by Thomas Lippman
It’s easy to understand why people are outraged by reports that donors to the Clinton Foundation sought and sometimes received access to Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State. There appears to be scant evidence that the donors influenced any U.S. policies or government actions, but it doesn’t look good.
The outrage, however, is misdirected. This is not just about who got face time with the secretary of state; it’s about the way Washington works all the time, regardless of who is president or who is secretary of any cabinet department. Access is to people in Washington what gold is to gold miners. It is what lobbyists and trade association executives are paid to develop; it is what enables think tanks to get their policy papers to the top of the inbox. It’s why government official X or Senator Y returns this phone call instead of that one. Rarely is there a specific trade-off. In this sense Washington is no different from Albany or Sacramento or any other state capital.
Is this corruption? Angry voters may think so because the system appears to favor some insiders over ordinary folk, but the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t agree, overturning the conviction of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell in a gifts-for-access case. Absent a specific quid pro quo, the Court ruled, it’s not corruption, even if it doesn’t pass the smell test. Similarly, the court ruled in the Citizens United case that corporate contributions to political campaigns are free speech, not corrupt purchase of access.
To those who seek it, the avenue by which access is gained is less important than the fact of access itself.
Here’s an example from my own experience.
When Princess Diana died in 1997, the Washington Post assigned a reporter named Roxanne Roberts to fly to London for the funeral. Unfortunately, she did not have a valid passport, and it was the beginning of Labor Day weekend. Early Saturday morning, Roberts called me to ask for help.
At the time I was also a Post reporter, and for several years I had been covering the State Department and U.S. foreign policy issues. Like reporters from other prominent news organizations, I traveled frequently the secretary of state—in my time on the beat the secretary was first Warren Christopher, then Madeleine Albright. It was our job to use those long hours in the air and mealtimes on the ground to cultivate friendly relations with senior State department officials and with the support staff. That is, we developed access, though of course some officials were more amenable than others. Some officials were willing to give out their home telephone numbers, others weren’t, regardless of whether we had had a convivial dinner together in Addis Ababa or Geneva. What we reporters wanted was not policy influence but information, but the value of access was the same.
So when Roberts called me, I called the State Department’s operations center, which doesn’t close for holidays. Staff members there knew me; some had been on those flights overseas. By Saturday evening, Roberts had her new passport and was on her way to London.
The State Department people didn’t do me that favor because I – or the Post – contributed money to anyone. They didn’t do it because I’m a nice guy, which I’m often not. They didn’t care whether the Post reporter at Diana’s funeral was Roxanne Roberts or Joe Blow. They scrambled to issue that passport because Roberts and I represented an institution that mattered to them; it was better to be in the Washington Post’s good graces than not. They would have done the same thing for the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Would they have done it for the proverbial little old lady from Dubuque? No. She didn’t have access.
Did I write any differently about the State Department or about the foreign policy of the Bill Clinton administration, or make choices about which issues to write about, because the operations staff did the Post a favor? Certainly not, and I would have been fired if the editors believed that I did. If Roberts had not managed to obtain a passport on Labor Day weekend, would she or I have targeted State Department officials for unfavorable coverage? No. In the Washington system, you win some, you lose some.
The same is actually true elsewhere in the United States. Why do business people join the Rotary Club or the Lions? They may value the organization’s public service, but membership is also a way to cultivate others in the community who might prove useful. If the director of the local public works department served on a Rotary Club committee with you and you played some golf together, wouldn’t he or she be more likely to take a call from you than from a total stranger?
The problem in the Clinton access case is not that individuals pulled whatever strings they could to gain access to her or to someone who could obtain access for them. That happens all the time, even if ordinary Americans don’t understand how the system operates. The problem is that the apparent lubricant in this case was money, which people do understand, but there are other lubricants, such as the potential for a post-government job. It would be a mistake to believe that if there were no Clinton Foundation, people would not have had some other channel by which to seek access to Secretary Clinton. The Crown Prince of Bahrain, for example, might have gone through a contact in the Navy, rather than the Foundation, because his country is home to the Fifth Fleet. Inside the Beltway, that’s what access is all about.