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2000-01-06

The Buying of the President 2000

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This week, Texas governor and presidential hopeful George W. Bush received the endorsement of his former rival for the post, Elizabeth Dole. Dole pulled out of the race in October after raising just $5 million — less than a tenth of what Bush had collected at that time. Bush, who raised $67 in 1999, has pledged to reach the $100 million mark in the next couple of months. [includes rush transcript]

As campaign costs continue to balloon with every new presidential race, a book takes a look at special and often secret interests that have heavily invested in the politicians who are seeking the nation’s highest office. "The Buying of the President 2000," by Charles Lewis and the Center for Public Integrity, predicts that these elections could bring the American people their first "$200 Million President."

Guest:

  • Chuck Lewis, Executive Director of the Center for Public Integrity and author of the book "The Buying of the President 2000."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, the Democratic presidential candidates debated last night in New Hampshire. The Republicans will do it tonight. Many feel that there are a lot of big words, empty promises. What are the real records, and, more importantly, what are the interests behind those records?

Well, today, in the first of a two-part conversation, we turn to Charles Lewis. He is the founder and Executive Director of the Center for Public Integrity, and he has just published a book — the group has — The Buying of the President 2000, which details the relationships between the candidates and their most generous contributors.

We’re going to take a look at the Democrats today, as well as the latest controversy over Senator McCain defending his FCC letter. He urged action on one of his major donors, Paxson Communications TV station in purchase — in a TV station purchase in Pittsburgh. And we’re going to find out what Charles Lewis’s response is to that.

But welcome to Democracy Now!, Charles Lewis. Why don’t we start out by you explaining what the report is all about? And we’ll go the Democratic candidates first.

CHARLES LEWIS: Sure. The major findings — first of all, this was twenty-four people working for eighteen months pulling all kinds of — tens of thousands of documents and interviews with hundreds of people. I mean, we found what most Americans, deep down in their gut, kind of understand, but, in essence, we’ve documented it and laid it out, that all the leading presidential candidates in both parties in the year 2000 presidential election, all of them have done favors for special interests that support their candidacies. And, in fact, there are longstanding relationships, in many cases going back twenty years, for some of these politicians that have been around that long.

And so, we — as you know, they never admit this. In all the dialogue and discourse, they think that there’s a problem, and we need to address some of these issues, blah, blah, blah, but they never will acknowledge that they are beholden themselves. And so, what we’re trying to do is pull all this together and show who they really are.

I basically — long time — I’ve been doing investigative reporting now for twenty or twenty-five years, and I have decided, some time long ago, to listen not to what — to watch not what they say, but what they do. And this is really a book about that. Anything you wanted to know about these candidates, who’s really behind them, that’s what The Buying of the President 2000 is all about.

And so, we have top ten career patrons of all the major presidential candidates. And actually, on our website, which is www.publicintegrity.org, we actually have the top twenty-five career patrons and lots of additional data.

So we have that, and we also looked at the two political parties. We wanted to see, basically, what exactly are the parties up to and who supports them, and we have the top fifty party patrons throughout the '90s. And that's really quite revealing.

So, anyway, that’s what it’s all about.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s start by going down the list. Why don’t we begin in alphabetical order with the Democrats and look at who is supporting Bill Bradley, in terms of the big bucks?

CHARLES LEWIS: Well, Bill Bradley is basically very, very close to Wall Street. His top-ten career patrons — his number one is Citigroup, which has given him $454,000 over his career. Second is Merrill Lynch. Third is Goldman Sachs. Fourth is Chase Manhattan. Fifth is Morgan Stanley. So the first five are Wall Street securities firms. And, you know, he was on the Finance Committee in the Senate. He is from New Jersey. That securities industry, a lot of folks in that industry, live in New Jersey.

But, you know, it is interesting — "I’m on a journey, not a campaign" — Bill Bradley is a little bit misleading to the actual reality. Most people don’t realize — or maybe they’re staring to — that he was really quite close — there’s almost — you know, it’s hard to say who is closer to Wall Street, Bill Bradley or — I mean, all of them are quite — attempting to get close to Wall Street in terms of the cash, but Bradley is as close as anyone, as far as I can tell.

We also found that — in the chapter on Bradley — that he had introduced forty-five bills for chemical companies to import chemicals into the US that they could put into pesticides and rosins and dyes and things like that. But what’s interesting is they wanted to avoid the import duties, so they asked Bradley to introduce special bills on their behalf. Some of these chemicals are quite serious and dangerous. I mean, there’s a whole class of them, organophosphates, that were actually invented during World War II by the Nazis for chemical warfare. Some of them have been banned, actually, these chemicals.

Anyway, from and environmental standpoint and from a corporate welfare standpoint, it’s a little bit embarrassing for Bradley for this to be known, because, of course, he’s now portraying himself a crusader. So that’s Bradley. I mean, I could keep going, but that’s the essence of it.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a piece in the Washington Post today that is looking at your book. "Book Alleges Donors Sway Parties’ Policies." And there is a response from the Bradley campaign. And Kristen — is it Ludecke?

CHARLES LEWIS: I think. We don’t talk that frequently.

AMY GOODMAN: Kristen Ludecke says anyone who knows Bill Bradley knows he’s not beholden to his contributors. She cited as an example his recent proposal to close $125 billion in corporate income tax loopholes.

CHARLES LEWIS: Right. I should say, that article — I said this yesterday at our press conference — I mean, all of these politicians and their spokespeople are all going to say, oh, they’re shocked, shocked that anyone would suggest they’re beholden. This book lays bear the lie that they’re not beholden.

And regarding his proposal, we’re going to have something on our website today. He — people forget — he said his proudest achievement legislatively was the 1986 tax reform. We have precise things we’re going to put up on the website today of exemptions that were granted to scores and scores of American companies by members of the Senate Finance Committee, including Bill Bradley, worth, you know, tens of billions of dollars over the last ten to thirteen years.

And so, you know, it’s great that he has an interesting proposal now, but this has not always been the Bill Bradley of the US Senate. And again, I’m just trying to show what’s really there, not what people are saying. It may — it’s always laudable for people to do proposals about corporate welfare, but, you know, some of the words of his spokesperson, frankly, ring a bit hollow.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go on now to Al Gore. Al Gore, whose —

CHARLES LEWIS: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — biggest contributor is Ernst & Young.

CHARLES LEWIS: Yeah, Ernst & Young, the fourth largest accounting firm in the world, 660 offices in 130 countries, they’ve given him $125,000. They do a lot of tax lobbying in Washington. A lot of their tax clients have gotten in to see either Gore or people around him in the Clinton administration. And the head of their Washington office, Jeffrey Hirschberg, is managing partner, is one of Gore’s leading fundraisers. He was actually the Clinton/Gore Finance Chairman in '96, and he's now one of the honchos helping to raise the cash.

Gore gets his money from, basically — now as a national politician on the national scene for seven years, it’s not surprising he gets money from all over the nation in different — he’s been trying to tap everything from Silicon Valley and Hollywood to Wall Street and different sectors. First is Ernst & Young, second is BellSouth, third is Goldman Sachs, fourth is D.E. Shaw & Co., which is global securities and investment firm, and fifth is Citigroup.

But the thing about Gore that we found quite stunning is his closeness to Occidental Petroleum. Now, this has been written about little bit over the years. His father was a senator for years and years, was very close to Armand Hammer, personally, and when he left the Senate, was defeated in his last election, he went to work for Armand Hammer for half-a-million a year. And young, you know, Al Gore, Jr., and Tipper, flew on Armand Hammer’s corporate jet. There was a close social relationship, as well as a financial relationship, because there was also a land deal that has brought in $300,000 to Al Gore, Jr., over the years, which we document in great detail, having gone through all the financial disclosure forms.

Why is this important? Well, Occidental — you might remember the Teapot Dome scandal back in the '20s. There were two parcels of land owned by the Navy. Teapot Dome in Wyoming and Elk Hills in California. Well, the Clinton administration sold off the Elk Hills oil reserve to Occidental. And it was recommended — the sale was recommended by Al Gore in his Reinventing Government proposal in early — in 1995. And so, anyway, this is a — in one fell swoop this is the largest privatization of federal land in US history, and the oil reserves for Occidental tripled, literally tripled, overnight. So we're trying to show these relationships.

Now, for a guy who writes books like Earth in the Balance and is a staunch environmentalist, this is kind of a different visage for the public and for us. I mean, we were surprised by it, and we don’t understand it. And when you ask the Energy Department for information about the bidding process that went on with Occidental, they won’t release the information.

There’s a lot of very curious things. And I said yesterday at the press conference, I asked why won’t — I think Vice President Gore has got to explain this a little further. He clearly had some awareness about the parcel of land. The oil companies lusted after this land, literally for decades. During the Nixon and Reagan and Bush years, they tried to get this land, and they couldn’t. And the Congress frequently would block it. And this time, in the '90s, they've gotten it. They also got a four-million-acre reserve up in Alaska, which is a whole other story, but it involves the same administration. So that’s the kind of stuff we found with Al Gore.

And we also got into his phrase about "K Street to K-Mart" is, frankly, kaflooee, as a phrase. I mean, it has no meaning. We show all the lobbyists and all the folks around Al Gore. I mean, he is, in essence, a creature of Washington. He is as much aligned with K Street as any politician, really, in the last twenty or thirty years. Bob Dole and others come to mind. Anyone who’s in Washington that long becomes entrenched, you know, with these interests.

One quick aside, George W. Bush and Al Gore have the highest amount of money from lawyers and lobbyists. These are the sharpshooters who know precisely who’s going to be elected next and are placing their bets, basically. And it’s kind of interesting and revealing.

AMY GOODMAN: Chuck Lewis, why is it that you have these debates, you have reporters asking questions, they’re mainly style questions, hardly any serious substance based on record or money or contributions, any real solid facts that they’re being challenged on? It’s usually about their plans for the future, and, of course, any candidate can say anything they want —

CHARLES LEWIS: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —- you were a reporter -—

CHARLES LEWIS: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — and you left it. Why? I mean, isn’t the best place to get your information out — here you’re holding news conferences hoping reporters will cover them. You had this national platform at CBS and ABC.

CHARLES LEWIS: Right. Well, I know that people have written books about this, and there’s all kinds of theories. All I know is the kind of stuff I’m doing — we’re doing at the Center for Public Integrity, you can’t do in mainstream journalism today. There is not an interest for these kinds of stories.

Now you can — we can say it’s because of the media monopoly. You can say that the biggest special interest of all is the media, that they’re lobbying on all kinds of issues for Telecom and other things, and they have a vested interest in not discussing this, or, certainly things like free airtime and the whole campaign finance reform debate, they certainly have a vested interest in that discussion.

I mean, you can paint all kinds of scenarios. You can — you know, it could be as simple as the economics of it. They’re really into content and the innocuous or titillating content is preferable to controversial content. I don’t — I mean, there are a million theories why this happens. All I can tell you is that this is a little bit raw. Some of this stuff is a little too worrisome to them. As you know, a lot of these reporters need access to the campaigns. And the campaign knows that if something like this comes out, you deny it and hope it’s a one-day story. And so, if you’re TV, and you don’t have many pictures, and the candidate won’t talk to you, you’re out of luck.

So it’s a combination of factors why these issues are not covered properly. That’s not to say it’s not terribly frustrating.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, maybe part of it has to do with a shared interest, but that brings us to the Republicans and the expose, of sorts, that I was watching on Nightline last night, that’s in the paper today, as well —

CHARLES LEWIS: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — a furor around John McCain and the communications industry, a letter that he wrote to the FCC urging action on a donor’s TV station purchase. Can you explain what this is all about and also how this ties into your findings on the Republican presidential hopeful?

CHARLES LEWIS: Sure. Basically, in a nutshell, a company that is regulated by the FCC wanted a decision to be made by the Federal Communications Commission, and John McCain wrote letters to the commissioners of this regulatory agency urging that they make a decision. First broken, I believe, by the Boston Globe.

This story is really interesting, mostly, I think, because of the déjà vu quality. It gives the impression and the aura of the Keating Five Scandal all over again for the last survivor in American politics of that big scandal back in the early part of the decade.

And so, the issue is that a member, who happens to be the Senate Commerce Committee Chairman, and has the most important jurisdictional role in Washington over the entire telecommunications industry is sending a letter on behalf of a single entity, a company — Paxson is the name of the company — to the regulator. This is obviously completely inappropriate. Even the sending of the letter, which he claims — McCain claims he just sent a letter and he didn’t really ask — tell them what to decide, just to please decide it — that is — for someone who went through the Keating Five mess and almost lost his career, you would think he would have enough sense not to do something, frankly, that stupid. It looks all the worse, because he traveled on the company’s corporate jet, and there are contributions to his campaigns. And McCain, of course, is being hoisted on his own petard, of sorts, as a campaign finance and politics reformer, because here is this, you know, reformer who has been caught doing what everyone else does, which, of course, anyone who thinks for about three seconds, knows he has to do that to raise millions of dollars. You have to make these accommodations. Of course you have done things like this over the years, and so has every other member running. So, anyway, it’s a delicious snippet and window, really, into how Washington works. And that one is bite size, because there’s a letter, and it’s very timely, and it’s right around the time of the debates in New Hampshire, and it’s very concrete. And I’m really glad that it is being covered, because if that’s how the public learns and understands and gleans more information about all these candidates is through episodic things like this, I think it’s constructive for democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting. It’s also something that we can sort of get a picture of.

CHARLES LEWIS: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: You have, on December 9th, the Paxson company jet ferrying McCain to a Florida fundraiser that was held aboard a yacht in West Palm Beach. The next day, McCain sends his letter to the FCC in his capacity as Chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, urging a speedy vote on Paxson’s proposed purchase of a Pittsburgh TV station. As I watched him defend himself last night, he said, "This is about US taxpayers having a right to speedy decisions," decisions that it has taken the FCC two years to make.

CHARLES LEWIS: Right. You know, we all know that regulators do things whatever way they want, and every agency has its own tempo and momentum. But the bottom line is, you don’t send a letter like that, especially if you’re running for president trying to reform politics, and especially if you almost lost your entire lunch and career over a scandal where you tried to lean on a regulator. If there’s anyone that should be sensitive to appearances on something like this, it should be John McCain, and so —

AMY GOODMAN: It’s also caused him to cancel a fundraiser he was going to have this Saturday night.

CHARLES LEWIS: Yeah, that’s somewhat delicious. It’s true.

So, anyway, now the question is what happens from here with McCain and the issue? But I think it’s — it is illustrative of how the process works, and McCain — you know, McCain has all kinds of other problems. The idea that this is unfair or he’s getting too much scrutiny because of his reform positions is a little bit empty, because he is in up to his ears with all kinds of interests, including telecom interests.

The first largest patron for him is US West. They have a virtual monopoly on local telephone service in fourteen states. They have given him over $100,000. He introduced the Internet Regulatory Reform — sorry, Regulatory Freedom Act — which, among other things, will give US West the ability to transmit the internet. The same day he introduces the bill, the CEO of US West euphorically proclaims that his company will make millions of dollars from the bill. And, you know, you get the picture.

His wife is a vice president of the largest Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship in the US. So beer interests, and the Hensley Company, is the name of it, in Phoenix, is his second patron.

But he has done things for all kinds of donors, and we lay this out in fairly elaborate detail in our chapter in The Buying of the President 2000 about McCain. He’s tied to mining interests, banking interests. There’s a company called Del Webb where he put a hold on senate bill to help them keep a land deal they were working with the federal government. I mean, he has done favors for donors over the years, and he has received money to his campaigns, and that is how Washington works.

I know that many Americans in their gut recognize this, but rarely is it documented, frankly, and you have this dichotomy between the reality and what these people say, which makes everyone, as the singer Sting says, "look at politicians like game show hosts". We don’t look at them as being, frankly, very truthful.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Chuck Lewis, I want to thank you for being with us, and we haven’t gotten through the list, even halfway, of the even major Republican and Democratic candidates, and so we will continue with you tomorrow, starting off by looking at George Bush. This, after tonight’s Republican debate in New Hampshire.

Charles Lewis is the founder of the Center for Public Integrity. The book that they have just put out is The Selling of the President. And we’re going to talk more about money in politics throughout the campaign and focus specifically tomorrow on the findings of this book. You can also go to the website to find the outlines of those findings at www.publicintegrity.org. That’s www.publicintegrity.org.

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