When the campaign-finance hearings opened on July 8, 1997, Thompson, the actor-senator, showed his flair for the dramatic. He announced that the proceedings would reveal the Chinese government's effort to manipulate America's elections through an elaborate scheme of financing campaigns.Now, you may think that Thompson failed because, in fact, the Chinese weren't trying to steal the 1996 election. But no. The real problem was that Thompson wasn't enough of a showman. After all, at practically the same time that Thompson was holding his soporific hearings, William Roth was inviting witnesses wearing black hoods (to protect them from retaliation, natch) to testify about jackbooted IRS thugs who "kicked down doors and held guns to young girls' heads while forcing them to undress." Roth was, if anything, even more full of shit than Thompson, but he didn't let a little thing like that stop him. In the end, not only did he manage to get some legislation passed anyway, but to this day lots of people still believe all those old IRS abuse stories, not realizing that they were virtually all completely debunked. The IRS's ability to audit the returns of rich people has been hobbled ever since.
....The charge made headlines but so too did the immediate rebuttal from Senator John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth and the committee's ranking Democrat. Glenn had seen the same intelligence that Thompson had and remained less than convinced. During the next several months, as the hearings progressed, a number of campaign-finance abuses were uncovered, but the explosive charge with which Thompson began the hearings that the Chinese government had manipulated American elections was never proved. Indeed, it was disputed. Imagine if the Warren Commission had split over whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.
When the committee issued its final report, in March 1998, Thompson had failed to forge the kind of bipartisan consensus that dominated the Watergate hearings....In the end, as newspapers noted at the time, Thompson wrapped up the hearings under enormous pressure from Senate Republicans to end them, lest he start probing too deeply into G.O.P. campaign woes.
Come to think of it, then, maybe this episode is actually a point in Thompson's favor. Maybe it shows that there are limits to what he's willing to do for his party. That would be a refreshing change.