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Nonagenarians Against Cynicism | The Nation

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Nonagenarians Against Cynicism

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Nothing deepens your cynicism quicker than the power of money in American politics.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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Forty years after President Richard Nixon resigned, our leaders have become even less accountable.

A new report by the Center for Public Integrity tracks Federal Communications Commission officials receiving nearly $2.8 million in travel and entertainment contributions over the past eight years, nearly all of it from the industries the agency regulates. This includes 330 trips to Las Vegas alone, with another ninety-eight to London, where, I admit, the restaurants are much improved in recent years, but which does not happen to fall under the FCC's jurisdiction. The top three trip sponsors were the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association.

When you look at the dollars the constituent companies of these trade associations stand to earn once the FCC relaxes the laws intended to preserve free speech and democratic debate in this country on June 2, you'll shake your head at just how cheaply our "democracy" sells itself. Just a few of the goodies chairman Michael Powell is wheeling and dealing away include limits on both national and local TV-station ownership and limits on owning both newspaper and TV stations in the same market; in other words, the very preservation of our "marketplace of ideas."

Of course, telecommunications is just one area where money speaks louder than people. While the problem of money's power has always been and will always be with us, it is, like the budget deficit, exploding under the Bush Administration. The Bush campaign raised more than $22 million in just one night recently without breaking a sweat, with Bush finishing his address promptly at 7:45, putting him back home, as one Washington Post wag noted, "in time to catch plenty of the Yankees and Red Sox on ESPN."

The Bushites expect to be showered with at least $200 million in the coming election cycle. This will allow them to forgo all spending limits and make life miserable for the cash-strapped Democrats 24/7. Much of this money is "donated" in order to buy big-ticket items: the despoilment of the environment, the next generation of nuclear missiles, roadblocks in the path of generic arthritis and heart-attack medicines and the like. But some of it is pure, old-fashioned job procurement. Last time around, top fund-raiser--"Rangers," in the new Bush parlance--Mercer Reynolds of Cincinnati helped raise $605,082, and the next thing you know, the folks in Geneva were calling him "Mr. Ambassador." Slovakia went to Ronald Weiser of Michigan for a mere $588,309. Howard Leach of California got the hardship post of Paris for the bargain-basement price of $429,610, according to Federal Election Commission documents originally published in the New York Times.

And if you're looking for more reasons to be cynical, just try dipping into the 1,638-page May 2 decision on campaign finance law issued by a three-judge federal panel. Now it's official: According to Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, a Democrat, the evidence presents a "treasure trove" of testimony from politicians and documentary evidence that large donations are given with the expectation that the cash will allow donors to influence federal decisions: "This expectation is often realized," she notes in almost perfect understatement. Judge Richard Leon, a Republican, added that the "ample evidence" of this type of thing gives rise to "an appearance of corruption." As a moody Prince of Denmark once said in another context: "Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not 'seems.'"

The Supreme Court will eventually decide the constitutionality of the McCain/Feingold law, but even if upheld, the law will do little to stem the tide of money that has hijacked our democracy and turned our marketplace of ideas into a mere marketplace. Money power, like most forms of tyranny and injustice, gives the rest of us two choices: Figure out new ways to fight, or play along as best we can until the Almighty orders up another flood.

Cynical about most of life, I'm still for choice one, and here's one reason: I traveled to Asheville, North Carolina, recently, invited by the inventive folks at the Mountain Area Information Network--check 'em out at www.main.nc.us--to participate in Jim Hightower's Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour. Not only did I get soaked by a genuine rolling thunderstorm, I got to spend a day with Doris Haddock, better known as "Granny D."

Now 93, she's the lady who, following her husband's death, made up her mind to walk across the entire country at age 89 to try to wake the rest of us up to the everyday corruption that underlies our electoral system. You might think anyone who did this would have to be a bit nuts. Well, perhaps, but she sounds a lot saner than I am when she explains her late-life implosion of anger at the gap between the democratic ideals she was taught nearly a century ago in her New Hampshire hometown and the contempt with which the views of a mere moneyless citizen are treated today. Doris decided that an ancient woman with arthritis and emphysema walking across the nation at a clip of ten miles a day with a straw hat on her head and a twenty-nine-pound pack on her back--eating nothing but trail mix for days at a time--might be a good way to get people's attention. Her walk did more to raise awareness about the need to reform campaign financing, said John McCain, than his own "small, modest contributions."

You can read her incredible story in the new paperback edition of her memoir, Granny D: You're Never Too Old to Raise a Little Hell, which, if you've still got a pulse, should deliver a powerful injection of hope and inspiration. But buy it, don't borrow it. Doris lives alone in Dublin, New Hampshire, on just her late husband's pension and her Social Security check. She can't afford to buy a New York Times, she says, so most days she just scans the headlines at the store. The exception to this rule are "days when we hear something about the campaign finance law," like the morning after the federal court ruled on campaign finance. Together we read the decision with a mixture of shock and anger.

Just try to put Doris's book down without wanting to raise some hell yourself. She's enough to make the most hardened cynic a believer.

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