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Knowing a Candidate by the Friends He Chooses

February 25, 1996|CHARLES LEWIS | Charles Lewis is founder and executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan research organization, which published the study "Under the Influence: The 1996 Presidential Candidates and Their Campaign Advisors." He is the author of "The Buying of the President" (Avon)

WASHINGTON — Why is a man like Larry Pratt, who has spoken to white supremacist groups and helped to introduce the idea of militias to the underground right wing, serving as a co-chairman of Patrick J. Buchanan's presidential campaign? Despite Buchanan's staunch defense of his friend--Pratt's now "on leave"--and Pratt's assertions that he "loathes" the Aryan Nation and other radical groups with whom he has worked, the disclosure has touched off a national discussion about Buchanan's extremism and past statements.

Buchanan has still not responded to the fundamental question about Pratt's associations, but merely deflected it. Actually, senior Buchanan officials were well aware more than a month before the disclosure that Pratt might become an embarrassment. Pratt acknowledged that he attended meetings with hate groups, but claimed he didn't share their views. "We don't prioritize allies," he said, "we prioritize positions, and we're willing to go anywhere and work with anyone for our issue." The "we" refers to Gun Owners of America, an organization Pratt co-founded and directs. Its 150,000 members believe the National Rifle Assn. is too liberal. Pratt's group has given the Buchanan campaign access to its membership lists.

Financially and organizationally, Buchanan is relying, in part, upon gun-rights groups to support his campaign. How else to explain why he would choose as campaign co-chairman someone who, in 1990, published the book "Armed People Victorious" and, in 1995, edited "Safeguarding Liberty: The Constitution & Citizen Militias"? For the candidate who frequently speaks in military metaphors, whose informal campaign slogan has become "Lock and Load," permanently unloading Pratt must seem like shooting himself--or certain of his key constituencies--in the foot.

But the Buchanan campaign might have more than one Pratt fall. How does the candidate explain the anti-Semitic slurs of another of his four co-chairmen, the Rev. Donald E. Wildmon. Wildmon is founder of American Family Assn., a group formed in 1988 to protest "The Last Temptation of Christ." He condemned the movie as being financed by "Jewish money" and, according to the Anti-Defamation League, has frequently complained that the entertainment industry is dominated by "non-Christians."

Just who Buchanan's advisors are is precisely the kind of information voters should be cognizant of before the election, not afterward--because today's campaign advisors frequently become tomorrow's U.S. government officials. As British statesman George Canning wrote more than a century ago, "Away with the cant of 'measures, not men!'--the idle supposition that it is the harness and not the horses that draw the chariots along."

The campaigns themselves and the proposals put forth by the presidential candidates are obviously important. But we can also glean vital information and insights about these aspirants by analyzing just who they have turned to for ideas and advice, for political and intellectual sustenance. Public policy is drawn along by officials chosen to manipulate the levers of power, and it is insufficient for voters to learn their identities after the campaign is over.

For example, many of the 1992 campaign advisors to Bill Clinton--Robert E. Rubin, Ronald H. Brown, Robert B. Reich, W. Anthony Lake, Samuel R. (Sandy) Berger, Ira Magaziner--became top officials in his administration. With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to see how Clinton's paid and unpaid campaign advisors constituted a virtual government-in-waiting.

In 1992, despite all the fiery rhetoric against special interests, despite all the anti-Washington populism, most of the presidential candidates--Clinton included--relied upon Washington "insiders" to guide them to the White House. Clinton, for example, scored big political points by promising to "break the stranglehold of special interests" when he became president. But more than half of his unpaid campaign advisors were inside-the-Beltway lobbyists, lawyers, spin doctors, public-relations practitioners and the like.

The 1996 presidential campaign, to borrow Yogi Berra's classic phrase, is turning out to be "deja vu all over again." Publicly, candidates are running against Washington, but, privately, they have been turning to "insiders" for ideas, advice and financial assistance. Bob Dole, for example, told his Senate colleagues last year that "the real problem is . . . the appearance of a revolving door connecting government service and private-sector enrichment." He went on to say: "This appearance problem becomes all the more acute when former high-government officials work on behalf of foreign interests. . . . Service as a high-government official is a privilege, not a right." But at least 18 of Dole's campaign aides and advisors have passed through that same revolving door, and nine are or have been registered at the Justice Department as foreign agents.

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