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PETER H. KING

Of Lettuce, Long Green, Do-Re-Mi . . .

November 03, 1996|PETER H. KING

SACRAMENTO — No need to tell the American people what this election is all about. With unprecedented clarity, up and down the ticket, the essence of the exercise has been exposed for all to see and smell. It's not about, as Clinton would tell it, building a bridge to the future. It's not about, as Dole would put it, whatever.

What's the election about? It's about money. It's about long green. It's about bucks, scratch, do-re-mi, dinero, hard currency, soft dollars. It's about moolah, boodle, cabbage, lettuce and greenbacks. It's about a fistful of dollars. It's about a pile of dead presidents. It's about the mother's milk of politics, and the root of all evil, and the sinews of war. It's about the legal tender, the bottom line, cash on the barrel head. It's about money, money, money, money, money.

This time they went over the top. Money has washed over politics like a green tide, making all that fine convention speechifying seem comical. It doesn't take a village. It takes a vault. It's not about values. It's about valuables. Money will go down as the overarching theme of the 1996 campaign.

This is the year of the $130,000-a-year night in the Lincoln Bedroom. This is the year of soft money and the corporate political convention. This is the year of the $800-million presidential campaign. This year partisans of both stripes have begun to sound like the maddened generals who gave the world nuclear proliferation, who preached the benefits of mutually assured destruction. As one veteran fund-raiser told the Hartford Courant: "It's like one guy said, 'I want to be able to destroy the world nine times over,' and so the other guy said, 'I want to destroy it 11 times.' "

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And the excessive greenery is not confined to the premier races. It's hard to find any campaign in which money has not emerged as the story line. A short story in the Sacramento Bee on Friday reported that the leading candidates for a seat on the school board here would spend in excess of $40,000 apiece. For a school board seat.

In the article, complaints from district employees about pressure from incumbents to contribute were dismissed this way by a political strategist: "I don't know what some people would consider pressure. People who are not used to political activity might feel more vulnerable, and I am sorry if anybody did feel that way."

The condescending tone is familiar, no? People who rail about money in politics often are dismissed by The Experts as naive. People who become sickened by the auctioning off of government to the highest contributors are said to be cynics. Instead, they are expected to swallow whole statements like this from Christopher Dodd, Connecticut senator and Democratic Party chairman: "I've never asked, in 22 years in office, to see who gave me money before I made a phone call. I don't know what people are thinking when they give me money."

No, only naive people believe the corporations that dominate campaign contributions expect anything in return. Only cynics suspect politicians might be a tad sensitive to what their major benefactors want--if, of course, they want anything, which politicians swear they never do.

Incidentally, while senators are being quoted, this recent one from Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) might as well be added: "Money is distorting democracy now. Money not only determines who wins, but often who runs. If you've got a good idea and $10,000 and I've got a terrible idea and $1 million, I can convince people that the terrible idea is a good one." No wonder Bradley is resigning his seat. He's become a naive cynic.

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By the crudest of methods, your correspondent has calculated that in the end it will have cost the presidential winner roughly $10 for every vote. At first that figure seems reassuringly small: A good American's vote ought to be worth at least a ten-spot, right?

Imagine, however, how much White House access that 10-buck vote would buy--compared to all those donations in the hundreds of thousands coughed up by movie moguls and Wall Street brokerage houses and tobacco companies and Indonesian gardeners. This is the essential problem: Stacked against a six-figure contribution, a vote can seem an awfully puny thing, practically worthless.

Not that the influence of money over politics is new. The m.o. is as old as Washington, D.C., itself, the placement of which was owed in part to the influence of land speculators. What is astounding this time is the amount involved, and the absolutely brazen way in which the politicians have gathered it. What is infuriating is how they carry on with their same old red-white-and-blue rhetoric, their talk of moving this country into the 21st century, or back to the days of "Little House on the Prairie," or whatever.

Did they think nobody would notice what it actually is all about?

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