AMERICANS had their most important civics lesson in years last month, and most of them didn't even realize it. That lesson was the Keating Five hearings in Washington, which showed how campaign money flows like a putrid tide through the offices on Capitol Hill. That the hearings got so little attention says a lot about the national media. Watergate had cops and robbers, G. Gordon Liddy, and envelopes of cash. For years thereafter, media members have pursued the crooked and bizarre. In the process, they forget how to see the ordinary.
That is what the Keating hearings are about - the corruption of the everyday. If Watergate was about a few bad apples, the Keating Five is about the whole barrel.
The five senators stand accused of pulling strings on behalf of Charles Keating, the financial operator whose Lincoln Savings and Loan eventually collapsed under a pile of junk bonds and other bad investments, at a cost of $2.3 billion to the taxpayers. Keating had contributed almost $325,000 to the campaigns of the five, plus another $850,000 to ``voter registration'' (har-har) groups controlled by Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California, and on and on.
Day after day, minions from the vast Washington underworld of lobbyists and staff described, in minute detail, how such contributions translated into solicitude from the senators in question. In particular, the five leaned hard on Edwin Grey, then the chief bank regulator, to call off the auditors who were raising questions about Lincoln's books. Loyal Senate staffers took pains to portray the contacts with Grey as mere inquiries on behalf of a beleaguered constituent. If you believed them, then I'm sure someone has some nice S&L stock they'd like to sell you.
Even on the radio, one could sense the Senate panel members shifting uneasily in their seats. The accused Senator Cranston told the committee why. ``Every senator has done it,'' he declared of his efforts to throw sand in the wheels on behalf of a big contributor. It was no accident that four of the five senators involved were senior Democrats. They've been in this muck so long they have trouble seeing it anymore. The single saddest day was when Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii, the star of rectitude during the Watergate hearings, appeared to defend his colleagues. ``If that's improper,'' he said of the actions of Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona, another of the five, ``I think all of us at one time or another have done that.'' Exactly.
There have been tortured efforts in Washington to ``draw lines'' between constituent service and influence peddling. (Keating wasn't even a constituent for some of those charged.) The idea is to reassure the public that the barrel is basically good. But the lines have to be drawn much more boldly than most are willing to admit.
Would we rest easier if the Keating Five had proceeded in a more decorous manner, without the blatant strong-arming? Keating would still be getting their most precious Senate resource - their time. Time that might have been spent looking after millions of small depositors instead of one Mr. Keating.
Apologists for campaign contributions say money merely gets them in the door. It doesn't buy results. But while the money is in the door, the rest of us aren't. We just get the $300 billion bill to clean up the mess. That's why the whole system of campaign finance needs to be reformed.
A big push is starting for public financing of campaigns. But why should our tax dollars be used to make campaign consultants and TV stations rich? That's where most campaign money goes, and that's the clue to cleaning up the system. Limit the use of TV, and there's less need for money in the first place. We could do it the British way, where candidates have to face live studio audiences, and get just a few chunks of free time for their slickly produced ads.
Better still, we could get rid of the slick ads entirely, and make the politicians speak for themselves. If George Bush wants to make an issue of Willie Horton, fine. Make Bush put his own mug on camera and do the talking himself. Politicians would be a lot less eager to use TV. And therefore, a lot less in need of the money that a Charles Keating is all too eager to provide.