It was a Hollywood movie premiere without limousines, revolving spotlights or starlets in low-cut gowns. The unveiling of the newest of Bill Clinton's videotapes did not evoke glamour. Only low-keyed disgust.
Even if you're a political junkie, don't rush to Blockbuster to rent the Clinton tapes. You wouldn't want popcorn. You'd need a barf bag.
Oh, there's no smoking gun, at least on this batch of the 150 tapes. No close-up shot of Clinton with his hand in anybody's pocket or overtly waving a tin cup.
But to my eyes, these tapes show Clinton and his presidency at their grubbiest. Sweating, desperate not to be outspent in the 1996 campaign, he's peddling his charm and clout to bagmen one step away from a police lineup.
Here's Clinton hugging Johnny Chung like a long-lost pal -- "Johnny, how ya doing?"
Same Chung who handed a Hillary Rodham Clinton aide $50,000 to set up this chat-and-chow.
Here's Clinton effusively glad-handing Pauline Kanchanalak -- "Pauline!"
Same lobbyist, donations under a cloud, who skipped the United States.
Here's Clinton doing a buddy-buddy act with ex-Little Rock restaurateur Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie -- "Soon it will be 20 years since I had my first meal with Charlie Trie. At the time, neither one of us could afford the ticket to this dinner."
Same Trie, Asian big bucks under suspicion, who fled to China.
Here's Clinton all but awarding a Medal of Honor to "my good friend" John Huang, raving about his "effective, aggressive" work as a hustler.
Same Huang who raised half of the Democrats' untouchable $3 million and now ducks congressional investigators.
OK, so far nothing illicit, nothing to cause Janet Reno to surround the White House in a Waco siege. But it makes you queasy to recall the Clinton who promised a presidency so pure it would wipe out the 1980s Decade of Greed.
His 1996 motto seemed: "Whatever It Takes -- And Whomever I Can Take It From."
What's so dispiriting about the Clinton tapes is their ordinariness. In full-blown squalor, the camera shows the mundane sleaze behind doors in every senatorial, congressional and presidential race. Like Clinton, they grovel for dollars in Washington bazaars where chumminess is sold like a Lexus or Rolex.
They say they hate it. But like true addicts, they won't stop the treadmill.
Clinton's candor bursts through in a taped May 21, 1996, love-fest with wealthy donors. He reveals the engine that's driving the money dance: Dough to buy TV ads. Remember, he needed $85 million for Dick Morris' TV blitz that surged him ahead of Bob Dole. The "soft money" chase numbed Clinton near breakdown.
Pale, exhausted, he thanks the "generous" White House mob: "The fact we've been able to finance this long-running television campaign, where we've framed the issues . . . has been central to the position I enjoy in polls."
Ah, there's the Catch 22: To win, you must buy TV time, so you sell your access, power and integrity to collect cash. If you're a Republican, you hit corporate biggies. If you're Clinton, you bottom-fish with the Chungs, Huangs and Tries.
No wonder Americans were apathetic to the campaign-reform fuss: They all do it. After all, Ronald Reagan's on tape begging White House tycoons for help. But the Clinton tapes show his over-the-top fanaticism to win, even if it meant hobnobbing with felons or skirting laws.
Clinton boasted his eye was on the history books. The seamy videotapes will outlast his most noble sermons. At a time when we hear audiotapes of Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy in real crises, you see Clinton trolling for bucks as Executive Panhandler.
You wince at a scene of Clinton showing off the White House to foreign money guys. He pauses by a Blue Room portrait of Thomas Jefferson, saying: "That's my favorite."
Jefferson must have rolled his eyes. And put a tight grip on his wallet.
Philadelphia Daily News