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A FAMILIAR ODOR



Published: Tue, May 8, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Washington Post: Marking his first 100 days, President Bush celebrated what he called a new tone in Washington. His claim sparked a fair amount of discussion about whether he has, or has not, acted to further bipartisanship. Our feelings about that are complicated by our uncertainty over the virtues of bipartisanship, depending on how you define it; it seems to us a good thing to have two parties that take different positions and believe in them. Certainly, though, to the extent that Mr. Bush has promoted civility in Washington, that can't be bad.

What caught our attention at the 100-day mark, though, wasn't so much a matter of tone as of smell: the smell -- you might even call it stink -- of buying and selling access. President Bush and his party campaigned on a promise of restoring honor to the Oval Office. That was taken as a reference to President Clinton's affair with a White House intern, but also of his offering coffees in the office and overnights in the Lincoln Bedroom to major contributors. Wouldn't happen under his watch, Mr. Bush made clear, and so far as we know it hasn't.

Private reception: But should we be happy that the president, instead of renting out his residence, is renting out his Cabinet officers? Later this month, couples who donate at least $15,000 to a Republican campaign committee will be invited to a "private reception" and photo opportunity with Commerce Secretary Don Evans. Big donors are promised briefings from Tommy Thompson, secretary of health and human services, and from Education Secretary Rod Paige and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. They'll have the "exclusive opportunity to dine with diplomats and embassy officials," not to mention access to many of the GOP's most influential senators, who so routinely rent themselves out that it's hardly news anymore. (For only $5,000, you can go play golf with Majority Leader Trent Lott next weekend in Hilton Head.)

No one should be able to buy access to the American commerce secretary, a man with considerable power to influence the failure or success of individual businesses. That should be self-evident; maybe it once was in Washington. The fact that the Bush administration, even before most of its officials are nominated or confirmed, feels the need to begin a corrupting and humiliating money chase reflects the dominance that campaign finance has acquired in official life. President Bush could do something about that: He could promise his support for the McCain-Feingold reform bill and urge the House to get serious on it. Failing that, any change in tone is likely to be overcome by an all-too-familiar odor.

His administration should step back and let this order go through.




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