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Back to the Future of Fund-Raising Scandals

by Robert E. Mutch on Oct 1, 1997

Bill Clinton is not the first president to deal with a fund-raising scandal in his own campaign by calling for a reform of the system. Teddy Roosevelt beat him by 92 years.

So far, Clinton’s born-again reformism has brought him little but derisive laughter from Republicans, and more tempered criticism from pundits. Roosevelt, by contrast, looks like a towering moral figure from this historical distance, a reformer president who could rise above the grubby chase for campaign dollars and confront the political power of wealth. But this image of TR tells us more about our need for heroes and golden ages than about the history of political money. He was no more eager to end the money chase than Clinton is today.

The Clinton-Gore scandal seems actually to have boosted Roosevelt’s standing as a reformer. Critics of our campaign financing system have for years revered him for proposing public funding of presidential campaigns. Now Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who chairs the Senate committee looking into Clinton’s fund-raising, has joined the chorus. Apparently intending to draw a contrast with Clinton, Thompson praised Roosevelt for coming to the Senate in person to testify on the funding of his presidential race. What we tend to forget today is that he had something to testify about.

Roosevelt’s scandal hit when a New York State legislative committee looking into the finances of the state’s insurance industry discovered that the three largest companies had secretly contributed large sums to Roosevelt’s 1904 presidential campaign. What’s more, they had done the same in the 1896 and 1900 campaigns.

In 1905, corporate political contributions aroused the same kind of apprehension that is today reserved for soft money (also mostly from corporations): They were legal but widely regarded as improper if not actually dangerous. The revelations coming out of the New York insurance hearings hit front pages all across the country and gave new life to an already growing reform movement.

Today it is reports about Bill Clinton’s fund raising that are inspiring public concern about the political role of wealth. Yet after having raised vastly more soft money than any of his predecessors, he now professes alarm at this rapidly mushrooming form of finance and exhorts Congress to restrain it. That is almost exactly what Roosevelt did in 1905.

After actively soliciting corporate money in 1904, Roosevelt responded to revelations of scandal in 1905 by telling Congress that “all contributions by corporations … for any political purpose should be forbidden by law.” He also called on Congress to require federal candidates to disclose their contributors and expenses.

After this stirring message, Roosevelt, again anticipating Clinton, took no action whatever to turn his proposals into law. When reformers introduced their own bills to implement the reforms he had backed in public, he gave them no support. He did eventually sign a watered-down prohibition against corporate political contributions. But then he did something that makes Clinton look like a reformer by comparison: He withdrew his support for disclosure.

In his 1907 message to Congress, Roosevelt claimed that only honest candidates would obey a disclosure law, and so would be penalized by it. As an alternative, he proposed a “very radical measure”: public funding. The message that reformers praise as farsighted today was denounced by reformers then as a transparent attempt to derail disclosure. He was no more serious about this than his earlier proposals, and made no attempt to introduce a bill. Congress did not get around to passing a disclosure bill until after Roosevelt had left office.

Although Clinton’s own term in office has been marked by several requests for his testimony, it is unlikely that he will agree to sit at Thompson’s witness table. But then Thompson was perhaps being a bit disingenuous in suggesting that Roosevelt had acted differently. Roosevelt did testify on that 1904 campaign before a Senate investigating committee. But that was in 1912, nearly four years after he left office! Only then was it revealed that corporations had furnished three-fourths of his 1904 campaign fund.

The same combination of forgetfulness and hagiography that created Saint Teddy could also beatify Bill. When congressional committees hold public hearings into questionable fund-raising practices in the 2088 presidential election, pundits and ordinary citizens may look back longingly at Clinton as that rare politician with the courage to challenge the power of political money. The creation of yet another hollow hero will be a sure sign that we still have not solved our campaign finance problem.

Robert E. Mutch, an independent historian in Washington, D.C., writes for the History News Service.