WASHINGTON -- Republican Sen. Fred Thompson's hearings into the campaign money messes of President Clinton et al. were supposed to be a really big show. Fireworks, subpoenas, star witnesses, even "high level indictments" were promised, if not by Thompson himself, then by excited Republican colleagues, like Arizona Sen. John McCain.
The Senate hearings, which began Tuesday, are now beginning to look like a political box-office loser, with some smoke, no fire and a vague plot. And, most important of all, no stars. "These guys working for Thompson are not longtime Hill staffers," says a White House official. "They are a bunch of lawyers and do not know how to put on a hearing."
Two things guarantee successful hearings, say congressional experts. You must have a coherent story, and you must have key players in the tale telling it. But unless a last minute deal can be worked out, there seems little chance the most important figures -- such as discredited Democratic fund-raisers Charles Trie and John Huang -- will appear before the committee.
How then will Thompson, chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee and a former actor known for supporting roles in political potboilers, keep viewers of CNN and C-SPAN interested? He does have a couple of nuns who will testify under immunity about the notorious Buddhist temple fund-raiser in Los Angeles attended by Vice President Al Gore last summer. There was hanky-panky there, for sure. But what new groundbreaking information will Thompson or the nuns have to present? Unless the committee can show that the contributions originated in another country and that the Democrats traded something in return, Thompson may have a damp squib on his hands.
More promising as villain of the piece is Huang. Republican conspiracists theorize Huang was somehow in league with the Chinese communists. "It's not enough for Huang to be a slimy fund-raiser," says a Democratic staffer. "The Republicans want to turn him into a master spy and Chinese agent." But this, too, will be no mean feat -- particularly without Huang's cooperation. Some Republican investigators hint that intelligence intercepts contain proof. White House officials and Democratic investigators swear they have seen no such intercepts -- or anything else -- that backs such a theory.
Perhaps Thompson is aiming to expose some dark conspiracy involving Huang when he was a Commerce Department official. Some Republicans want to show that Huang leaked information to the Lippo group, the multinational corporation headed by Indonesian billionaire Mochtar Riady, and that somehow foreign policy was influenced. This could be another non-starter. "We can show that no foreign policy was influenced," says one White House official. "And as for Huang leaking trade secrets to Lippo, we have no idea what or if he did." Democratic staffers who have attended depositions and reviewed thousands of documents say that so far Thompson's committee has found nothing about Huang and Lippo activities that the press has not already reported.
Thompson's supposed political allies have hardly helped matters. As part of the bipartisan deal to get the hearings under way, Thompson promised to look into Republican abuses of "soft money" campaign contributions as well. That received a severe blow this week when the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, Haley Barbour, refused subpoenas from committee investigators looking into the fund-raising activities of a Republican think tank he founded. Equally damaging was the abrupt resignation Tuesday of the chief counsel and two senior investigators of the House committee looking into campaign finance abuses on the grounds that GOP partisan zealotry was hampering a professional investigation.
With an already scandal-weary public to convince, Thompson faces a high bar indeed. "Our line is this is old news, already reported," says one White House official. That line may well carry the day unless Thompson can present a new and coherent understanding of what really occurred during Clinton's fund-o-mania.
July 7, 1997
There's gold in them thar aliens!
Who needs extraterrestrial visitors when you have Alien Artificial Insemination Kits and Roswell Incident Knives hawked by little boys in cowboy hats? In the final installment of his report from "The 50th anniversary of nothing," Jack Boulware overloads on Alien Consumer Kitsch.
BY JACK BOULWARE
ROSWELL, N.M. -- New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson stands outside the Roswell Convention Center on Sunday, wearing a blue work shirt, jeans and an alien-head pendant around his neck. News cameras weasel in for the sound bites, to be blasted across the nation:
"I visited the museum, and it was unbelievable," says the governor enthusiastically. "An amazing story. It was all there, except for a few facts." He then puts his arms around two little girls clad in alien costumes, complete with almond-shaped eyes and spindly fingers, and strolls into the building, chased by chubby cameramen.
This is one of the saner incidents that I witnessed during the week-long Roswell UFO Encounter '97.
Over the Fourth of July weekend, Roswell has doubled in size to 100,000. In front of the Convention Center, next to the Tilt-A-Whirl and other carnival rides, floats a 20-foot inflatable alien, tethered to a truck parked on the lawn. Competing radio stations blast Pink Floyd and that silly hippie song "White Bird." A big tent provides shade for reporters to deliver live updates for MSNBC, and in the middle it all, painted green and sporting fuzzy emerald antennae, a lowly burro offers children's rides. What began three days ago as a sober congregation of legitimate UFO aficionados has turned into a county fair, minus the 4-H goat judging.
The seminars and speakers continue, some of them attracting sell-out audiences, but most of Roswell couldn't care less about inductively coupled plasma testing of space minerals or abductee confessionals. They're here for the junk. There is no burning need for anyone to own a genuine, homemade "Indian Alien Napkin Holder." God did not create rocks so that one day someone in New Mexico could spray paint them gold and dab in a pair of alien eyes. Society does not cry out for Alien Artificial Insemination Kits (a package of Palmolive dishwashing soap, a sponge and an eyedropper). These products do have one thing going for them, however: Unlike Roswell's excessively discussed extraterrestrial visitors, they actually exist.
The main expo room of the Convention Center has been choked all week with white-trash stomachs and butts competing for space in the aisles with noisy baby strollers and the occasional human time bomb, the greasy-haired individual wearing a "Take Me to Your Dealer" T-shirt and pointing a camcorder at everything. Merchants dazzle the shuffling sheep with cutesy signs and displays, determined to unload the booty and line their own pockets with fool's gold. No other nation can trivialize an issue faster or better than America. For a moment, looking over this sea of alien-head commerce, one almost gets misty-eyed with pride.
The makers of some lopsided pottery exhort consumers to sign their guest book in order to "be spared from grueling torture and slavery when we conquer this pathetic planet." A package of "alien" earrings bears the soothing message "The Alien family is a motley collection of interplanetary characters whose primary goal is to bring humor and good will to a serious society of earthlings." A booth pitching "The Book of Urantia," purportedly written by 23 aliens, features a slinky young girl in a black form-fitting catsuit with sunglasses, coyly asking passersby: "Are you fully developed?" Two little boys in enormous cowboy hats sit behind a table of antique pocketknives, most notably "The Roswell Incident Knife," a gleaming pig-sticker emblazoned with an alien face. The boys say the knife is the brainchild of a friend of their grandpa's: "He designed the alien head, and they made it in Germany." Pamela Stonebrooke, aka the Intergalactic Diva, has been abducted and impregnated by extraterrestrials four times, and her cassette tape includes songs about her alien-sex experiences.
It's really a great country we live in, when you think about it.
Not all locals are alien-friendly. Throughout the week, a steady grumbling can be heard from the bowels of the city as citizens watch their innocent hamlet become a Fellini film. "I'm sick of it," says a high school girl pouring coffee at the Alien Caffeine booth. An on-site masseuse named Katy scowls: "This is so commercial it makes me sick to my stomach." Another local, attending a banquet for the legendary UFO writer Whitley Streiber, adds: "The only little green men in Roswell are the faces of the dead presidents on fives, tens and twenties."
In search of a little informed perspective, I track down James Moseley, who publishes a witty insider magazine devoted to the latest in flying saucer discoveries, laced with skeptical, irreverent coverage of the names and faces jostling for space in the field. All the major players read it. The most recent incarnation of his magazine is called Saucer Smear. Its slogan -- "Shockingly Close to the Truth" -- is also the title of his upcoming autobiography. (Its occasional subtitle, "A boil on the ass of ufology," was contributed by an enraged reader.) Over a couple of stiff Seagram's in the Pecos Pub lounge of the Roswell Inn Hotel, Moseley talks about the weirdness of Roswell and the UFO field in general. "The Roswell thing is one of the most fascinating phenomena within the UFO field that I can possibly imagine," he says. "I am delighted to be here because I've never before gone to a festival honoring the 50th anniversary of nothing."
According to Moseley, the country was primed for Roswell because it had already been driven into a state of minor hysteria by the so-called Arnold Sighting in 1947, which made national headlines. "Had it not been for all the background of all the newspaper stories following the Arnold report, they would have realized this is basically garbage the guy found on his farm." He stops himself, realizing how damning the statement is. "I mean, that is sacrilege. That is heavy sacrilege. In the '50s, when I was first interested in saucers, and I incidentally had a chance to talk to some very important people, I never asked them about Roswell or MJ-12 [government documents about UFOs], because these had not been invented yet. It was not part of our culture. In all those early years, Roswell was never mentioned. It was never mentioned in the early UFO books. It just wasn't a big deal until it was made a big deal by professional writers who had obvious motives."
What does he think of the claims of a massive government cover-up? "The government is so incompetent, in general and specifically, that it is insane to believe that they are capable of holding a conspiracy together for 50 years, or even five years or five months, because somebody's gonna spill it," he says. "They are not just one monolithic force against us, the people. They are a bunch of nuts just like we are, and they make mistakes. People talk about former military people who supposedly won't tell the truth about Roswell because they're afraid of losing their pensions. Now think about it. If you had an artifact from another planet, or proof that there were a landing here or anywhere else, do you think you would worry about losing your pension? You'd get a million dollars from the National Enquirer right off the top, and you'd go on making money for the rest of your life. I love paranoia, I get that way myself sometimes, but you can really overdo it."
How has the UFO field changed over the years? "The basic format, the kind of people, the kind of minds that are attracted to it, are not different at all. The aliens are getting weirder. But the fun thing is, they don't kill people, and when people are abducted, they always come back."
July 7, 1997
Jack Boulware is a columnist for S.F. Weekly. His book, "Sex American Style: An Illustrated Romp Through the Golden Age of Hetero," will be published by Feral House this fall.