The Lincoln Bedroom in the White House looms in this year’s gubernatorial race. Within the history of the ornate chamber, Republican Ken Cuccinelli says, lies proof of Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s questionable ethics.
"He’s the person who invented the scheme to rent out the Lincoln Bedroom," Cuccinelli said of his opponent during an Aug. 10 appearance before Northern Virginia business leaders.
Cuccinelli is referring to details of a scandal that erupted in 1997 as Congress investigated charges that President Bill Clinton and McAuliffe masterminded a program that allowed top patrons of the Democratic Party to spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom. McAuliffe, at the time, was finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee.
We looked into the claim that the White House sleepovers were McAuliffe’s idea. Anna Nix, a spokeswoman for Cuccinelli, sent an email citing a variety of old news reports and copies of documents that she said prove "the Lincoln Bedroom scandal originated from a McAuliffe memo."
So let’s travel back in time.
On Dec. 27, 1994, McAuliffe had breakfast with Clinton in the White House. A month earlier, mid-term elections established Republican majorities in the House for the first time in 40 years and in the Senate for the first time in eight years. McAuliffe wanted to come up with a plan to reconnect demoralized Democratic supporters with Clinton in preparation for the president’s reelection two years later.
About a week after the meeting, McAuliffe sent a memo to Nancy Hernreich, Clinton’s director of Oval Office operations, suggesting the president meet party supporters at meals, coffees, golf games and morning jogs. McAuliffe also listed ten of the party’s "top supporters."
In his 2009 book, "What a Party," McAuliffe wrote that he thought there was "nothing controversial" about the memo.
"A candidate was going to spend time with his supporters. What a shocker that was," he wrote. "I was careful how I worded the memo because the Clinton White House leaked like a sieve, and the only question in my mind was how many minutes it would take before a copy of this memo would be hand-delivered to The Washington Post. Little did I know that this would become the infamous Lincoln Bedroom Memo."
The one-page note became the focus a probe by congressional Republicans into fundraising at the Clinton White House.
The memo did not propose that donors should stay overnight at the White House, but the prospect of sleepovers was mentioned in notes that were later scrawled on the front and back of the document.
Hernreich said in a June 20, 1997, deposition to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee that she wrote the word "overnights" on the front of the memo, next to the list of ten top supporters.
"I don’t honestly know if that was my idea or if it was the president’s idea and under what circumstances I wrote that," Hernreich said.
Donald Bucklin, an attorney for the committee, asked Hernreich if the sleepovers idea could have come from any conversation she might have had with McAuliffe.
"If I indeed had that conversation with Terry -- I’m not certain I did -- but if I indeed had it, then it could have, although it just as well could not have come from him," Hernreich said. "Honestly, I just don’t know, really."
On the back of the memo, Clinton wrote a note to Hernreich saying "ready to start overnights right away."
McAuliffe told the committee in a June 6, 1997 deposition that he never got his memo back with the notes written on it.
McAuliffe denied coming up with the idea for the overnights. But he acknowledged to Gus Puryear, an attorney for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, that the DNC recommended donors who should be invited to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom.
Puryear: Did you ever personally propose that someone be included in an overnight stay at the White House?
McAuliffe: "Generally Gus, how this would happen is someone may call and say they’d like to do it. I would have turned it over to (DNC staffers), and they probably would have sent it to the political office. There were many recommendations, I believe, from many people."
Puryear: "Do you remember any person that you recommended?"
McAuliffe: "I cannot, no, but I’m not saying they didn’t call my office. I take a lot of pride in what I did and how I did it. I was not a concierge service."
So who came up with idea for the sleepovers?
Clinton, in a February 1997 deposition, said it was his brainchild.
"Terry McAuliffe sent a memo suggesting things we ought to do to re-establish contact, which I thought was a good memo. And I told him to proceed," Clinton said, according to a Feb. 27, 1997, New York Times reprint of his remarks. "And I told Nancy Hernreich in addition to that that I wanted to ask some of my friends who had helped me when I got elected President, that I hadn’t been in touch with, to come to the White House and spend the night with me."
Clinton maintained the White House overnights were not intended to rev up donations, saying "the Lincoln Bedroom was never sold."
But the GOP investigation concluded the stays were "an important means by which the DNC raised funds from contributors." It pointed to a White House document that listed 51 "long-time friends" who stayed overnight. Forty-nine of those people, the GOP said, contributed a total of $4.1 million to the DNC for the 1996 elections.
Democratic members, in their own findings said that "the committee found no evidence of a systematic scheme to trade overnight visits at the White House for campaign contributions."
Cuccinelli’s campaign, in backing its claim that McAuliffe came up with the sleepover plan, also directed us to an editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times on Sept. 7, 1999, that said McAuliffe is known in Washington as "the guy who invented the idea of having President Clinton invite major campaign contributors to be lured and rewarded with sleepover nights in the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House."
The campaign also cited a Feb. 2, 2001, editorial in The New York Times that criticized McAuliffe for supporting Clinton’s fundraising schemes, calling him "a walking symbol of the wretched excess of the Clinton years."
Cuccinelli, in attacking McAuliffe’s ethics, says the Democrat is "the person who invented the scheme to rent out the Lincoln Bedroom."
McAuliffe authored a memo in early 1995 listing ways Clinton could connect with top Democratic patrons. But the original note did not mention White House sleepovers; that idea was later added in the handwriting of others. McAuliffe has always denied he came up with the scheme; Clinton in 1997 took full responsibility for the idea.
No doubt, McAuliffe strongly backed the sleepovers and recommended heavy hitters that should be offered a night in the Lincoln Bedroom. But we see no evidence that McAuliffe "invented the scheme."
We rate Cuccinelli’s statement False.