At the heart of American self-perception is the faith that one man can make a difference. Like those faces carved into Mount Rushmore, our history is often told as stories of individual heroes. Paul Revere. Washington. Lincoln. Robert E. Lee. Thomas Edison. MacArthur.
There are exceptions, of course, including Lewis and Clark and the Wright Brothers. And now there are McCain and Bradley.
The Republican and the Democrat, underdog presidential candidates both, have made a show of opposing the "soft" money that is suffocating American politics. The selling of the public's business is so taken for granted that the Washington Post's account of the extraordinary alliance of political opponents was wedged between ads for fur coats and watches on Page 10.
The Page One headline said nothing of the money in politics: "McCain, Bradley Gain in N.H. Poll -- Outsider Role Plays Well With Voters."
The money story did, however, make "Nightline" on ABC, though host Ted Koppel felt obligated to say and repeat that the campaign finance issue does not rank high in other polls of voters. There are reasons for that, beginning with the voters' cynical but correct conclusion that our politicians are for sale, which has driven many Americans to stop voting. What's the point if the same corporations are funding both parties?
From the perspective of the Capitol, one of the reasons that "soft money" -- basically corporate money going to the Republican and Democratic national committees and congressional campaign committees -- is not a big story is that everybody is in on it. They think Sen. McCain is nuts and former Sen. Bradley is an opportunist.
Almost every member of Congress of both parties, along with the president and vice president, is for soft money -- even if they all publicly attack it and hate the constant begging that takes up most of their waking hours. This is the dirty secret in Washington: Most Democrats and some moderate Republicans are free to introduce legislation and make sanctimonious noises about soft money, because they know the Republican conservatives now in control of Congress will block any attempts to change this corrupting system.
What will those vocal, though happily ineffective, reformers do if they have a majority in the next Congress? They will pass a bill, I'm sure -- one deliberately jiggered to be struck down by the Supreme Court, which has ruled essentially that giving money is a form of free speech. If that pattern continues, which it almost certainly will, the courts will sooner or later have the same credibility and dignity of the rest of the public officials in the money-scrounging District of Columbia.
The kept ladies and gentlemen of Washington are prisoners, from the top to the bottom, of their addiction to campaign money, which is living money as well for many of them. Houses, cars, drivers, dinners, plane tickets, Christmas cards and vacations can be paid for by campaign funds -- and often are. Dick Morris tells what that all felt like to his most famous client, President Clinton:
"Clinton complained bitterly at having to raise so much money. 'You don't know, you don't have any remote idea,' he said to me, 'how hard I have to work, how hard Hillary has to work, how hard Al has to work, to raise this much money.' To raise a million dollars, he had to attend a massive fund-raiser, often outside Washington, and shake hands with hundreds and hundreds of people.
" 'I can't think. I can't act. I can't do anything but go to fund-raisers and shake hands. You want me to issue executive orders; I can't focus on a thing but the next fund-raiser. Hillary can't, Al can't -- we're all getting sick and crazy because of it.' "
That is what it is like, even at the top. If our leaders and other politicians had any sense, they would join McCain and Bradley to protect their own health, sanity and integrity. Odds are they won't, which tells a great deal about what is wrong with American politics.
Universal Press Syndicate