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Thursday, 16 May, 2002, 13:19 GMT 14:19 UK
Storm over Bush photo fundraiser
President Bush
Mr Bush's party raised a record $33m at one event
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By Nick Bryant
BBC Washington Correspondent

There has long been a joke in Washington that American politicians require three things to be successful. The first is money; the second is money; and the third is money.

To party chieftains, it is the mother's milk of the political process - the only way to pay for enough television advertising time to mount a viable bid for office.

While most pictures are worth a thousand words, a photo that seeks to capitalise on one of the most tragic moments in our nation's history is worth only one - disgraceful

Al Gore
To campaign finance reformers, it is the root of all evil.

But the fundraiser is drawing criticism over more than the money it raised for the Republican Party.

Democrats say that Republicans' sale of a photograph of President Bush on 11 September capitalises on tragedy.

Fundraising record

The Republican Party recently shattered all fundraising records with a black-tie presidential gala in Washington that raked in a staggering $33m.

Dinner with the president came at a price, with some forking out $500,000 for the privilege.

President Bush
The controversial picture taken on September 11

The high-rolling donors were invited to breakfast with one of the vice-president's senior advisers, lunch with 70 Republican lawmakers, and private briefings with senior cabinet officials like Commerce Secretary Don Evans.

Many of the corporate donors will be affected by bills pending before Congress. They are hoping that big money buys big influence in Washington. After all, it always has.

Cashing in on tragedy?

Now the Bush White House stands accused of an even greater fundraising sin - cashing-in on 11 September and of seeking political gain out of an American tragedy.

The controversy centres on a photograph of the President on board Air Force speaking by phone to Vice-President Dick Cheney just hours after the hijacking attacks on New York and Washington.

As part of June fundraising drive, donors offering the party more than $150 will receive the portrait as part of a three-picture set.

Inevitably, there has been a howl of protest from the Democratic Party, no strangers to fundraising scandals of its own. Party chieftains are calling it an act of political cynicism.

Former Vice-President Al Gore, recently back from 18 months of self-imposed political exile has spearheaded the criticisms.
Former Vice President Al Gore
For the first time since losing the election, Al Gore criticised President Bush on a non-policy issue

"While most pictures are worth a thousand words, a photo that seeks to capitalise on one of the most tragic moments in our nation's history is worth only one - disgraceful."

Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and one of the most successful political fundraisers in history, called it 'grotesque'.

Mr McAuliffe was the chief fundraiser for Bill Clinton, who faced an acid shower of criticism from the Republicans for allowing big donors to stay overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House.

A race for millions

Now the Bush White House is on the defensive, with press secretary Ari Fleischer forced to field more than 30 questions on the subject at his daily briefing. The photos, he said, "represent the President at work for the American people".

"What the Democrats are really saying", he continued, "is once somebody is elected president, they should never be allowed to have any pictures taken of them for any purpose at any time in the course of their administration for the purposes of helping to build a Republican Party, or in the case of the Democrats, a Democratic Party."

Only recently, President Bush reluctantly added his signature to the so-called McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which will eliminate unregulated 'soft money' from the political process.

The problem is that the new restrictions on corporate and individual donors will not come into effect until after this November's mid-term congressional elections.

In the meantime, both parties are scrambling to rake in millions of dollars.

Right now, it is business as usual in Washington - a city with the best politicians that money can buy.

See also:

17 Jan 02 | Americas
President Bush's first year
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