Barack Obama

‘s decision to forgo public financing for his presidential campaign is at once understandable and unfortunate. Obama’s low estimation of a system plagued by loopholes, lobbyists and smear-ready 527s is appropriate–“public financing…is broken, and we face opponents who have become masters at gaming this system,” he explained. There is a clear strategic rationale for employing his $168 million fundraising advantage to beat

John McCain

in November. Obama has pledged to overhaul the system once he reaches the White House–his support for the Fair Elections Now Act in the Senate shows a commitment to this issue–and though it’s a bitter pill to swallow, some campaign finance reformers are giving him the benefit of the doubt. “His decision today is not one that furthers reform in the short run,” read a statement from the

Public Campaign Action Fund

, but Obama “now has a special obligation to make passage of comprehensive public financing of all federal elections a priority if elected.”

Others are less sanguine, like Senate colleague and staunch reformer

Russ Feingold

, who said flatly, “This is not a good decision.” Obama made an early vow to work within the system, and the campaign promised to “aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.” His change of heart rightly raises questions about his commitment to a politics free from special interests.

Although Obama speaks of a “grassroots movement of over 1.5 million Americans” that has “fueled this campaign with donations of $5, $10, $20,” the truth is, his campaign is largely reliant on corporate millions and at times has been misleadingly vague about its donor base. In a February debate, Obama claimed, “We have now raised 90 percent of our donations from small donors,” a figure his campaign reiterated after the public financing decision.

In fact, 90 percent of the contributions have been in small amounts, but a majority (55 percent) of the money raised has come from large donations. By the end of May, Obama had received nearly $20 million from the finance, insurance and real estate sectors, according to the

Center for Responsive Politics

, 50 percent more than his Republican rival. Commercial banks, pharmaceutical companies, hedge funds and private-equity firms have all given significantly more to Obama than McCain. Of Obama’s top twenty donors, six are major Wall Street investment houses and five are corporate law firms.

Goldman Sachs

tops the list.

Obama’s decision to pass on public funds for private dollars gives him a financial advantage heading into his showdown with McCain, but at what cost remains unclear. Obama’s “army” of small donors is impressive, but so is the backing he enjoys from Wall Street. “This presidential election is going to set all-time records for spending,” says the reform organization

Public Citizen

. “[We] can only hope that, despite Sen. Obama’s decision, he will remain disgusted with private interests buying our White House and that after the campaign, he will lead the charge for a system that removes special interest money from politics.”


George Carlin

, who was jailed briefly in Milwaukee for uttering the “seven words you can never say on television” during a 1972 performance, understood that words could never be so obscene as wars, poverty and injustice. To the end Carlin, who died June 22 at 71, challenged a corrupt status quo and its perversions of language. Countering

George Bush

‘s claim that his “war on terror” was a battle for freedom, Carlin asked, “Well, if crime fighters fight crime and fire fighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight?”

But Carlin spent little time fretting about Bush, his old nemesis

Ronald Reagan

or his even older nemesis

Richard Nixon

. He kept winning Grammys, writing bestsellers and packing halls with a savage critique of religious, governmental and economic elites. “The real owners are the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions,” Carlin once said. “Forget the politicians; they’re an irrelevancy. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the statehouses, the city halls. They’ve got the judges in their back pockets. And they own all the big media companies, so that they control just about all of the news and information you hear. They’ve got you by the balls. They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying–lobbying to get what they want. Well, we know what they want; they want more for themselves and less for everybody else.”

The pundits say there is no audience for the old-school populism of a

William Jennings Bryan

or even a

Franklin Roosevelt

. Carlin proved them wrong, preaching American radicalism with punch lines every night before crowds that cheered (and laughed) as he struck mighty blows against the empire.    JOHN NICHOLS


On June 26 the House Subcommittee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions is holding the first-ever Congressional hearing on transgender issues. This historic hearing follows the passage of a hate-crimes bill last September that included gender-identity protections, and will take up concerns left unaddressed by a recent antidiscrimination bill that split the LGBT community. Although almost all LGBT groups advocated the inclusion of transgender people in the 2007 Employment Non-Discrimination Act, openly gay Representative Barney Frank and the powerful lobby group

Human Rights Campaign

settled for a version of the bill that left out gender identity, outraging advocates like

Lambda Legal

and the

National Center for Transgender Equality

(NCTE). House Speaker

Nancy Pelosi

expressed regret but backed Frank’s bill because it had “the best prospects for success on the House floor,” where it passed before stalling in the Senate.

The June 26 hearing will be an opportunity to push for a better bill in 2008–or, more likely, after Bush relinquishes his veto pen.

Kyle Boyer

of the NCTE calls it a “fact finding hearing meant to educate Congress.” He hopes it will be “helpful in the long run at advancing the passage of an Employment Non-Discrimination Act that we can all support.”   NAOMI SOBEL