Campaign-Finance Scandals? Been There, Done That

Do you think the Chinese-money/White House-invite-a-felon-to-coffee thing looks bad? Consider this: The Case of the Millionaire Who Slipped Money (about $2 million) to the Campaigning President (who later called for new campaign-finance laws).

No, you haven't missed any news from the Senate hearings on campaign contribution abuses. But you might not know your history.

The candidate in question was Republican Theodore Roosevelt. And the millionaire was steel magnate J.P. Morgan - whose $150,000 donation to Roosevelt's successful 1904 campaign would now be worth about $2.1 million.

At the time there was nothing illegal about corporate contributions. But Roosevelt - who became known as a trust-busting president - kept the donation a secret, as well as the fact that railroads and oil companies had provided some 75 percent of his campaign money.

When the news about big-business contributions to Roosevelt finally broke, the public anger that followed led to Congress's first major effort to regulate money and politics: the 1907 Tillman Act, which banned corporate donations to federal candidates.

US history, in fact, is peppered with a variety of sleazy accounts of the uneasy tango between cash and candidates. From the founding fathers to Honest Abe Lincoln (whose campaign aides reportedly "were paying out money like water" to ensure his 1864 reelection) right up to Watergate.

Of course, these aren't the kind of tidbits you're likely to pick up on the evening news. But the historical truth is out there. It's as close as your local magazine stand (where you can pick up the current Wilson Quarterly, which features a lengthy, anecdote-laden cover story on the history of money in American politics).

Or you can "Follow the Money" with your remote control. "Follow the Money" is a 24-week PBS series that focuses on current events while reminding viewers that America's long struggle with reform is just part of the democratic process (check local listings).

"I get tired of the notion that the public is totally cynical about campaign-finance reform, says Andrew Walworth, the program's executive producer. "I think we just need to tell people what's happened..., and remind people that democracy does work. Things are not worse now than they've ever been. If you say, we'll never fix the system ... that misses the point of democracy. The point of democracy is that we're striving for perfection. We may never get there, but we've got to keep trying."

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