Finally, A Campaign Debate Over Openness

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Presidential candidates receive surveys from every special interest from PETA to Planned Parenthood, but the one they apparently find easiest to disregard comes from Sunshine Week, the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) initiative on open government.

Sunshine Week began Sunday, and until the day before, it had not received a response to the survey it first mailed out to the 16 major-party candidates in October 2007 — and re-sent after the Super Tuesday primaries — from the three remaining in the race, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and Republican John McCain.

Clinton squeaked under the Sunshine Week wire with a survey that repeatedly wags its finger at the “excessive secrecy” of the Bush administration — and ignores her own transparency-challenged record.

Obama at long last used the lull between primaries late last week to finally address an issue he has preferred to keep in the shadows for the past year — the full extent of his political and financial relationship with Illinois power broker Tony Rezko, who is now on trial in Chicago on federal corruption charges.

He has yet to respond to the Sunshine Week survey, but, as the indefatigable Chicago Sun-Times political columnist Lynn Sweet — who deserves much of the credit for pressuring Obama to come clean — reports, he now believes he’s positioned to make a campaign issue of transparency.

The Obama campaign thinks it can use the transparency issue to blunt Clinton’s oft-repeated claim that she is “fully vetted,” unlike, presumably, the junior senator from Illinois.

“Sen. Clinton and her campaign say she is fully vetted, but the truth is that she is a veteran of non-disclosure,” Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod told the Sun-Times’ Sweet. His spokesman said Clinton should release her tax returns, and the list of donors to her husband’s presidential library in Little Rock.

In response, Clinton’s campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson told the paper that the Obama team is “running a campaign that is designed to tear down Sen. Clinton’s character using Republican talking points,” and that they should knock off the “personal attack.”

It’s about time we’re hearing about issues that go far more to the heart of what kind of president they might be than what Obama’s pastor says in Sunday sermons or whether Clinton really is as Irish as she says on St. Patrick’s Day.

Both Democratic candidates have spotty records on the subject, with Obama having trouble finding or releasing many of the documents from his Illinois state Senate days.

And Hillary Clinton, well, where do you start? It’s instructive to recall that an E&P editorial in the early days of the Bush administration accused Dick Cheney of “operating his energy task force right out of the Hillary Clinton playbook: All sessions are off the record and no documents are shared within the group, lest they be leaked.” A subhead said the Bush White House was showing “a Clintonesque weakness for secrecy.”

The ludicrously excessive secrecy of Bush, Cheney & Co., of course, make Clinton’s ill-starred health-care “task force” of 500 look like the good ole’ days. It’s clear now this White House never needed lessons in secrecy from anyone.

These days, Hillary is talking the talk on open government. Her Sunshine Week questionnaire promises support for a federal shield law; an attorney general who will roll back John Ashcroft’s infamous and still-standing order for bureaucrats to favor non-disclosure over disclosure in freedom of information requests; and an end to the excessive classification of government documents.

“To me, openness and accountability are not platitudes — they are essential elements of our democracy,” she wrote in the survey.

Still, her records as First Lady are still sitting unseen and gathering dust in the Clinton library, safe from prying eyes thanks to the 2001 executive order by Bush giving family members control of their administration’s records. She’s said she’s asked for the process to be speeded up.

And she’s in no hurry to release her income tax return, promising it by the due date of April 15, a week before the Pennsylvania primary. As for the Clinton library donors, well, the library and foundation will be required to “prospectively disclose” those names and amounts “when I am president.”

On the Republican side, McCain apparently thinks the American people has no particular need to know his views on government secrecy and openness.

McCain refuses to release his income tax returns. Sunshine Week research reports that he supports continuing to classify certain records from the Vietnam War, 33 years after the fall of Saigon. On the other hand, he has spoken in favor of a federal reporter’s shield act, and the campaign law he pushed, however else it restricts free speech in the view of many, does require far more transparency and public access to information than was the case in the past.

The federal Freedom of Information Act and the equivalent state laws on access to documents and meetings are consistently popular with the voters. In a Sunshine Week poll released Sunday, nearly 90% of respondents said they think it’s important for candidates to say where they stand on open government issues.

It’s past time for the remaining presidential candidates to do just that — and start challenging each other on the critical issues of transparency and access the way they challenge each other on experience and judgment.

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