The Washington Times

Is Al Gore miscast as a champion of campaign-finance reform? He of “no controlling legal authority” notoriety on the subject of the propriety of fund-raising calls he made from his office, he of the visit to a fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple, etc.?

Before we get to the obvious answer, which is yes – the future Democratic presidential nominee himself concedes he is an “imperfect messenger” – it’s worth asking how well suited John McCain, the man who pushed the issue to the forefront in the primaries this year, actually was for the role. Mr. McCain, after all, was badly burned in 1990-91 as one of the so-called Keating Five, the Senate recipients of the largess of Charles H. Keating Jr., a bigwig savings and loan operator. Among them, they accepted some $1.3 million from Mr. Keating, whose Lincoln Savings and Loan Association went on to go belly-up at a cost to taxpayers of $3.4 billion.

The issue was not just taking money from the unsavory Mr. Keating. It was also a question of the senators’ exercise of undue influence with federal banking regulators, resulting in a one-year delay in shutting Mr. Keating down, which added as much as a billion dollars to the taxpayers’ tab.

The Senate Ethics Committee investigation eventually found Mr. McCain along with Democratic Sen. John Glenn the less culpable of the five, criticizing them for showing “poor judgment” in dealing with Mr. Keating. Mr. McCain blames partisan considerations for the unwillingness of the Senate investigators to drop him and Mr. Glenn from the investigation: The other three members of the Keating Five were Democrats, so eliminating Sens. Glenn and McCain would turn the affair into a Democratic scandal. But the truth is that Mr. McCain got singed for no other reason than that he took $112,000 from Mr. Keating and acted on his behalf, whereas others got scorched because they took more and did more.

None of this, of course, prevented Mr. McCain from becoming the high priest of campaign-finance reform in 2000. That in itself is a lesson for Mr. Gore. In addition, Mr. McCain demonstrated that there are voters who respond warmly to a message of reform: Mr. Gore wants those voters, and he’s not about to concede that one need be pure on the issue of fund-raising in order to court them.

Moreover, the case for reform that Mr. McCain makes has an interesting resonance for Mr. Gore. The senator’s reform rhetoric decries a corrupt system in which money plays too great a role. Yet pressed for direct accusations against particular colleagues spelling out how filthy lucre has corrupted them – as Senate colleague Robert Bennett of Utah, among others, has demanded from him – Mr. McCain generally demurs. It’s the system, he says.

Meanwhile, with regard to his own conduct in the Keating case, Mr. McCain won’t say he did anything especially wrong. Neither will Mr. Gore on 1996 fund-raising. Both would probably cop to no more than creating an appearance of impropriety.

Right: And in a point of undeniable utility to Mr. McCain in relation to the Keating affair and Mr. Gore in relation to the 1996 scandal, the breathtaking implication of Mr. McCain’s indictment is that politicians taking the money are actually victims of the system. Surrounded by persons of questionable motive (S&L high-flyers, Buddhist nuns) scheming to thrust bags of cash upon them, the poor politicians can hardly nod their heads without looking like they have done so for the money.

Thus to the extent that either Mr. McCain or Mr. Gore portrays himself as having screwed-up, it is only in the context of his higher victimhood. In Mr. Gore’s case, this view coincides with the operating theory of the Justice Department’s investigation into the 1996 fund-raising scandal, according to which the Clinton-Gore campaign and the Democratic National Committee were victims of a conspiracy to funnel money to them illegally. Understood on his own terms, Mr. Gore as “messenger” of campaign-finance reform is no worse than “imperfect.” That’s because whatever he did, the system made him do it.

Mr. Gore was going to have to come up with something to answer the certain Republican attacks on him for “no controlling legal authority,” and there is no particular reason to think that because he is now styling himself as a champion of reform, mention of the issue will be helpful to him – nor that George W. Bush will refrain from raising questions about Mr. Gore’s own conduct. But the vice president’s decision to confront his difficulty head-on suggests that necessity is the mother of audacity.

Will it work? Mr. McCain may still want to “beat Al Gore like a drum” over fund-raising improprieties. The senator may also resent the notion that his actions in the Keating Five episode have anything in common with Mr. Gore’s actions in connection with 1996 campaign fund-raising. But the truth is that when Mr. McCain places the blame on “the system,” it helps deflect blame from anyone in particular, whether it’s a senator with the wrong friend or a vice president in the wrong temple.