called the 10 days of return, or repentance--days to take stock of the year, to ask forgiveness from those whom you've potentially hurt and to begin to look forward to the year to come. I have always felt that these days map well onto the opening of the school year, organizing time for much-needed and easily-ignored consideration of where I have come in the past year and where I would like to see myself go and how I can get there. This year, my last one at Harvard, has leant itself particularly well to serious reflection. And it has left me in a contemplative mood.

This has only exacerbated the frivolity of political life in our nation's capital, the most ostentatious example being campaign finance proceedings. On Tuesday afternoon, the bill meant to overhaul our country's obviously inept campaign-financing system was left floundering in nowhere land because the majority of Senators chose not to end debate on the competing proposals, effectively preventing a decision on the legislation. Let me reiterate: the campaign-finance laws, despite their obvious disfunctionality, are not being changed.

Ironically enough--or, alternatively, in a telling political move--the focus of the same Republican Senate has been the swirl of alleged campaign finance scandals that surround President Clinton. While our representatives are unwilling to reform the patently defunct rules governing campaign finance, they are overwhelmingly interested in 1-3 minute videotapes of the President drinking coffee.

Now, if there were no more pressing questions to discuss than whether or not Clinton and Vice President Al Gore '69 solicited potential donors when they had them over for petit fours, perhaps I could understand our national fixation. But, fortunately or not, there are serious things going on at home and abroad that merit national observation--and demand presidential focus.

I am not saying that Clinton should not be held accountable for wrong-doings that he committed or oversaw, only that the priorities of those controlling the agenda in congress are profoundly out of sync.

The New York Times captured this imbalance even as it mirrored the same problems of mistaken focus. An article Monday on the missing videotapes of wealthy folks hob-nobbing with the President over coffee explained: "Mr. Clinton hoped to devote the day to sounding an alarm over global warming and wielding the line-item veto on unwanted military projects. Instead he and his aides spent hours defensively answering questions."

Yet this very article on videotapes got nearly equal prominence with the article describing how Clinton used the new line-item veto to slash $287 million dollars of pork off of a military bill. And what the videotape hounds don't tell you until the fourth to last paragraph is that the videotapes released thus far have indicated "no illegal actions" on the part of President Clinton or any other Democractic Party official.

On the same Senate floor, bills to clean up the finance laws that facilitated shady but legal practices are left to wither while legal, if dubious actions are given undue attention.

The partisan bias of it all was exposed by Harold M. Ickes, the former White House deputy chief of staff, in his Senate hearing yesterday. As Ickes explained it, the Clinton White House was no more--nor less--fraudulent in its solicitations than either of the Republican offices that preceded it. More evocative, however, were the words of one Republican investigator quoted in another Times piece from the same day. "We don't expect him to be in our corner;" said the investigator of Ickes. "We see him as a hostile witness."

The not-so-implicit understanding informing the investigator's statement was that truth was not the central issue in the Senate proceedings; Mr. Ickes was hostile because he was not in the Republican "corner," and the veracity of his testimony was secondary to his political allegiance. And this from the "corner" that is claiming the moral high-ground of looking for the truth.

So much for truth and repentance in Washington.

Talia Milgrom-Elcott's column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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