Prisoner of War Chests

McCain's campaign-finance crusade has a blind spot

Did Sen. John McCain do anything out of the ordinary when he strongly urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to act on a matter that directly concerned a business whose executives have contributed $20,000 to his presidential campaign?

Not in one sense. Legislators regularly apply pressure to the agencies they oversee, and it's common for them to act in the interests of companies that happen to be contributing to their campaign war chests.

The Arizona Republican, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, had applied similar pressure on the FCC 20 times in the past two years, often on matters that affected political contributors. He claims he was working on behalf of consumers, and wasn't dictating how the FCC should vote.

A number of House members had also written the agency to urge action on the same issue that prompted Mr. McCain's letters last November and December - the sale of a Pittsburgh public television station to Paxon Communications, which runs a family broadcasting network with stations across the country.

It wouldn't be fair to pick on McCain in this case except that he has lifted the standard for politicians. His campaign war chest is far smaller than that of GOP rival George W. Bush, who has broken fund-raising records for presidential candidates.

But in his presidential bid, McCain has made the corrosive and corruptible effect of big-money politics the keynote of his campaign.

And his campaign also highlights his character, seen mainly in his service as a former prisoner of war. That heroism and his candid authenticity make many supporters overlook his stand on issues or his track record.

Perhaps what he did in the Paxon case was not all that unusual. But shouldn't he be holding himself to a higher standard than the status quo in Congress?

This crusader of campaign finance reform claims that everyone in national politics - including himself - is tainted by a system that allows virtually unlimited flows of special-interest money into electoral politics, whether that money comes from unions, companies, or Hollywood.

In other words, he's using a corruptible system in taking corporate money to be elected president so he can clean up the corruptible system. That sounds like a Woody Allen joke.

He should have taken more care to weigh how voters might judge his lobbying of bureaucrats when the interests of businesses are at stake - businesses that are funding his campaign.

As McCain knows from bitter experience - his "poor judgment" in the "Keating Five" influence-peddling controversy of the 1980s - appearances matter greatly in public life. Setting examples matter even more.

Another point to make in this affair: The letter McCain sent the FCC at the urging of a lobbyist working for Paxon was intentionally coercive in tone. He didn't say how the FCC should act, but he demanded immediate action, going so far as to virtually specify when the commissioners should vote. The agency had dawdled over the Pittsburgh decision for more than two years. A plea for action was not out of line. But McCain's letter smacked of high-handedness and could revive charges that he sometimes takes an imperious attitude.

At the least, these events show how careful politicians must be when exercising their power - especially politicians who have admirably committed themselves to reducing the "corrosive cynicism" caused by the influence of money on politics.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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