In the world of Washington insiders, you are either "a player" or "not a player." Republican fundraiser Peter Terpeluk is a player. Described by Jeffrey Birnbaum as "one of the nation's top money men," whose vocation is giving "strategic advice to those who needed favors from government, whether federal or local," here is Terpeluk hitting up Bob Grady, who was a "highly successful" San Francisco investment banker and top policy aide to President Bush: "Grady, what are you doing, man? You hit the trifecta, man.
You're my richest friend. What is this? So you're not quite as rich as I thought you were?" The Bush folks, Terpeluk exudes, "are on fire down there [in Austin]. It's unbelievable. It's Reaganesque. It's Reaganesque. They're big-time guys. If I were you, I'd use your network around the country. Raise a hundred grand... . Listen, I'm telling you this as a friend, okay? It's going to separate you from everybody else... . "
How could Grady turn down the opportunity to be a player? He couldn't.
Many of the fundraisers Birnbaum focuses on are among the high rollers who feed off the process for money, status, or both. "Believe it or not, having a story to tell is a lot of what fund-raisers want most," Birnbaum reports. "They have an almost childlike desire to show off and be 'cool' by virtue of their mere proximity to power and celebrity." And Birnbaum offers valuable insight into an especially puzzling question: Why would so many people give so much money so early to a governor of Texas who had never distinguished himself in politics or business--or even shown any strong ambition to be president? Was it payback for Bill Clinton's humiliating 1992 defeat of Bush the elder? Was it because the son--like the father--was born not just with a silver spoon in his mouth but with a full silver tea service? Was it because the big moneyed interests had decided they could depend on the younger, less experienced Bush to deliver by relying heavily on those "very knowledgeable about the details" advisers he constantly touts?
No, it seems to have gone deeper than that. Terpeluk tells Birnbaum that he had taken a few delegations to meet the Man, and, in Birnbaum's words, "no one--repeat, no one--had come away disappointed. George W. Bush turned out to be an amazingly charming, disarmingly candid, and unquestionably charismatic man." Birnbaum says Terpeluk "knew that no one, not the haughtiest chief executive or the most independent-minded entrepreneur, would be able to come away unimpressed or unconvinced. Some of the most arrogant, self-assured leaders in the business world walked away from their pilgrimage believing they had just met the next President of the United States."
Birnbaum not only gets to listen in on Terpeluk's solicitation calls on behalf of Bush (we are supposed to assume these were completely candid--no quid pro quos here, just an opportunity to be seen as a "player"), but he also gets to observe a May 1999 fundraising event at the insider's "beautiful, showcase home in Chevy Chase, Maryland," whose well-apportioned study sports a museum-quality frame holding "a rare complete set of tickets" to Clinton's Senate impeachment trial. The party was attended by former ambassadors under President Bush, among others, who had agreed to raise $10,000 to $25,000 for a Governor Bush fundraiser scheduled the following month. Although at that time Bush had not publicly committed to run, Don Evans, described as George W.'s best friend and finance chairman, "treated" the crowd to the "inside story. Evans said that Bush had found 'peace in his heart' about the bid around the time of his inauguration as governor earlier that year and that he was 'sleeping soundly' with his decision." And why was the governor considering a run for president? "Duty," Evans said. But "everyone in the crowd heard the word destiny," Birnbaum reports.
The Money Men is what Birnbaum, a veteran magazine journalist who is the Washington bureau chief for Fortune, describes as "a stew of my own peculiar views on the world of campaign fund-raising" that "doesn't purport to be the last word or the 'right' answer about anything." As such, it does not quite live up to its tantalizing subtitle, The Real Story of Fund-raising's Influence on Political Power in America. He's writing this book because you shouldn't close your mind to "one of the most fundamental and most fascinating stories in American politics." Yet at a time when the corrupting role of money in politics is more prominent than usual in a presidential campaign, thanks in part to losing candidates Bill Bradley and John McCain, Birnbaum misses an opportunity to tell us, in a probing way, "the real story."
A careful examination and more specifics about what these "money men" get beyond access, contacts, and clients, and what they promise big givers, would have made an important contribution to our collective understanding of the problem. We do learn that people like Terpeluk can and do cash in on their contacts; but Terpeluk wouldn't do all of this time-consuming fundraising work "with such gusto and emotion" for free if he didn't care deeply. Care about what? It wasn't just the clients and the cachet, Birnbaum reports: "His heart was on the line as well." In fact, Terpeluk and his wife Diane, who worked for years as an aide for Bush the elder, were so moved that they even "cried together on the phone" when they watched Barbara Bush and son Jeb on television the night in 1998 that Jeb was elected governor of Florida.
Birnbaum writes that "when new members of Congress come to Washington, they don't know anybody except the few fellow lawmakers who came out to stump for them and the handful of money men who, in effect, financed their campaigns. This small circle is the most pervasive influence on any lawmaker throughout his or her career." That's an important observation. But where is the detailed supporting documentation? How do these people actually affect public policy?
The author quotes George W. Bush fundraiser Peter Berlandi, a Boston Republican, as saying, "People who give money also have ideas about issues." Berlandi expects to "have input in a campaign" because he won't be "a guy who just raises money." But we're told nothing about how Berlandi operates, what he promises, what kind of input he inputs, or anything else of substance about his motives. What does Berlandi want?
Why does Georgette Mosbacher (a money woman, obviously, but Birnbaum justifies the book's title by explaining that fundraising is still a man's world) raise money? "She's a devoted Republican. She's good at raising money. Also, I can't help but think, she likes all the attention," Birnbaum writes. Mosbacher--whose biggest assets seem to be lots of CEO friends--is quoted as saying, "It's never fun to raise money, never. You do it because you believe in something." What does she believe in? We are told that she raised funds for John McCain and had been a "socialite," but we are not told whether this cosmetics executive and successful businesswoman has a policy agenda of her own.
Birnbaum ventures to the other side as well. He reports that the tenure of former Democratic Party finance chair Beth Dozoretz, whose husband Ron is a founder and CEO of what became a billion-dollar network of HMOs, illustrates "how insular, petty," and "outright chauvinistic the life of the money men often can be." We aren't given the kind of personal appearance details about male fundraisers that Birnbaum offers about Dozoretz, whom he describes as "young (not yet forty), thin, bright, attractive, and extremely wealthy" when Clinton took office in 1993. Perhaps he feels this information is necessary to help explain why Dozoretz was a "target for false gossip, spitefulness, and opportunism by others," including suggestions that she might have had a thing for Bill. "The chattering classes couldn't stop chattering, especially after Clinton agreed to be the godfather of the Dozoretzes' second child, a daughter named Melanne."
Her chapter purports to tell a sympathetic story, but, ironically, it is sometimes written with paternalistic language and observations. We learn that Dozoretz was not especially political until she heard Hillary Clinton speak. "Bells sounded. Fireworks went off." Even though she eventually raised many millions in spite of the constant sniping, Birnbaum says that "for all the slanderous whispers about Beth Dozoretz, there was one fact she would have trouble disputing: She was underprepared for the job... . While she was advanced for her stage of development, Dozoretz was not as deeply sourced as she should have been to do her task as well as the party needed."
Never mind that Washington is staffed by countless men who have assumed powerful positions with little or no experience. "Finally, the party's acknowledged giant among fund-raisers, Terry McAuliffe, came to the rescue [emphasis mine]." Together, they devised the fundraiser to top all fundraisers: A Tribute to Terry McAuliffe "held at chez Dozoretz," a palace-like home once owned by Arianna and Michael Huffington. The idea was "sheer brilliance," Birnbaum reports. "What politician or fund-raiser could possibly say no?" The event raised $3 million, and "Dozoretz got her wish to have all the warring factions of the party under one tent--a white one in her backyard."
The author gives Dozoretz the last word. She concludes--probably quite accurately--that "anybody who's shattering the glass ceiling gets a little bit of a headache."
One reason Americans seem to have tuned politics out is that the campaign finance problem is so distasteful, Birnbaum says. "It's okay to be outraged--more than okay. But it's wrong to be so disgusted that you don't want to read another word. You miss all the good parts that way," he writes. While he does provide juicy nuggets, his book may not have enough good parts to get anyone other than those listed in the index to curl up in an easy chair and turn off Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or The West Wing, for that matter. In fairness, even the heroic reporting of Time magazine's Don Barlett and Jim Steele hasn't appeared to captivate the public imagination. Twice this year (February 7 and May 15), they graphically documented in exhaustive investigative pieces some of the outrageous consequences of campaign cash for everyday people.
As good-government groups such as Common Cause have found, it is difficult to organize millions of people around something as nebulous as "the public interest," compared to more tangible single-interest issues such as Medicare and Social Security benefits (AARP), guns (NRA), or abortion rights (NOW and the Christian Coalition). There is a continuing disconnect between what people say (they know they are being collectively screwed by the moneyed special interests) and what they do (they either are unwilling to invest the necessary hard work to do something about it or feel too impotent to challenge the powers that be).
Birnbaum takes the oh-so-sophisticated Washington insider view that true reform is unworkable because the reforms that could "pass muster with the Supreme Court over First Amendment concerns" would "probably be circumvented as quickly and easily as the current campaign finance laws." But for those who are "legitimately upset" and "want to do something big," he offers "my three-point, let's-go-for-it proposal"--one that he doesn't think would have a chance: Restrict active campaigning to the two months prior to election day; force media outlets to provide free television and radio time to candidates during these limited-duration campaigns; and enforce the existing limits for contributions to the national parties. Here's what he thinks is a more realistic "no-frills campaign-finance reform plan": Curtail fundraising by professional lobbyists; use federal regulation of television and radio to compel candidates to debate each other more and to air attack ads less; demand faster and more complete disclosure of political contributions; require lawmakers to disclose donations they received from groups interested in the votes they cast; encourage more people to register and to vote.
Maybe real reform would have a chance if one of the creative geniuses at the networks came up with a prime-time television show that would transfix even the clickers for an hour a week. How about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire Member of Congress?, with lobbyists, other fundraisers, and Beltway journalists available as lifelines? Or what about a "reality show"? Let's see: Find a small island in the South China Sea; populate it with an even number of members of Congress and fundraisers representing corporate special interest groups, a flamboyant, multimillionaire party host/ hostess, Senator John McCain, and a gaggle of TV personalities (Chris Matthews, Geraldo, Diane Sawyer ... ). Throw in a handful of large, inside-the-Beltway, two-legged snakes and rats and 100 or so TV production folks. The newly appointed Bradley Smith, the federal election commissioner who wants to harness the already toothless watchdog agency, could preside. Then see who's left at the end of a month.
Talk about "the good parts." Now that might focus the American public's attention and finally make campaign finance reform the water-cooler topic at work that it deserves to be. For a month, at least. ¤