Jill Abramson Links 2010 GOP Giving to Nixon, Watergate Era of Illegality

On the front of the Sunday Week in Review, Managing Editor Jill Abramson tried to link anonymous pro-Republican donors of the 2010 election cycle to illegal campaign donations made to Richard Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign: "Return of the Secret Donors - In 2010, corporate cash, anonymous contributions and other echoes of Watergate." Enforcing the link, the top half of the section was dominated by a collage of photos of Nixon and his secretary Rose Mary Woods, circa 1972.

It's clear that the Times hates the idea that corporations may have a say, however indirectly, in democracy. But one would at least think that a journalist comparing the perfectly legal corporation donation tactics of today to illegal fundraising by past political campaigns would look for the most recent examples. Perhaps the Clinton administration's corrupt 1996 fundraising from China, or the indelible image of Al Gore raising money in a Buddhist temple.

Instead, Abramson traveled all the way back to 1972 to link the anonymous corporate donations of 2010 to that quintessential example of Republican corruption, Richard Nixon.

Even as Abramson briefly admits today's allegedly Nixon-style fundraising is legal, she strained to set up a parallel between this pro-Republican election cycle and the illegal donations of 1972, specifically the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CREEP), and handily exploited a single loose link from the past to the present, one Fred Malek.

To old political hands, wise to the ways of candidates and money, 1972 was a watershed year. Richard M. Nixon's re-election campaign was awash in cash, secretly donated by corporations and individuals.

Fred Wertheimer, a longtime supporter of campaign finance regulation, was then a lawyer for Common Cause. He vividly recalls the weeks leading up to April 7, 1972, before a new campaign finance law went into effect requiring the disclosure of the names of individual donors. "Contributors," he said, "were literally flying into Washington with satchels of cash."

The Committee for the Re-Election of the President was also illegally hauling in many millions of dollars from corporations, many of which felt pressured into making contributions.

The record of donors was so tightly held that it was kept in a locked drawer by Rose Mary Woods, Nixon's secretary. The list - which came to be known as "Rose Mary's Baby" - wasn't released until Mr. Wertheimer forced the issue through a lawsuit. Among those on the list were William Keeler, the chief executive of Phillips Petroleum, who pleaded guilty, during the post-Watergate prosecutions, to making an illegal corporate donation.

Rose Mary's Baby itself, now an artifact of the nation's biggest political scandal, sits in the Watergate collection of the National Archives.

In this year's midterm elections, there is no talk of satchels of cash from donors. Nor is there any hint of illegal actions reaching Watergate-like proportions. But the fund-raising practices that earned people convictions in Watergate - giving direct corporate money to a campaign and doing so secretly - are back in a different form in 2010.

This time around, the corporations are still giving secretly, but legally. In 1907, direct corporate donations to candidates were legally barred in a campaign finance reform push by President Theodore Roosevelt. But that law and others - the foundation for many Watergate convictions - are all but obsolete. This is why many supporters of strict campaign finance laws are wringing their hands.

Abramson spent a paragraph admitting Democrats have previously used money from outside groups illegally and that Democratic-affiliated groups "substantially outspent Republican groups" in the last three campaign cycles. Yet Abramson pardoned the Dems, since at least they "were required to disclose donors' identities."

Still, some players shaking the corporate money trees for nonprofit groups this year cut their teeth in the Nixon re-election campaign. There is Fred Malek, a founder of the American Action Network, whose members include many well-known Republicans, like former Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota. Mr. Malek was the White House personnel chief in 1972 and helped dispense patronage for major Nixon donors as well as serving as deputy director of Creep.

Abramson linked the illegality of some of Nixon's fundraising to that of pro-Republican donations of 2010, where no illegality has been shown.

With so many different Republican groups spending so much, he said, no desk drawer is big enough to hold the 2010 list of secret donors, like the one that held his hard-fought-for Rose Mary's Baby.

So where was the Times concern over anonymous campaign donors when the beneficiary was Barack Obama? When the paper did deign to cover the story, on October 6, 2008, the Times ran this underwhelming headline: "G.O.P. Query Involves 1% of Giving to Obama."