Bill Moyers looks at money and politics

April 07, 1992|By Marc Gunther | Marc Gunther,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Midway through his State of the Union Address, President Bush delivered a line that was not intended for you and me. He pledged, with enthusiasm, to "modify the passive loss rule for active real estate developers." Members of Congress clapped -- and the rest of us wondered what the devil the president was talking about.

He was, it turned out, talking about a giant tax break for wealthy real estate developers -- the folks who build office buildings and shopping centers. These same real estate moguls are the folks who helped put Mr. Bush in the White House by giving big money to political action committees that promoted Mr. Bush's candidacy.

Anywhere but in Washington, they'd call it bribery. The television commentator Bill Moyers calls it "legalized corruption," part of our "mercenary culture where the vote doesn't matter as much as the dollar." Tonight on PBS (Channels 22 and 67 at 10 in Maryland), Mr. Moyers looks at the corrupting influence of money on American government in "Who Owns Our Government?"

It's the first in a series of hour-long programs about the stories, issues and ideas shaping politics in 1992. Called "Listening to America," it will run on Tuesdays from now through November.

It will be a welcome addition to television's often-superficial coverage of the campaign. Next week, for instance, Mr. Moyers presents the first of three hour-long programs based on an exhaustive series of articles by the Philadelphia Inquirer called "America: What Went Wrong?" The articles examine how government economic policies of the 1980s affected ordinary citizens. Future topics include the health of democracy, corporations and the environment, guns and crime, the politics of women and race relations.

Some of this may sound like dull stuff. It's not. To the contrary, Mr. Moyers will make viewers angry with tonight's show about money and politics, and he'll educate them with next week's eye-opening look at how the government's economic policy of the 1980s favored the rich and hurt the middle class.

With any luck, Mr. Moyers will also find a public appetite for his thoughtful election coverage. The Inquirer certainly found a public for the articles by Donald Bartlett and James Steele: The paper took orders for 400,000 reprints, then gave up and sold the rights to a publishing company which has just re-issued the ** series as a book.

"I wouldn't say the public is interested but there is a public for these programs," Mr. Moyers said recently. "It is the people who take seriously their civic obligation whom we have to serve."

Tonight, in a simple and lively fashion, Mr. Moyers and his producers present three case studies that show how money influences government decisions -- the Bush real estate tax break, the savings and loan industry collapse and the debate over national health insurance.

The Bush tax break is described as a straightforward quid pro quo. Before public financing became available for his presidential campaign in 1988, Bush operatives put together the Bush Team 100, a group of 249 people who contributed $100,000 or more to political action committees that indirectly helped Bush. Six were later named ambassadors to foreign nations. And many others were real estate men, including Alfred Taubman and Donald Trump, who will now benefit from the change in the "passive loss rule." Their $100,000 contributions turned out to be shrewd investments.

This sort of thing has become so accepted in Washington that the Bush tax break was ignored or touched on lightly by most of the press. Network commentators analyzed the State of the Union, not in terms of what it would mean for the country, but in terms of whether it would improve Bush's political standing in New Hampshire. Politics is always easier to cover than policy.

"The networks, all of us, will spend more money this year $H covering the race than we will spend in the next four years covering policy," Mr. Moyers said. "It's the money-policy connection that gets ignored."

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