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Commentary | PATT MORRISON

Pols Just Wanna Have Funds

September 01, 2004|PATT MORRISON

Call me a fat cat: I gave money to the presidential campaigns, the same amount to each campaign, the way high rollers do, to stay in good with whoever wins. But did I get invited to any swanky party suites at the Republican convention this week? Or the Democratic ones last month? As if.

Granted, my contribution was $94,997 less than I calculate I could have donated legally. I gave them $3 by checking off that box on my 1040 form for public campaign financing. Now I wonder: Does that make me part of the solution or part of the problem?

George Bush and John Kerry and their parties have already spent a billion dollars on this election -- about twice what the federal government devoted to Alzheimer's research this year. And that's just the "hard money," not the tens of millions that "independent" supporters can collect and spend.

California, this big ATM of a state, has been kind to Kerry, giving him and his simpatico groups $47.5 million. Kerry's biggest single donation source is hundreds of contributors employed by the University of California system. No one's hazarding a guess on why the "smart" money -- $400,000 in small contributions -- is on Kerry, but I'm pretty sure it's unrelated to the fact that the chairman of UC's Board of Regents, Gerry Parsky, is Bush's point man in California.

Bush and Co. has collected almost as much money from just nine Californians. The single most generous GOP "micro-cluster" in the nation can be found at 865 South Figueroa in downtown L.A. Nine people at this address -- five men and four of their wives -- have given more than $300,000 to Bush and the GOP. The five men are with Trust Co. of the West, an investment firm handling about $85 billion, so to them $300,000 must look like the change you and I dig out of the sofa cushions.

If you're thinking of going political trick-or-treating there, don't bother. There's no lobby directory -- only signs telling visitors to check in at the "security console." I'd have liked to visit the GOP angels, but they were probably in New York, in those party suites, eating my $3 worth of celery and cream cheese.

What do they get for that money? It's called "access" -- a place at the table, a hearing for their Christmas lists. At a white-tie dinner, President Bush joked with the seven-figure set that "some call you the elites -- I call you my base." Kerry, of course, has his own elites.

This money finances an unofficial fourth branch of government -- contributors lobbying for themselves. What does it buy the campaigners? Advertising, especially the expensive TV kind.

And the rise of TV political ads coincides with shriveling TV political news. In June, John McCain, the Arizona Republican senator, and FCC Chairman Michael Powell (son of Colin) wrote to the jefes at the Big Three networks and Fox pointing out that before the 2002 elections, more than half of the top local news shows had zero campaign coverage. Do they think these men don't know that already? That's the plan. Let election issues crowd out a freeway chase? Interrupt speculation on which would last longer, Liza Minnelli's TV show or her marriage?

Result -- want your campaign heard? Buy your way onto the air. Networks are happy: News coverage costs money, advertising makes money. Major politicians are happy: They get the unchallenged forum of TV ads. Major moneybags are happy: They get "access."

Only the voters -- me with my $3, the UC Davis professor with his $250 -- get stiffed. In "Brewster's Millions," Richard Pryor's character found that politics was the quickest way to start with $30 million and wind up with nothing. We voters know how he felt.

I've pretty much given up on Congress fixing this. It's the Federal Communications Commission's turn. Public airwaves belong to the public. They're on loan to broadcasters who hold licenses in exchange for meeting "public trust" obligations in the "public interest."

What has that come down to? Last year, it came down to the FCC ruling that the Howard Stern T&A show was a "bona fide news interview program" and therefore could invite candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger on without interviewing any of the other gubernatorial candidates. Public interest? Pubic, maybe.

If the FCC can lower the bar that far, then it can raise it and insist on real public service for those licenses -- more issues, more politics, more candidates. That might take the pressure off the obscene fundraising.

The FCC could also take a page from the Federal Trade Commission: Ads must be truthful, nondeceptive, fair. With those rules for the Swift boat ads, we'd be spared the peevish revisionism of the war 35 years ago and instead be hearing more about the war right now. Political ads don't have to meet FTC standards, but why not? Shouldn't a presidential campaign be held as accountable as laundry soap? Six years ago, the head of an Orange County NRA chapter made a fundraising plea to his fellows to "take out" Sen. Barbara Boxer, writing in a newsletter that "everyone has to give until it hurts."

What they never really tell you is, hurts who?


Patt Morrison's e-mail address is

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