Tip for '96: Ted Turner or Madonna for President

RICHARD REEVES

November 12, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles.--There are a couple of things worth remembering about politicians and journalists: They and we, or most us, know nothing about money.

Except for the richest, politicians are people who spend a significant portion of their lives begging for money to finance their campaigns, in relatively small amounts -- $100 or $1,000 at a time. We reporters are, for the most part, schleppers living week-to-week on annual salaries from $25,000 to $75,000.

Pols and the people who write about them generally share middle-class ignorance about money and its uses. Millions of dollars, or billions -- as in government budgets -- are not real to most of us. What's real is trying to figure out how to get $20,000 a year to keep kids in college.

That ignorance leads even the best of us to almost totally misunderstand the meaning of the Ross Perot candidacy. ''An Eccentric but No Joke'' was the headline over a New York Times news analysis two days after the election. Predictably, the piece recounted the little billionaire's wacky talk of spies and such outside the gates of his mansions. And there was reporting on the angry populism of older white voters who do not understand that one of the reasons that they got less money during the Reagan years was that Mr. Perot got more through sweetheart contracts with the people he now attacks.

But the real headline should have been something like this: ''Man Buys Election -- Not Quite Yet! Wait Till Next Time, Others Say -- Pols, Press, Seen as Fools.''

The real story is that a cracker-talking billionaire who made three public appearances over six months got one out of five votes for president of the United States by buying chunks of prime-time television for almost no money -- and our democratic system is at grave risk until we change campaign-finance laws.

Almost no money? But didn't the man spend $60 million for that television time and a few other things, including his private detectives?

Yes, he did. But here's the point: $60 million is not much money these days. It's pocket change to some. There may be a half-dozen people within a mile or so of here building homes for more than that right now -- recession or no recession. One of the things people want now in Bel Air and Brentwood and Beverly Hills is underground garages with 40 or so spaces -- how can you hold fund-raisers for senators without one?

One of the revealing statistics of the Reagan years involves the transfers of wealth from the middle class to the rich. When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, there were about 4,000 Americans declaring incomes of more than $1 million to the Internal Revenue Service. Eight years later, when Mr. Reagan came home to Bel Air, there were more than 34,000 Americans making more than a million a year -- including Ross Perot.

Mr. Perot is a man who knows investment well enough to understand that buying the presidency is one of the last great bargains for the super-rich. It's a fun way to spend some of the money he made. And he gets on television, which seems to be the most modern American dream. Most billionaires or centimillionaires seem to get bored making money; they escape to new wives, new faces, new schemes and such -- demanding recognition of how smart they must be to have gotten all that money.

Besides the money, all it takes is guts, which most of these people have -- either lots of guts or no shame.

The politicians we have now -- who may be no better than the new office-buyers -- are smaller men, really. Part of their problem is that they don't get the implications of putting high office up for auction: They are going to be outbid.

So, I would look for Larry King to be superseded as America's political arbiter by Robin Leach. The candidates to watch in 1996 are: Mr. Perot, Ted Turner, Warren Beatty, Michael Jordan, Madonna and, if he can get a pardon, Michael Milken. It's the American way.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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