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The Capitol gang(sters)

October 15, 2006|Marty Kaplan | MARTY KAPLAN, associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, was screenwriter and executive producer of "The Distinguished Gentleman."

I wish my movie was hopelessly out of date, I really do.

Congress had made me apoplectic by 1990. The campaign finance system that governed members' elections was essentially legalized graft. Lobbyists had a stranglehold on lawmakers. The Hill's "ethics watchdogs" were ludicrously impotent. And Congress was sheltered from accountability by an incumbency-protection racket. I couldn't watch the news without risking an aneurysm.

It didn't matter that I was then, as now, a Democrat. I was as furious at my party for abusing power as I would have been at Republicans if they were doing it. Maybe more so. My anger was commingled with heartbreak.

But I didn't blame parties or individuals. The problem was systemic, one built into the way we pay for politics. The corrupting influence of special-interest money practically guaranteed that Congress would be a bipartisan cesspool.

So, partly as therapy and partly out of a naive hope that it might make a difference, I wrote a comedy. I pitched it to a studio as a reverse "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington": A con man runs for Congress because, following Willie Sutton's maxim, that's where the money is.

The screenplay's gimmick was that every scam and each sleazy transaction in the story was nonfictional and legal. Members shaking down lobbyists, lobbyists funding lawmakers' vacations, phony foundations and PACs evading rules, laundered quid pro quos, pols tapping campaign war chests for personal use, K Street guaranteeing gridlock by funding both sides of every battle -- each outrage in the script was business as usual.

At the start of my story, a grifter on the streets risked arrest. But in Washington, he marvels, scams are not only legal, everyone calls you "the distinguished gentleman."

Disney made the movie, and Eddie Murphy played the con-man-turned-congressman. It was ready for release just after Thanksgiving 1992.

To promote it, I thought a special screening in Washington for freshmen members of Congress would be a good stunt. Disney's marketing department liked the idea, but it made one of the studio's Washington lobbyists nervous. To allay his anxiety, a special preview was arranged for then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley at a Union Station movie theater filled with recruited passersby.

The audience laughed their heads off. Foley didn't. He nixed the idea of a screening for freshmen. The director, Jonathan Lynn, and I wanted to leak Foley's veto -- what better proof of how close to the bone the movie cut? Disney nixed that idea too.

President-elect Clinton saw the movie at a theater in Little Rock, Ark. Afterward, he told his chief speechwriter, Michael Waldman, that he wanted to make political reform a strong element of his inaugural address. He did:

"This beautiful capital ... is often a place of intrigue and calculation. Powerful people maneuver for position and worry endlessly about who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down.... Let us resolve to reform our politics, so that power and privilege no longer shout down the voice of the people."

Days later, Clinton met with Democratic congressional leaders. They told him that making campaign finance reform an early priority of his administration would be a huge mistake. He took their advice.

So, my Walter Mitty fantasies notwithstanding, my movie, "The Distinguished Gentleman," made no difference in the way Congress operated.

But in 1994, the Newt Gingrich revolution, with reform of congressional rules a large part of its "Contract with America," swept Foley and the Democrats out of power.

Gingrich was out four years later, and the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill was introduced in the Senate a few weeks after his resignation. Although reformers in the House pulled an end-run around the leadership to get the Shays-Meehan bill (the House counterpart to McCain-Feingold) to a vote, Senate Republicans kept McCain-Feingold from the floor for four years.

McCain-Feingold became law in 2002. But whatever its virtues, nothing in it stopped any horror depicted in my movie from remaining legal. Nor did it prevent the toxic culture that gave us Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, Duke Cunningham, Jack Abramoff, William Jefferson & Co. Nor has it stopped Americans from holding Congress in the same esteem as it has for used-car salesmen.

Today, pollsters and strategists tell their candidates that political reform ranks low on voters' priorities. I'm not so sure. I think people are ready to connect the dots between what makes them unhappy about the nation's direction and what prevents the country from changing that direction.

The Mark Foley e-mail scandal, at its heart, is about much more than sex. It's also about the lengths elected officials will go to retain power. That power, in turn, depends on members of Congress having to raise huge sums of money to pay for billions of dollars of political advertising on broadcast stations that get free licenses from the public. Golf trips and contractor bribes are just symptoms. The disease is endemic to the system.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has said that on Day One of a Democratic-controlled Congress, she will put new rules in place to "break the link between lobbyists and legislation." If Democrats really want to "drain the swamp," as she puts it, they'll need to do considerably more than that.

It pains me to say it, but come 2008, I'd hate for my movie to continue to be current.

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