Hillary's mysterious bridal registry

And other myths a biased and credulous press corps has created around the Clintons' exit.

Published February 10, 2001 12:28AM (EST)

During the nearly month-long controversy surrounding the gifts Bill and Hillary Clinton accepted last year, the political press has established three details as fact and repeated them endlessly.

First, anxious to fill their new private homes, the Clintons received $190,000 worth of gifts in the last year. Second, Hillary pursued this by registering like a bride for gift at Borsheim's Fine Jewelry & Gifts. Third, they moved fast, because once Hillary was sworn in as New York's new senator, she would be barred from accepting gifts worth more than $50.

The first detail showed the Clintons were greedy. The second? That they were tacky. The third, that they were duplicitous, plotting to circumvent Senate ethics laws.

From the perspective of the press, just one of those items would have constituted a good news story. A combination of any two was worth a running commentary. But all three justified a bona fide feeding frenzy.

Problem is, none of them are true. The gifts in question were received over an eight-year period, not one. Hillary was never registered at Borsheim's. And the Senate gift ban would not have forbidden Sen.Clinton from receiving all the generous items. None of that, though, has gotten in the way of the press telling a story it likes.

On President Clinton's final day in office, in accordance with federal law the couple disclosed that for the year 2000 they had accepted $190,027 worth of gifts, including sweaters, lamps, golf clubs, china and glass sculptures. That's an extraordinary amount, nearly double what the Clintons had received during their first seven years in the White House, combined. (For some context, during their four years in the White House, the least amount of gifts George and Barbara Bush accepted in any given year was $21,000; the most the Clintons accepted during their first four years was $16,000.)

An important clue for 2000's lofty price tag, though, was included right on the Clintons' official Executive Branch Personnel Public Financial Disclosure Report, which was distributed to the press: "This list includes gifts received over the last eight years, but which were not accepted by the Clintons until last year." (As gifts accumulate at the White House, first families can wait until their final year before officially accepting them or not.)

It couldn't be more simple; last year the Clintons officially accepted $190,000 worth of gifts which they had received during the last eight years. And how was it reported?

The Associated Press: "In the year before President Clinton left office and Hillary Rodham Clinton entered the Senate, the first couple received $190,027 worth of furniture and other gifts."

New York Daily News : Friends "showered the Clintons with $190,027 in gifts in 2000."

U.S. News & World Report: "The Clintons got gifts worth $190,027 last year."

(In an odd bit of schizophrenia, the Weekly Standard mocked the Clintons for "rattling their begging bowls last year" for gifts. Then two sentences later the magazine quoted from the couple's disclosure form, which stipulated the gifts were received "over the last eight years.")

At least those news outlets put the gifts in terms of years. Others became even more creative, narrowing the gift giving down from years to weeks and even days.

The Orlando Sentinel : The Clintons accumulated the gifts "in the weeks before" they left the White House.

NBC's Andrea Mitchell: The gifts poured in "during the First Family's last days in the White House."

NBC's David Bloom: The Clintons left with "the treasure trove of gifts they accepted in their final days in the White House."

USA Today: In an editorial, the paper suggested the controversy surrounded "last-minute gifts."

The Kansas City Star: The gifts arrived "as the former president was leaving office."

National Public Radio's Scott Simon: The Clintons accepted their 50-plus gifts during "those few golden days between Sen. Clinton's election and her oath of office, when Senate ethics laws would prohibit accepting such a trousseau of treasures."

We'll get to that Senate gift ban, but Simon's sinister construction became a common one: The gift giving was all a plot laid out only after Hillary won her election.

The AP: There were "indications that some of the larger gifts rolled in late in the year, just before the Clintons left the White House ."

The Washington Post: In an editorial, the paper suggested that "many of the items were given after Mrs. Clinton was elected to the Senate in November."

Perhaps Post editorial writers know something its reporters don't. Because in three weeks of blanket coverage on this story no news outlet, including the Post or the AP, has been able to identify a single gift, let alone $190,000 worth, given to the Clintons after the Nov. 7 election and before Hillary's Jan. 3 swearing in.

Last week, the Clintons finally stepped forward and offered to pay for the $86,000 worth of gifts they received in 2000, some of which had a strong whiff of impropriety: $7,000 worth of furniture from Denise Rich -- the ex-wife of Marc Rich, the fugitive financier Clinton pardoned -- and a truckload of housewarming gifts from friends that had little to do with the first couple's official duties. But at this point, the record was suddenly clear; $104,000 of their $190,000 worth of gifts were not given "last year" or in the "weeks" or "days" or "hours" before they left the White House. Instead, the gifts were given between 1993 and 2000. Of course, no news organization stepped forward to correct those earlier errors. Even if reporters or pundits had simply overlooked the mention of an eight-year span, a few phone calls to the Clintons' biggest gift donors would have helped set the record straight. Yet there are indications that some reporters did make the calls, but were not interested in writing up the facts.

When the Clintons' full-disclosure form was released last month, it included a pricey $22,000 personal gift from glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. As the controversy began to simmer, Chihuly's office started getting press inquirers asking about the circumstances of the gift. Chihuly's assistant Janet Makela says she explained to each reporter that although the gift was included on the 2000 list, it was actually given to the Clintons eight years ago.

Yet an electronic search on Nexis shows not a single mention of that fact.

Speaking of Chihuly, the Georgetown alumni class of 1968 also gave the Clintons a $38,000 Chihuly piece, which the couple accepted in 2000. In reality, the gift was given in 1998.

And then there is New York furniture maker Steve Mittman, who, according to the disclosure form, gave $19,000 worth of sofas, easy chairs and ottomans. Going on nothing more than a hunch, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote that Mittman's gifts were part of the Clintons' goodbye gift splurge intended to stock their new homes. Actually, the items were given seven years ago. Dowd made a similar error in referring to the timing of the $22,000 Chihuly piece.

Combined, the two glass sculptures, as well as Mittman's furniture, represent nearly one-half of the Clintons' $190,000 gift total. Yet none of them were given to the Clintons last year when they were supposedly stocking up on goodbye gifts.

The Times' Dowd also played a starring role in creating the story that Hillary had registered for expensive goodbye gifts at Borsheim's. Dancing around the facts, she never came out and wrote that Hillary was registered, but that friends were treating her "like a bride" with gifts from the store. Borsheim's CEO, not to mention Hillary's spokesperson, immediately denied she was registered with the store or that anyone had set up a registry for her.

It didn't matter. The press loved the limousine-liberal angle, and if Dowd wouldn't say that Hillary was registered, others would.

NBC's Mitchell: "Mrs. Clinton registered her choices last November, just like a new bride."

Syndicated columnist Mona Charen: "Hillary likes to shop at Borsheim's Fine Jewelry & Gifts in Omaha, and according to Dowd, her china and silver patterns are on the registry list there for those who wish to help out the new homeowner."

New York Daily News: "Clinton had registered her choices for gifts in November, just like a bride."

New York Post columnist Dick Morris: "Apparently, it was not enough for them to establish a bridal-like registry to solicit almost $200,000 worth of china, silver and furniture for their Chappaqua and D.C. mansions."

Keep in mind: The two parties involved, Hillary Clinton and Borsheim's, long ago denied the existence of a registry and to date no reporter has been able to come up with any other proof that one exists, yet the fact is simply retold over and over. Why? The press likes the story.

Just like the press loves the Senate gift-ban angle, which introduced an element of real wrongdoing. Once again, the notion was first floated by Dowd, who wrote, "As a senator, Hillary won't be able to accept gifts worth more than $100. But as First Lady, she can take gifts as long as she discloses those over $250. So we have a nice window of opportunity before Jan. 3."

Because no first lady had ever left the White House and gone directly into elected office, this issue had never come up before. Plus, the Senate gift ban is relatively new. But following Dowd's lead, the press, just as it was sure all the Clinton gifts were given last year and that Hillary had registered like a bride, was utterly confident about the Senate gift ban.

The Providence Journal: "The recent acts of generosity were rushed to avoid congressional rules forbidding such freebies that would have gone into effect for Mrs. Clinton once she took the oath of office as New York's junior senator."

NBC's Mitchell: "The gifts were donated by friends and Democratic Party contributors just before Mrs. Clinton was sworn in, to avoid violating Senate ethics rules."

The New York Post: "Now that she is a senator, Hillary Clinton is covered by much stricter gift rules -- she can't accept any item worth more than $50 or a total of over $100 worth of presents from an individual in a single year."

Problem is, that's not what the law actually says. Yes, senators are forbidden from accepting gifts valued at more than $50. But according to the Senate Ethics Manual, "The Gift Rule contains 23 exceptions: the following gifts are expressly excluded from the Rule's limitations: 4) anything provided by an individual on the basis of a personal friendship."

Senators may accepts gifts if they are given based on personal friendship and where "there is no potential conflict of interest or appearance of impropriety." Any such gifts worth more than $250 need a waiver from the Senate Ethics Committee. "Thus, gifts motivated solely by personal friendship between the giver and the Member are permissible. However, where the gift giver does not personally pay for the gift, or take a tax deduction, or gives similar gifts to others in the Senate, or seek reimbursement, the gift is unlikely to come within the personal friendship exemption."

Most of the gifts given to the Clintons last year would seem to fit all those waiver criteria since nobody has suggested any of the gift givers didn't spend their own money, or were seeking a tax deduction or reimbursement. Nobody has suggested their friends have legislation pending before the Senate or pose any other conflict of interest. And nobody has suggested they gave similar gifts to other members of the Senate.

What about Denise Rich and her $7,000 worth of gifts? If they were given to the Clintons after Jan. 3, Hillary could have, in theory, sought a waiver since the pardon of Rich's husband, which Hillary had nothing to do with, was already a done deal. Therefore, no conflict of interest with the Senate existed. The Gift Rule contains another relevant exception: spouses. According to the Senate Ethics Manual: "Unlike the previous Rule 25, spouses and dependents are not separately subjected to the gift limitation. Rather under the current rule, a gift to a family member is considered a gift to the Member only if it is given with the knowledge and acquiescence of the Member and the Member has reason to believe the gift was given because of the official position of the Member."

Does anyone really think the Clintons were given their gifts because Hillary was about to become a senator? Indeed, with $104,000 worth of gifts coming before last year, most gift givers gave before Hillary ever won the election, let alone announced her intention to run. And even if old friends waited until this year to give the Clintons expensive housewarming gifts, because Bill is arguably just as much a recipient as Sen. Clinton, Hillary could ask for waivers based on the spouse exemption.

Meanwhile, the gift store just keeps on giving. After assigning three reporters and four researchers, the Washington Post reported on Monday that some of the gifts the Clintons took may have been given to the White House, and not to them personally. The Clintons insist there was a clerical snafu and that any gifts intended for the White House would be returned. By Monday afternoon, the White House's nonpartisan usher and executive manager, Gary Walters, assured CNN the Clintons had not erred in taking their gifts. "Everything that belongs to the government is still here," he said.

New York furniture maker Mittman, whose gifts were in dispute in the Post story, subsequently told reporters he's glad the Clintons took his furniture. More important, he thinks the whole gift tale is trivial.

He's not the only one.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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