Money and Politics Go Hand-in-Hand

On Monday night, Dick Cheney opened the vice president's residence in Washington to hundreds of Republican donors. On Tuesday, President Bush appeared at a Republican fund-raising dinner at the D.C. Armory to raise more than $15 million.

Having won the 2000 election, in part, by criticizing Bill Clinton's fund-raising methods and other ethical practices, Bush and Cheney have reopened the debate over what methods are proper for a national leader to use in raising political money.

The Ohio kingmaker Mark Hanna said, "There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can't remember what the second one is." In 1896, Hanna went to banks and companies and told them to pony up for the Republican nominee, William McKinley, or else expect an unfriendly White House if his man became president.

McKinley's vice president and successor, Theodore Roosevelt, was so appalled by corporate political spending that he vainly called for public financing of campaigns.

In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt gathered a group of wealthy friends, including the Boston tycoon Joseph Kennedy, father of the 35th president, to provide the several million dollars it took him to wage his first presidential campaign. (In return for his largesse and fund raising, Kennedy expected FDR to make him treasury secretary and was furious when he did not.)

When New York Gov. Thomas Dewey implored Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to run for president in 1952, he pledged to "raise a hell of a lot of money" from Big Business in order to scare away potential rivals.

In 1960, Joseph Kennedy became presidential campaign financier for the second time, investing millions of dollars of his own and his family's money in JFK's successful campaign. The younger Kennedy joked that his father had told him not to spend more than necessary: he would be "damned" if he'd pay for a landslide.

TV Changes the Game

But as television moved to the center of presidential campaigns, costs skyrocketed. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson formed a "President's Club" of $1,000 donors in order to raise $15 million for his fall campaign.

Yet LBJ was adamant that fund raising should be distanced from the Oval Office. Not only did he refuse to stage fund-raisers at the White House but even when asked to use the East Room for charitable fund-raising, he refused, noting that people with interests before the federal government should not be asked for money at the White House.

Richard Nixon was not so fastidious. In 1972, the final presidential campaign that unfolded before new campaign finance laws, he was determined to raise a record $60 million. As the Watergate investigations later revealed, he did so by allowing campaign fund-raisers to call on corporate CEOs, subtly warning that unless they gave generously, they would have severe regulatory problems when Nixon was re-elected.

One reason why Nixon was willing to play rough was that he was running scared. Even against the liberal George McGovern, who never came near to Nixon in the polls, he was always terrified that some unforeseen event would emerge to defeat him, and he wanted to be financially ready.

Striving for Balance

Bill Clinton had a similar compulsion. It was in the wake of his brutal 1994 defeat in Congress, with many pundits pronouncing him politically dead, that he revved up his notorious program of fund-raising "coffees," stays in the Lincoln Bedroom for generous donors and other questionable practices, allowing him to outspend his Republican opponent, Bob Dole, by about $40 million.

This week, we are watching a new president and vice president striving for a balance between their pledge to refrain from the Clinton practices they castigated in 2000 and their determination that, in a financial sense, their party will not unilaterally disarm. Democratic critics are insisting that Bush and Cheney not be judged by an easier standard than Clinton and Al Gore.

As the president and vice president are finding out, unlike for most of the American past, nowadays campaign finance is one of the chief ways a president is assessed by his contemporaries — and by history.

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss is an ABCNEWS Analyst and the author of the forthcoming Reaching for Glory: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1964-1965, which will be published by Simon & Schuster in November.

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