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Will Everybody Please Quit Pretending to Be Shocked?

By William S. Klein / September 29, 1997



When oil pipeline promoter Roger Tamraz laughed off the $300,000 contribution that so scandalized the Senate by saying, "next time, I should give $600,000," he wasn't the only one with a case of the giggles. Nor is Al Gore the only droll wit with his "no controlling legal authority" line.

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Washington insiders know you can cut the irony in the current campaign finance scandal with a $5,000-a-plate dinner knife.

Will everybody please quit pretending to be shocked over what big money has done to political ethics? I've been in rooms where future presidents, senators and governors scheme of glory and the conversation goes something like this:

Future President: How do I keep Senator Sprocket and Governor Beanbag from challenging me in a primary?

Pollster: Raise more money than anyone else, of course. You should hire this guy I work with who can line up all the big donors in Chicago, LA, and New York. He'll charge you 15 percent of what he raises.

Media consultant: Do you know Senator Marzipan? He's a client of mine, and you should keep him posted on what you're doing. Have a reception at the Convention in his honor. Some of his biggest donors will be there. I can make a call.

Fund-Raising Consultant: Alec Baldwin will do an event, but only in the Hamptons, and we can't mention a price on the invitation. He thinks that's tacky. After that we should do two or three big-ticket dinners and a bunch of smaller events between now and the summer.

Future President: Fine. Good. Whatever. I want to raise so much money that their biggest money guys all tell them to think twice about making a race.

In 15 years as a political consultant, I never heard a discussion about how to raise less money, for fewer ads. I did see a lot of what the animal behaviorists call alpha male behavior, particularly when it came to raising big bucks. The hunt for big money has what the big boys like - golf, cigars, sycophants and, always, the rush of receiving tens of thousands of dollars from fellow citizens. Politicians aren't the most emotionally secure people, and million-dollar warchests allow them to think, "they like me, they really like me."

As the old pol said, "If we can't take their money, drink their liquor, date their women, and then vote against them, we have no business here."

Successful politicians pride themselves their ability to raise big money from as many different interests as possible, without compromising (too much). It's called, "leveling the playing field." Boy, does it ever.

Politics is a wasteland not because too much of the wrong kind of money is raised or because it's raised from the wrong people. It's because too much money is raised by too many people who have too much fun at it. Consultants, lobbyists, media buyers, and caterers - half the Washington phonebook enjoys the fruits of the big money system. The new mantra is, "You're nobody until somebody's asking you for money."

But what's the alternative? Public financing? The public is about as likely to support tithing their tax dollars to finance politicians' commercials as they are to endorse giving it all to my dog, Dexter.

Too bad - and not just for Dexter. If we don't fix the system, campaigns will keep costing more and contributing less to democracy, while encouraging the most venal behavior from politicians. Maybe Ted Turner should give his next billion to fund campaigns for the next 25 years or so, and give us a chance to grow a generation of politicians who won't buddy up to big money.

* William S. Klein is a Washington writer who has worked on a number of Democratic presidential and congressional campaigns.