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Jewish World Review Feb. 8, 2001 / 15 Shevat 5761

Philip Terzian

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The wrong man -- THE LAST TIME a Democrat narrowly lost a presidential election (1968) the Democratic National Committee was in disarray. The year's events had thoroughly demoralized the party, and Hubert Humphrey's defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon (with some help from George Wallace) left the Democrats leaderless, unsettled, divided and impoverished.

Into these unpromising precincts stepped an ambitious freshman senator from Oklahoma named Fred Harris. Harris, a sometime protege of Lyndon Johnson with slight leanings toward his party's left, saw himself as a bridge between the Old politics and the New, and sought to use the DNC to advance his prospects for the presidency. It was a forlorn hope. The Democrats, under the leadership of Sen. George McGovern, were about to "reform" their nominating process into electoral oblivion: McGovern, himself, would be the first beneficiary of the new McGovern Commission rules. And Harris, while energetic and audacious, had no plausible support outside the DNC apparatus.

The New Deal coalition had fractured over Vietnam and urban riots; Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy was pulling Republicans out of permanent minority status.

A little over a year after Harris's ascendancy I entered the scene as a DNC intern (no jokes, please). The Democratic National Committee offices, at that time, were barely distinguishable from what they had been a generation earlier: A research organization devoted to churning out press releases and position papers. The place was full of tiny offices crammed with books, papers and metal filing cabinets; old Johnson/Humphrey retreads toiled in stunned obscurity. Harris had imported a few comely secretaries to brighten the atmosphere, but by early 1970, it was obvious that somethng had to be done to inject some life into the party.

That something was to prompt the members of the DNC, led by the aged Col. Jacob Arvey of Chicago, to persuade the old Kennedy hand Lawrence O'Brien to abandon his Wall Street exile -- no great loss, to O'Brien or Lower Manhattan -- and revive the moribund DNC.

Out went Harris and his dreams of the White House. In came O'Brien and his protean assortment of veteran hacks, harbingers of youth, and well-groomed money men, notably Robert Strauss, the new treasurer. The DNC never looked back.

I was reminded of all this by the election over the weekend of Terry McAuliffe as the new Democratic national chairman. When a party holds the White House, nearly anybody can function as chairman, and McAuliffe's predecessor (a harmless nebbish named Joe Andrews) fit the description. But when the party is in opposition, and its "titular leadership" seems divided between Bill Clinton and Al Gore, the chairmanship has some relevance. It is, perhaps, significant that either Gore surrendered whatever lingering influence he wields, or Clinton exercised his bullying tactics; but in any event, McAuliffe is very much Bill Clinton's man at the DNC, with all the strengths and weaknesses that implies.

The strengths, as it were, are largely financial. McAuliffe is a real estate mogul who had raised untold tens of millions for the Democratic Party during Clinton's tenure, and promises to raise even more. In 2000, for the first time ever, the Democrats succeeded in raising more soft money for candidates and issues advertising than the Republicans, which should make the forthcoming debate about campaign finance reform especially interesting.

But McAuliffe's weaknesses are profound. He seems possessed of a political tin ear, which was especially evident in his victory speech excoriating George W. Bush for "stealing" the election with a litany of "complaints -- many of them sharply disputed or otherwise unsubstantiated -- about alleged voter intimidation in Floria and elsewhere" (The Washington Post). At a time when the new president is earning points for bipartisanship in Washington, and disarming his critics, Mr. McAuliffe seems intent on practicing the kind of scorched-earth politics Americans profess to abhor.

Then there is the sleaze factor. If there is one thing that former President and Mrs. Clinton have come to represent in party politics, it is a particular corruption of the process of fund-raising. And no one personifies that better than Terry McAuliffe, host of the Lincoln Bedroom. Mr. McAuliffe remains vulnerable to criminal inquiries about his activities during the 1996 presidential campaign, especially the union money-laundering schemes that have tarred the AFL-CIO and yielded an indictment against former Teamsters president Ron Carey. Whatever millions Terry McAuliffe conjures up in the next several months must be balanced against his bumptious rhetoric and reputation for sharp practices.

No one ever accused Fred Harris of crooked behavior, but when push came to shove, his removal was swift and surgical, leaving no scars. Terry McAuliffe should be so lucky.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal