IN EARLY 1996, PRESIDENT CLINTON'S top political advisers had a problem. Under Dick Morris's guidance, Clinton had made an extraordinary comeback from the mid-term debacle of 1994. While the Republican presidential candidates were beating (and spending) each other senseless in the primaries, Clinton was coasting to renomination without challenge, and his poll ratings had recovered and were still rising. He was well on his way to raising all the money he could legally spend in the pre-convention period. To outward appearances, things could hardly have been better.

The problem for Clinton's aides was they had an increasingly unhappy candidate on their hands. The Morris strategy was built around a massive television ad blitz that was costing a fortune. It had started in the summer of 1995 with commercials attacking the Republican positions on crime and the budget, and Morris planned to keep it going until the end of the campaign. The ads were blanketing much of the country with Washington and New York deliberately blacked out to keep the national media from figuring out what Morris was up to.

Before it was over, the ad campaign would cost about $ 85 million, more than twice the TV budget of the 1992 Clinton campaign. As a result, the president was having to devote night after night to fund-raising and was continually on the road in pursuit of cash. For all his gregariousness, Clinton hated these fund-raisers. They were all the same: He arrived, stood in a receiving line having his picture taken with the donors, made a speech, and left. Usually, they were the last events at the end of long days of campaigning. Often the fund-raising, not the campaigning, was the real reason for the trip. "You've got me running all around the country and all I do is run in and out of hotel rooms," one aide reports the president complained. " I'm not having any contact with any of these people. All I'm doing is sitting there shaking hands."

In his book Behind the Oval Office, Morris quotes an even more bitter Clinton lament: "You don't know, you don't have any remote idea how hard I have to work. . . . I can't think. I can't act. I can't do anything but go to fund-raisers and shake hands. You want me to issue executive orders; I can't focus on a thing except the next fund-raiser." But Morris was not about to accommodate his weary client. In his view, the ad campaign was indispensable. Indeed, he now argues that the money that paid for it, in effect, bought Clinton reelection. "If it were not for the fund-raising that they did," he told me, "we would not have won the election, and Dole and Gingrich would be running the country."

Every president, no matter how unpopular with the wider public, is a fund- raising superstar in his own party. The only limits to what a president can raise are those imposed by law and his own endurance. The Clinton team had worried earlier about the monetary limits. Morris had even suggested at one point that the Clinton campaign refuse federal matching money and thereby avoid the spending limits such money entails. But the president's aides were already worried that the Morris ad budget, even with matching funds, might exhaust all the campaign money available, leaving other Democratic candidates starved for cash and furious. Morris's idea was quickly rejected.

Morris had used Clinton-Gore campaign funds -- so-called hard money -- to purchase the first round of ads, a $ 2.5 million buy devoted to the crime issue, in July 1995. What Morris did not recognize until later was that such " issue-advocacy" ads could be paid for by "soft" money available in unrestricted amounts to the two parties for "party-building" activities. Once he realized that, he made the Democratic National Committee treasury, in effect, a part of the Clinton-Gore war chest. Still, somebody had to raise the dollars, and Clinton was the only person capable of doing so in the amounts required.

This was how the now-infamous White House coffees became institutionalized. The president, first lady, and Tipper Gore had each hosted occasional coffees with various groups, usually in the Map Room in the White House basement. These events the president did like. He would arrive, typically about 8:30 a. m., to find a small group composed of potential donors, DNC officials, and others. He would speak briefly and then take questions. It was a perfect forum for Clinton, who likes to talk and likes to listen. They were also an ideal fund-raising vehicle, even if no overt solicitation was done until afterward. "Once the word got out that he was happy to do these," an aide recalls, "the fund-raising folks said, 'Let's pump this up.'" They pumped it up all right. By recent count, the White House held 103 coffees, most of them for cash, in 1995 and 1996. It was at one such coffee that the president met Wang Jun, the Chinese arms merchant, who had come with Charlie Trie, the man who rounded up the $ 649,000 in fishy donations to Clinton's legal defense fund that were subsequently returned.

At one point in early 1996, political aides urged that 27 coffees be added to a Clinton schedule that already included 13 dinners and 11 days of travel over a three-month period. The request is cited in a memorandum from deputy chief of staff Evelyn Lieberman, who said it had "considerable urgency." She proposed granting the request for a provisional two-week period to see how it affected things, including the president's "stamina." "In order to do this," her memo adds, "staff who routinely brief the President will be asked to be flexible during this period and accept that their briefings may be considerably truncated or eliminated." That request presumably included the president's daily intelligence briefing, though White House aides insist that briefing was never affected by the demands of fund-raising.

In his book, Dick Morris claims to have understood those demands. He describes attending a Clinton fund-raiser and standing, as the president had to, while the long line of contributors filed by for their moment with him. " The line never seemed to ease up, much less end. The president," he writes, " went through this agony night after night. I began to see what those ads were going to cost him." Oh, no, he didn't.

Contributing editor Brit Hume is Washington managing editor of the Fox News Channel.

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