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ABC's "Nightline" show with Ted Koppel last Tuesday was a demonstration of why there is so little interest beyond the Beltway in campaign-finance reform.

From start to finish, Koppel's show was a thinly disguised dismissal of the fund-raising irregularities committed at the behest of President Clinton.

"Nightline" advanced the party line embraced by much of the Washington media corps: Concern about violations of law is a lot of Republican nitpicking.

Koppel's headline was the Clinton administration's defiance of the Senate and Attorney General Janet Reno on the release of videotapes of fund-raising "coffees" at the White House.

But Koppel and ABC quickly diverted the viewer from that White House embarrassment and launched into a familiar theme: There they go again -- vengeful Republicans attacking poor old Bill Clinton for straying across archaic and unrealistic laws.

Actually, the tapes dealt with a deeper problem. That is, the use of the White House for the purpose of partisan fund-raising.

To deploy the president's awesome power for such narrow goals -- that is, the raising of money for a cause supported by less than 22 percent of the electorate, Democratic Party -- is to prostitute the institution of the presidency.

So there is tradition against this practice.

There are laws against this.

It once was the job of journalists to be the people's watchdog. We used to try to uphold the nation's best traditions. We used to worry when the people's taxes were not used to "promote the general Welfare."

Journalists once tried to hold public officers strictly accountable to the law -- the higher the officeholder, the tougher the standard.

Now these institutions -- respect for the spirit as well as the letter of the law, honoring the wishes of taxpayers, presidential decency, the sanctity of the White House -- are fodder for comics.

It was Harold Ickes who cited a joke made by Jay Leno the other night about charges that Clinton misused White House facilities for his own partisan financial ends.

Ickes repeated the joke during his sworn testimony to make light of an investigation by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

Clinton had raised Harold Ickes from the status of lawyer for a Mafia-dominated union to deputy White House chief of staff. He helped the president raise money from the Oval Office and other official chambers at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The odor around Ickes was so strong that Erskine Bowles refused to become Clinton's chief of staff until Ickes was out of the building, for good.

Now Ickes was summoned to testify before the Senate committee. Like his fellow White House staffers called to tell the truth, Ickes couldn't remember much.

But he could recall Leno's way of belittling charges against the president.

Koppel opened the program by calling Ickes' remarks "a plea for common sense."

The script:

"Harold Ickes: Jay Leno observed, and I quote, 'The guy lives in the White House, he works in the White House. He's the president. What's he supposed to do, go to the pay phone at the 7-Eleven?' "

The sense of the joke was that Clinton owns the White House, not the people, and that anybody who complains about what he does with it is a bore.

Koppel went right to George Stephanopoulos, former key Clinton adviser and now a news commentator for ABC News. He and former Clinton political consultant Dick Morris stressed the danger Clinton was in after the 1994 Republican sweep of Congress.

Koppel called on another fellow inmate of his political brothel, Roy Neel, for more hearts and flowers. ABC noted Neel worked for Gore briefly but did not mention Neel left Gore for a $500,000-a-year job to lobby Clinton for regional phone companies.

Neel told ABC's viewers that Gore finds fund raising "distasteful," and he labeled as "absolute nonsense" the law against using the White House to squeeze big money from special interests.

There were no words from the lofty Koppel about the fact that we taxpayers -- Republican, Democratic or Turned Off -- have absolutely no choice about paying taxes toward the costs of maintaining the presidency.

These include at least $41 million a year to keep his office running, $10 million a year for buildings and grounds and a large chunk of the $502 million Secret Service budget.

Try your luck with the IRS sometime to test who is ultimately responsible for the White House. Try deducting from your income taxes the cost of the White House political staff, the communications costs or the security costs incurred for the coffees.

Tell the IRS you won't pay for Air Force One, Marine helicopters, the Defense Department cameramen hauled in to take pretty pictures of the coffees, the CIA political office or the social office flunkies who squire big donors around.

Try telling the IRS that Clinton and Gore can pay for it, not you. You're apt to get indicted, and get portrayed on "Nightline" as a dangerous radical.

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