It's PAC-man, but not on a video game screen


November 10, 1996|By Mike Burns

PAC-MAN, that popular hunter-prey computer game from the '80s, is making a comeback. This time, it's a virtual reality game that lets the player in headgear and controller glove become PAC-Man (or Ms. PAC-Man, as the popular sequel was named). "He never really went away," said a cyber-developer of the new version.

Indeed, the games of PAC-Man and Ms. PAC-Man have seen an enormous growth over the past two decades. Only in political circles they are played with real money instead of energy cells. The aim is to win real power and influence in the political structure, not annihilate ghosts.

The PAC stands for political action committees, those hefty treasure chests for political contributions of various "special interest" groups that seem to be the lightning rod of campaign finance reform. Last week's election produced a torrent of criticism and indignation about PACs from the same candidates who were grabbing PAC checks as fast as they could. Reformers demand that PACs be restrained, just as a previous generation's reformers promoted PACs as a democratic counterbalance to "fat cat" financiers of the past.

PACs are handy identifiers of the inclinations of a candidate. The political motives of the source are usually clear: "Cat Fanciers of America PAC" tells you more about a campaign check than a similar-sized donation from "J. P. Jones." Not always, for the artifice of disguising PAC motives and names is well developed.

Candidates are always screening the listed donations of their opponents to find out how that information can be turned to political advantage. Funny, they usually seem to be more scrupulous about screening their opponents' donors than in screening the checks to their own campaigns.

With legal limits on PAC contributions to individual candidates, one group can't get a lock on the candidate's future favors. Maybe a lot of like-minded PACs giving $5,000 or $6,000 each could do that -- but then it would be no mystery to voters where the candidate stood. And vote totals still elect our officials, not dollar totals.

The biggest national PACs are well known. They spread a lot of money over a lot of races, sometimes giving to both candidates in the same general election. They want to be a "winner," no matter which candidate wins.

In a recent list of the Top 10 PACS by funds raised, there were five labor organizations, the American Medical Association, the trial lawyers, the National Rifle Association and the automobile dealers. But by far the largest dispenser of political favor is the liberal Democratic women's group known as EMILY's List, which was founded a decade ago to support abortion-rights candidates.

The PAC-man game got a lot of play in Maryland's 6th Congressional District this year, voters will recall. (Technically, it was a variation of the game that wasn't restricted to official PACs but open to all identifiable groups making campaign contributions.)

Militias and 'the Mob'

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett first took the heat for taking money from the Gun Owners of America. Not that his strident defense of automatic weapons as house pets was any surprise. Nor was his repeated campaign support by the PAC of the National Rifle Association. But the GOA group was headed by Larry Pratt, whose publicized links to private anti-government militia groups had become an embarrassment to Republicans.

Now it is not as if Mr. Bartlett wasn't aware of the Gun Owners of America or that he didn't know Mr. Pratt (who had earlier been bounced as Pat Buchanan's campaign co-chairman). Mr. Bartlett had written an effusive blurb for one of Mr. Pratt's books, praising his constitutional scholarship.

But the GOA contribution had come in the 1994 campaign, two years earlier. Mr. Bartlett denied any links to extremist groups.

And he fired his own PAC-Man lasers at opponent Stephen Crawford, noting that the Democrat had received $40,000 in campaign donations from labor organizations. "Labor unions have a long history with the Mafia," he said. (Yes, he said it; he was not misquoted.) "Does that mean Steve Crawford supports the Mafia?" Mr. Bartlett asked rhetorically.

The millionaire Mr. Bartlett returned the $6,700 donation to GOA, to avoid misunderstandings, he explained. Mr. Crawford held on to the labor money, defending the donors' honor for all the votes it was worth.

With each of these contestants spending some $300,000 on the race, those relatively small donations wouldn't buy much influence. They're more an affirmation of the candidate's already formed opinions and attitudes. But it is a token, a small door-opener that might be used if needed.

Perhaps the sanest comment on the PAC-Man competition came from Michael Moore, the impish filmmaker, who sent donations from provocative make-believe advocacy groups (e.g., Hemp Growers of America, Satan Worshippers for Dole) to see if presidential campaigns would blindly take the bait. Most donations were sent back. Only the short-lived, short-funded Buchanan campaign cashed them.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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