[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1997, Book I)]
[March 11, 1997]
[Pages 277-281]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Remarks to the Conference on Free TV and Political Reform and an 
Exchange With Reporters
March 11, 1997

    The President. Thank you. What a gift. [Laughter] Thank you, Walter 
Cronkite. Thank you, Paul Taylor, for your passion and your commitment. 
Thank you, Senator McCain, Chairman Hundt, Ann McBride, Becky Cain. And 
thank you, Barry Diller, for what you have said about this important 
issue. I am delighted to have the chance to come here today, and I thank 
the sponsors of this event.
    Again, let me say that I participated in the last election in the 
free television offered by the networks. Thanks to the efforts of Paul 
Taylor and Walter Cronkite and the members of the Straight Talk 
Coalition, Senator Dole and I were given a unique opportunity to talk 
directly to the voters--no gimmicks, no flashy graphics--a full minute 
or two at a time. And I really enjoyed it. I put a lot of effort into 
those opportunities, and I'm sure that Senator Dole did as well. I felt 
that they were a great gift.
    And Walter and I had a talk backstage before we came out about how 
it might even be done better in the next round of elections. Maybe my 
opinions will carry more weight on such matters since I never expect to 
run again for anything. And I do believe that the free television was a 
very important thing. I think if it could be done, as we were 
discussing, at the same time every evening on a given network and back 
to back so that the candidates can be seen in a comparative context, I 
think it would be even more valuable.
    We have to do some things to improve the way our political system 
works at election time and the way it communicates, or its leaders 
communicate, to people all year around. This should not be surprising to 
anyone. The Founding Fathers understood that we were an experiment. 
We're still around after all of these years because we have relished the 
idea that we are an experiment, that America is a work in progress, that 
we're constantly in the making. We always have to change.
    A lot of good things have happened to expand participation in the 
political system from the time we were a new nation, when only white 
male property owners could vote, and we have to make some more changes 
now. But if you look at the changes which have been made in the last 200 
years, we should be hopeful.
    Television has the power to expand the franchise or to shrink the 
franchise. Indeed, that is true of all means of communications and all 
media. We know that television is a profound and powerful force. We know 
that we don't fully understand all of its implications--even what you 
said, Walter, we don't really know what the connection is between 
television and a diminished voter turnout. It could be because there is 
a poll on television every night that tells people about the election, 
so some people think that there's no point in their voting, because the 
person they're for is going to win anyway or the person they're for 
can't win anyway.
    We need to think about that, and that's not the subject of this 
meeting, but we need to--we really need--all of us need more 
information, more research, about why people vote and why they don't 
vote. There was a very--I've seen one survey, done I believe for the 
Democratic Leadership Council, of the nonvoters. It's a poll that 
doesn't pay off. You know, it was done, after the election, of the 
nonvoters. But it was very interesting, and some of the findings were 
quite counterintuitive about why people did or didn't vote. But I would 
urge those of you who are interested in it to get that, look

[[Page 278]]

at it, and think about what new work could be done to look into that.
    Today we want to talk about whether the medium of free television 
could be used to diminish the impact of excessive money in politics and 
about whether it can be used, therefore, to reform our system in a way 
that makes it better and, ultimately, that leads to better decisions for 
the American people. It is now commonplace--everybody will tell you--
that campaigns cost too much and it takes too much time to raise the 
money and the more money you raise from a larger number of people, the 
more questions will be raised about that.
    Major party committees spent over 3 times as much in this last 
election cycle as 4 years before. And that doesn't count the third party 
expenditures, both the genuinely independent third party committees and 
those that weren't really independent although they claimed to be. 
Spending in congressional campaigns has risen sixfold in the last two 
decades. That's over 3 times the rate of inflation. The biggest reason 
for this is the rise in the cost of television. But of course, there is 
also now more money being spent on mail, on telephoning, on radio, and 
on other print advertising as well.
    In 1972 candidates spent $25 million for political ads; in 1996, 
$400 million. Presidential campaigns now routinely spend two-thirds or 
more of their money on paid ads; Senate candidates, 42 percent of their 
money on television; House races, about a third. Interestingly enough, 
that's often because there is no single television market which just 
overlaps a House district and often the cost is prohibitive, 
particularly in the urban districts. But you get the drift; it's the 
same everywhere.
    We are the only major democracy in the world where candidates have 
to raise larger and larger sums of money simply to communicate with 
voters through the medium that matters most. Every other major democracy 
offers candidates or parties free air time to speak to voters, and we 
can plainly do better, building on the big first step urged by this 
group in 1996. We have an obligation to restore our campaign finance 
system to a system that has the broad confidence of the American people 
but also of the American press that comments on it. In order to do that, 
television has to be part of the solution. I have said before and I will 
say again, everybody who has been involved in this system has to take 
responsibility for it and for changing it.
    Those of us in public life know better than anybody else what the 
demands of prevailing in the present system are, and those who control 
the airwaves understand it well also. First and most fundamentally, I 
came here to support Senator McCain. We have to take advantage of this 
year to pass campaign finance reform. The campaign finance laws are two 
decades out of date. They have been overtaken by events, by dramatic 
changes in the nature and cost of campaigns and the flood of money that 
has followed them. The money has been raised and spent in ways that 
simply could not have been imagined when the people who fashioned the 
last campaign finance law in Congress did it.
    They did the best they could, and I will say again, I believe that 
they did a good thing and that that law did improve the financing of our 
campaigns and restored a level of confidence to our politics and made 
things better. It is simply that time has changed, and we need new 
changes to reflect the things that have happened in the last 20 years.
    It will not be easy to do this, but the situation is far from 
hopeless. After all, the first thing I want to say is, the American 
people do care about this, and our politics, I think, in terms of 
traditional honesty, is getting better, not worse. I have asked over a 
dozen people, just in the last 2 years, who have been living in 
Washington for the last 30 years, who have been in politics--the most 
recent person I asked was Senator Dole--whether politics was more or 
less honest today than it was 30 years ago, and all 12 or 15, however 
many I asked, all gave the same answer. They said it's more honest today 
than it was 30 years ago. I think that's where we have to start.
    It is important to put this in the proper perspective, if you want 
people in Congress to vote to change it. They cannot be asked to admit 
that they are doing something that they're not or that they are 
participating in dragging the country down the drain, because anybody 
who knows what went on 30 years ago and what goes on today would have to 
say that the system is still better than it was then. On the other hand, 
anybody who denied that, at an exponential pace, changes are occurring 
which imperil the integrity of the electoral process and the financing 
of campaigns would also be badly amiss.

[[Page 279]]

    The second thing I'd like to say is, we should be hopeful because we 
have seen over the last 4 years, in other contexts, real bipartisan 
processes to improve the way politics works, not in campaign finance 
reform, but there was bipartisan support for the motor voter law, for 
the lobby disclosure overhaul, that was the first one in 50 years, in 
which Congress banned meals and gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers but 
also required much more disclosure. And that's the most important thing. 
When you get 100 percent disclosure of an area where there hasn't been 
any before, then that offers all of you in the press the opportunity to 
communicate to the American people what the activities of lobbyists are 
and to let them and you draw your own conclusions in terms of the 
results produced by decisionmakers. We required Congress to live under 
the same laws that they impose upon the private sector.
    Every single one of these things has happened in the last 4 years 
with broad, bipartisan support. So I think it is very, very important 
that we recognize this will not happen unless there is bipartisan 
support. But there is evidence that if the environment is right, if the 
support is deep enough, if the calls are strong enough and positive 
enough, we can get this kind of change.
    Now, let me also say that I think it's important to make this point, 
because I see all these surveys that say that campaign finance reform is 
important to people, but if you rank it on a list of 10 things, it will 
always rank 10th behind balancing the budget, education, and all this. 
That can be used by politicians as an excuse, if you will, not to deal 
with it. They say, ``Well, look at all these surveys. Campaign finance 
reform--sure, people like it, but it's not as important to them as 
whether we'll have national standards for reading and math,'' for 
example, one of my passions.
    What we have to do is to make a connection between the two for the 
American people. What we have to argue is, yes, we really need to be up 
here doing the public's business. We need to be balancing the budget, 
improving education, reforming welfare, expanding health care coverage 
to children who don't have it, passing a juvenile justice reform, the 
kinds of things that I'm passionately interested in.
    But having the right kind of campaign finance reform system and 
having the right kind of straight talk on television and having issues 
be more--elections be more issue-oriented and having the debates of both 
sides heard clearly by all people and increasing voter interest and 
voter turnout, all these things will increase the likelihood that this 
laundry list of good things will be done and will be done in better 
fashion than would otherwise be the case. I think it is very important 
that those of you who care about this make this connection because 
that's how to build broad and deep support for this endeavor.
    It seems to me that we do have an historic opportunity to pass 
campaign finance reform. And I think the public owes a lot of gratitude 
to Senator McCain and Senator Feingold and Congressman Shays and 
Congressman Meehan and all of their supporters for the legislation they 
have offered. It is real and tough. It would level the playing field and 
reduce the role of big money in politics. It would set voluntary limits 
on campaign spending and ban soft money, all corporate contributions, 
and the very large individual ones. It would restrict the role of 
political action committees and lobbyists and make needed reforms within 
the confines of the Constitution as defined by existing Supreme Court 
case law.
    In all these ways, it would set ceilings on money in politics, and 
just as important, it would also provide a floor. And I think that is 
very important; it would also provide a floor. You actually have some 
Members in Congress who come from districts where there's a very low per 
capita income, for example, who are very afraid of campaign finance 
reform because they're afraid, among their own constituents, they'll 
never be able to raise enough money in their district to compete the 
first time a multimillionaire runs against them.
    So the law has to give a floor. And McCain-Feingold does that by 
giving candidates free air time to talk directly to the voters if they 
observe the spending limits of the law. And we need to emphasize that 
any ceiling law should have a floor to guarantee that people have their 
say and are heard. It gives candidates deeply discounted rates for the 
purchase of time if they observe the limits of the law. In all these 
ways, it will level the playing field, giving new voices a chance to be 
heard and being fair to both parties.
    I have supported the idea of free TV time for many years. When the 
Vice President was in Congress, he actually introduced legislation to 
require it. It was first proposed by President

[[Page 280]]

Kennedy in 1962. It has been around long enough. We now tried it in the 
last election more than ever before, and we know that it advances the 
public interest.
    In my State of the Union Address, I asked Congress to pass the 
McCain-Feingold bill by July 4th, the day we celebrate the birth of our 
democracy. I pledge to you that I will continue to work with Members of 
both parties to do this. I will be mustering more support out in the 
country--and that will be announced over the next few weeks--for this 
    We have to use the present intense interest in this, as well as the 
controversy over fundraising in the last election and all the publicity 
on it, as a spur to action. We cannot let it become what it is in danger 
of becoming, which is an excuse for inaction.
    And that again is something that I challenge all of you on. Do not 
let the controversy become an excuse to do nothing and to wallow around 
in it. Use it as a spur to changing the system, because until you change 
the system, you will continue to have controversies over the amount, the 
sheer amount, of money that is raised in these elections.
    The second thing I'd like to discuss is what Walter talked about in 
some detail, and that is how broadcasters can meet their public interest 
obligations in this era. Ever since the FCC was created, broadcasters 
have had a compact with the public. In return for the public airwaves, 
they must meet public interest obligations. The bargain has been good 
for the industry and good for the public. Now startling new technologies 
are shaking and remaking the world of telecommunications. They've opened 
wider opportunities for broadcasters than ever before, but they also 
offer us the chance to open wider vistas for our democracy as well.
    The move from analog signals to digital ones will give each 
broadcaster much more signal capacity than they have today. The 
broadcasters asked Congress to be given this new access to the public 
airwaves without charge. I believe, therefore, it is time to update 
broadcasters' public interest obligations to meet the demands of the new 
times and the new technological realities. I believe broadcasters who 
receive digital licenses should provide free air time for candidates, 
and I believe the FCC should act to require free air time for 
candidates. The telecommunications revolution can help to transform our 
system so that once again voters have the loudest voice in our 
democracy. Free time for candidates can help free our democracy from the 
grip of big money. I hope all of you will support that.
    There are many ways that this could be done. Many of you here have 
put forward innovative plans. I believe the free time should be 
available to all qualified Federal candidates. I believe it should give 
candidates a chance to talk directly to the voters without gimmicks or 
intermediaries. Because campaign finance reform is so important, I 
believe it should be available especially to candidates who limit their 
own spending. It is clear under the Supreme Court decision that this can 
be done, and I believe that is how it should be done.
    Candidates should be able to talk to voters based on the strength of 
their ideas, not the size of their pocketbooks, and all voters should 
know that no candidate is kept from running simply because he or she 
cannot raise enormous amounts of funds.
    Last month the Vice President announced that we would create an 
independent advisory committee of experts, industry representatives, 
public interest advocates, and others to recommend what steps to take. 
Before I came over here today, I signed an Executive order creating that 
committee. The balanced panel I will appoint will advise me on ways we 
can move forward and make a judgment as to what the new public interest 
obligations of broadcasters might be. But today, let us simply agree on 
the basic premise. In 1997, for broadcasters, serving the public should 
mean enhancing our democracy.
    Finally, let me challenge the broadcasters as well. Broadcasters are 
not the problem, but broadcasting must be the solution. The step the 
broadcasters took in this last election, as I have said over and over 
again in other forums, with the encouragement of Straight Talk for TV, 
was a real breakthrough. Now I ask broadcasters to follow up on this 
experiment in democracy, and I'm especially pleased that a leader in the 
industry, Barry Diller, has challenged his colleagues to open up the 
airwaves to candidates. He has made clear, forcefully and very publicly, 
that he and all of his colleagues have an obligation to society, and his 
presence here today makes it clear that he is willing to assume the 
mantle of leadership. But surely there are others--I know there are--who 
will gladly join in and take up this cause as well.

[[Page 281]]

    There are many questions about political reform. Many skeptics will 
look at all proposed reform measures and ask whether they'll work and 
whether there will be unintended consequences. The truth is that they 
will work and there will be unintended consequences.
    But if we use that for an excuse not to change, no good change in 
this country would ever have come about. There will always be something 
we cannot foresee. That's what makes life interesting and keeps us all 
humble, but that must not be an excuse for our refusing to act in this 
area. We know--we know--when we work to expand our democracy, when you 
give people a greater voice and advocates of all political views a firm 
platform upon which to stand, we are moving forward as a nation. By 
passing campaign finance reform, by renewing the compact between 
broadcasters and the public to better serve in this new era, we can do 
that again.
    And I will say again, I will do all I can on both these fronts, on 
campaign finance reform legislation and on requiring free use, free 
availability of the airwaves to public candidates. We need your support 
for both, and we need broader and more intense public support. And again 
I say, that has to be built by demonstrating to the public that this is 
not an inside-the-Beltway exercise in both parties trying to find ways 
to undermine each other but a necessary way of opening our democracy so 
that we can better, more quickly, and more profoundly address the real 
challenges facing the American people in their everyday lives. These two 
steps will help, and together I hope we can make them this year.
    Thank you very much.

1996 Elections

    Q. Mr. President.
    The President. Hello, Sarah [Sarah McClendon, McClendon News 
    Q. I want to know--you said that you would not have been reelected 
had you not raised that money----
    The President. I think--no, I think I probably--I might have been, 
because I'm the President and a President has unusual access to the 
public. And you have the Presidential debates, which are unique in terms 
of their viewership and their potential impact. But I believe that if 
you just look at the races for Congress and the number of votes that 
changed just in the last 5 days and how the votes were counted when the 
votes changed and the movement changed, there is no question that the 
amount of money deployed in an intelligent way can have a profound 
impact on the outcome of these elections. And what you want to do is to 
make sure that everybody has the same fair chance at the voters and 
nobody has an excessive chance. And given the Supreme Court cases, the 
way the McCain-Feingold bill is drawn up, plus the effort to get more 
free air time, are the best responses to overcome the undue influence of 
excessive money.
    Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 11:12 a.m. at the National Press Club. In 
his remarks, he referred to Walter Cronkite, chair, and Paul Taylor, 
executive director, Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition; Ann McBride, 
president, Common Cause; Becky Cain, president, National League of Women 
Voters; and Barry Diller, former chairman, Fox Broadcasting. The 
Executive order of March 11 establishing the Advisory Committee on the 
Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters is listed 
in Appendix D at the end of this volume.