ED ROLLINS, the political manager who out-strategized White House guru James Carville in the recent New Jersey gubernatorial, reminds me of the mentalist in the old movie "The 39 Steps": When asked a question, he is compelled to blurt out the dangerous truth.
His need to expose the existence of what pols have long called "walking-around money" -- henceforth to be known in the annals of psychiatry as Rollins' Compulsion -- has provided the healthiest revelation in politics this year. To the victor belongs the spoiler. The horrified goo-goos denouncing his time-dishonored tactics do not recognize a true reformer.
Reminiscence: As an eager young flack in the presidential campaign of 1960, I was assigned to try to cut Republican losses in cities where Democratic machines delivered the vote -- Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, New York.
Len Hall, who had helped elect Eisenhower and was chairman of the Nixon campaign, told us: "Joe Kennedy is pumping out the walkin'-around money as I've never seen. We have to match him dollar for dollar -- cash in the hands of the Republican precinct captains, wherever we have any. And don't forget" -- Hall turned to a lawyer who a decade later became a top law enforcement officer -- "we're not above puttin' a roof on the church."
I was familiar with the term walkin'-around money, later cruelly defined in my political lexicon as "cash payoffs to precinct workers." A campaign would give a few hundred bucks to a captain to have in his pocket for incidental expenses -- not to "buy votes," heaven forfend -- just to pay for a baby sitter or stimulate a canvasser or hire a bus on Election Day. The captain kept most of it for himself, but it made him feel like a big man and may have squeezed out a few extra votes; all part of the game.
My part of the project was to direct payments to black, Jewish, Irish, Polish and other local newspapers and radio stations, ostensibly for advertising, but nobody checked to see if the ads actually ran or the papers got distributed. The purpose was to encourage the gazettes and stations toward editorial balance.
One day I breezed into the office of one of Hall's junior law partners and was startled by the biggest stack of cash I had ever seen laid out all over his desk. Not a great sum -- they were all $20 bills, for walkin'-around money -- but it was a memorable way to begin a long friendship with Bill Casey, who ordered me out of his office lest I lose my innocence.
Later that day, when a black Republican leader from Philadelphia came in, I learned what "puttin' a roof on the church" meant. The Kennedy forces, in the grand tradition, had passed out "contributions" to black ministers in the inner cities to urge their congregations to get to the polls and vote -- which meant vote Democratic, because almost all were brass-collar Democrats. Our man went back to Philadelphia with about five grand, which he assured Hall would be used to counter the Kennedy gifts.
It reminded me of the joke of the corrupt Albany judge who said to a defendant's lawyer: "The plaintiff slipped me five thou to decide the case his way. Here's my idea: How about you giving me five thou too, and I'll decide the case on its merits?"
The practice of roofing churches was not invented in the '60 campaign, nor did it end with it. On Aug. 9, 1976, the Associated Press reported: "The Jimmy Carter campaign gave donations to black ministers who supported him in the California primary and paid out other 'street money' that was not properly accounted for, the Los Angeles Times said in its Sunday editions."
Charles Mohr of the New York Times, covering the same story, wrote: ". . . the use of subcontractors, or neighborhood leaders, who are given 'walking-around money' is an established part of political life in some cities."
Now, thanks to the curiously reformist Rollins Compulsion, revelation of the tradition of slipping a few bucks to precinct workers and a few more to ministers who mix politics with their preaching is causing Democratic pols to hyperventilate. Investigate! Prosecute! Re-run!
No. We need a few good reporters in several cities, preferably black and street smart, to lay out this bipartisan system for all to marvel at. Then it will stop. The hypocrisy here is in feigned ignorance.
William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.