The Truth, Mainly - 10/20/1997

Avert eyes and back away from campaign fund-raising scandal
by Leon Satterfield

Let's begin with a reading from Scripture.

After the Flood recedes, Noah gets drunk in his tent and falls asleep naked. When his sons find him in that disgraceful condition, they "took a garment. . . and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness" (Genesis 9:23).

That, I submit to you, brothers and sisters, is what's behind the nation's apparent lack of concern about our political money game.

It's not, as the NY Times headline "The Buzz in the Capital Brings a Yawn in Peoria" would have it, that we're bored by the corruption. It's that we're just too squeamish to look at it very long or very hard.

My mother-in-law is a wonderful woman, brave, intelligent, funny, and the mother of my wife. She deals with the disgusting by just refusing to acknowledge its existence. If Ned, our one-eyed Beagle with the headstrong personality, gives forth an offensive emission, my mother-in-law neither smells nor hears. It isn't there.

My side of the family notices such things. We talk things out. We ventilate.

"Pee yew," one of us might say. "Who just gave forth an offensive emission?"

My wife, being her mother's child, just told me I can't use that metaphor.

So let me try another.

The political fundraising game in America—as it's played by both Democrats and Republicans—has all the dignity of, say, a fraternity pledge football game in a feedlot. You know, one of those little initiations into the brotherhood that active members impose on the pledges to give them a chance to prove their dedication to noble ideals.

But most of us are too squeamish to watch feedlot football.

There's a whole lot of unseemly slithering around in smelly slick stuff. And after the initial revulsion wears off, the players—especially the winners—appear to take some pleasure in it.

And that pleasure makes viewers even more squeamish. So we avert our eyes and back off to keep from getting splattered.

That's what ConAgra stockholders did last month. At the recommendation of management, they voted down a resolution requiring that they be told of where company political contributions are going and why. A majority of them didn't want to know—any more than they wanted to know what goes in the sausage,

Janet Reno is a woman of delicate sensibilities. She's been understandably reluctant to examine the nasty stuff on the underside of Clinton's fundraising.

And who can blame her? Who can blame ConAgra stockholders or yawning Peorians or any of the rest of us for averting our eyes?

Because as skinny cats, we suspect that when fat cats give, they get something in return. That's why they're fat cats. That's why Molly Ivins calls their contributions "legalized bribery."

So we turn to the funnies when President Clinton rents out the White House to six-figure contributors and says in effect, "I didn't do anything wrong, and if I did I don't remember it."

Or we turn to the sports page when, in the Oct. 10 Lincoln Journal-Star, the AP calls our attention to a 1987 videotape of Ronald Reagan in the White House with a group of "$10,000-plus Republican donors." Reagan is asking "Can I count on you for help?" And on the very same Oct. 10, Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger has an op-ed piece in the NY Times asserting that "the fact is, we did not raise money in the Reagan political office or anywhere else in the White House."

Why shouldn't we look away? It's the decent thing to do, like looking away when someone picks his nose or scratches his crotch.

The most embarrassing spectacle of all is watching Congress debate the bipartisan McCain-Feingold proposal to reform corrupt campaign financing. It's embarrassing because we guess that a vast majority of the debaters are in Congress by virtue of being better at corruption than their opponents. Waiting for them to reform fund-raising practices, we imagine, is like waiting for Al Capone to reform bootlegging practices.

And the debate leads U. S. Senators like Trent Lott and Mitch McConnell to make the mind-boggling argument that limiting fat cat political contributions is limiting fat cat freedom of speech and thus a violation of the First Amendment. It's an argument that follows from the plutocratic principle that the more money you have, the more free speech you're entitled to. So much for the democratic principle that we're all equal under law, that a poor man's political view counts as much as a rich man's.

So on this one, I'm with ConAgra stockholders and the people in Peoria and my mother-in-law and Noah's sons. My gorge rises. I say enough nakedness. I say cover it up. I say pretend it's not there. I say avert your eyes and back off to keep from getting splattered.

Oops. Too late.


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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