The price is wrong when politicians are for sale

March 06, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ME PERSONALLY, I don't like to take 15 cents from anybody, although I understand some of our politicians have no problem at all asking for money. My friend Ron Matz lent me $6 so I could get a couple of hot dogs and a soda at Carman's Place on Calvert Street last week, and until I get the money back to him, I'm afraid he thinks I'm blowing town on the $1.18 change I got from lunch.

Everybody's not like this, of course. The credit card companies couldn't exist if people were reluctant to go into hock. But, in this country, we used to have a thing about self-sufficiency. Shakespeare's warning, be neither a borrower nor a lender, and all that.

Somehow, this has never extended to the game of politics, where the classic definition of an honest politician is one who, when he is bought, stays bought. The slickest players grab with both hands. John Kennedy was lucky he had a rich daddy to bankroll him when he ran for president (although Kennedy famously quipped, "My father said not to spend a penny more than I need. He refuses to pay for a landslide.")

But most of these political folks, they count on other people's money. Whose money, it doesn't particularly matter. Look at Parris Glendening, who took dough so indiscriminately that it didn't even seem odd to him (he says) that unsolicited money was sent to his campaign from entire other states in America, which later turned out to be just good old illegal Maryland racetrack money slipped in under assumed names and addresses. Shocking, the governor called it when he belatedly (he says) learned the truth.

Or Bob Dole. He took so much money from the tobacco industry that, in exchange, he was required to sell out every nicotine addict who's ever hacked away the last day of a life in a hospital ward. It's just politics, the professional cynic in each of us says while trying to swallow our revulsion. Everybody does it. Look at Reagan and the tax cuts for his rich buddies. Look at Gingrich and the foundations he claimed he'd set up for poor children. Look at Clinton and Gore. Which we will, in a moment.

They all do it, and hope nobody's paying attention while they do. They come up through the various levels of government and rent out a piece of their idealism here, a piece there, with their ethics flexible, and with their sense of public morality, which they tout to the heavens, gradually dissolving into something called practical politics. Meaning, nobody receives money without expecting to give something in return.

Around here, Glendening's just part of a history. And not even the most flagrant. We used to have a sheriff of Baltimore named Frank Pelz. Anybody remember him? It's an elected office he held, and every time Pelz ran for re-election, he'd shake down his scores of deputy sheriffs for $100 campaign contributions. If they didn't come across, Pelz simply fired them. As traveling money, it worked beautifully. Of course, it did eventually get Pelz criminally convicted.

Usually, those running for office are more subtle. There are no overt threats, only good-government pleas about "needing your support this time around."

This brings us to the fascinating Clinton. And not only to Clinton, but to those of us who watch him, and learn of his gluttonous fund raising, and wish to declare ourselves virgin again. We're offended by the amounts Clinton raised, and by the arm-twisting done at the White House, and by the sheer vulgarity of the process.

We're offended most particularly when we learn of the nights spent by the president's pals at the White House, some of them sleeping in a bedroom named for Abraham Lincoln. This bothers us even though historians point out that Lincoln never slept in it, the room merely having been named by Harry Truman.

Lincoln's our secular saint. We think of him, and we don't imagine a bunch of insiders like Glendening's racetrack contributors, or Reagan's California rich guys sunning themselves by the pool, or Clinton's entertainment industry buddies. With Honest Abe, we imagine angels' trumpets, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Lincoln is the heart of every citizen's love affair with America. He's what we imagine the country's nobility is all about. So it's not just that Clinton and Gore were raising money to such revolting levels - which they were - and not just that they were so personally involved in it - which they were.

It's that, on some psychological level, we think they also sacrificed Lincoln. We think they've given up his ghost. They've allowed mortals with dirty hands and feet to sleep on the pure Lincoln sheets.

But this kind of thinking is backward. These poor patsies were forking over huge money, and all they got was a one-night pajama party with Bill and Hillary? (Second prize was two nights.)

That's a pretty easy price to pay for such monetary friendship. Some politicians are so embarrassed by their contributors, they try to keep them secret. Clinton let them sleep in. So what? We already knew they'd given him money. If this was the big payback, it's a blessing to all of us.

In fact, if Ron Matz wants to forgive the $6 I owe him, he can bunk in with my family any time he likes.

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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