Knowing a Candidate by the Friends He Chooses

Charles Lewis is founder and executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan research organization, which published the study "Under the Influence: The 1996 Presidential Candidates and Their Campaign Advisors." He is the author of "The Buying of the President" (Avon)

Why is a man like Larry Pratt, who has spoken to white supremacist groups and helped to introduce the idea of militias to the underground right wing, serving as a co-chairman of Patrick J. Buchanan's presidential campaign? Despite Buchanan's staunch defense of his friend--Pratt's now "on leave"--and Pratt's assertions that he "loathes" the Aryan Nation and other radical groups with whom he has worked, the disclosure has touched off a national discussion about Buchanan's extremism and past statements.

Buchanan has still not responded to the fundamental question about Pratt's associations, but merely deflected it. Actually, senior Buchanan officials were well aware more than a month before the disclosure that Pratt might become an embarrassment. Pratt acknowledged that he attended meetings with hate groups, but claimed he didn't share their views. "We don't prioritize allies," he said, "we prioritize positions, and we're willing to go anywhere and work with anyone for our issue." The "we" refers to Gun Owners of America, an organization Pratt co-founded and directs. Its 150,000 members believe the National Rifle Assn. is too liberal. Pratt's group has given the Buchanan campaign access to its membership lists.

Financially and organizationally, Buchanan is relying, in part, upon gun-rights groups to support his campaign. How else to explain why he would choose as campaign co-chairman someone who, in 1990, published the book "Armed People Victorious" and, in 1995, edited "Safeguarding Liberty: The Constitution & Citizen Militias"? For the candidate who frequently speaks in military metaphors, whose informal campaign slogan has become "Lock and Load," permanently unloading Pratt must seem like shooting himself--or certain of his key constituencies--in the foot.

But the Buchanan campaign might have more than one Pratt fall. How does the candidate explain the anti-Semitic slurs of another of his four co-chairmen, the Rev. Donald E. Wildmon. Wildmon is founder of American Family Assn., a group formed in 1988 to protest "The Last Temptation of Christ." He condemned the movie as being financed by "Jewish money" and, according to the Anti-Defamation League, has frequently complained that the entertainment industry is dominated by "non-Christians."

Just who Buchanan's advisors are is precisely the kind of information voters should be cognizant of before the election, not afterward--because today's campaign advisors frequently become tomorrow's U.S. government officials. As British statesman George Canning wrote more than a century ago, "Away with the cant of 'measures, not men!'--the idle supposition that it is the harness and not the horses that draw the chariots along."

The campaigns themselves and the proposals put forth by the presidential candidates are obviously important. But we can also glean vital information and insights about these aspirants by analyzing just who they have turned to for ideas and advice, for political and intellectual sustenance. Public policy is drawn along by officials chosen to manipulate the levers of power, and it is insufficient for voters to learn their identities after the campaign is over.

For example, many of the 1992 campaign advisors to Bill Clinton--Robert E. Rubin, Ronald H. Brown, Robert B. Reich, W. Anthony Lake, Samuel R. (Sandy) Berger, Ira Magaziner--became top officials in his administration. With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to see how Clinton's paid and unpaid campaign advisors constituted a virtual government-in-waiting.

In 1992, despite all the fiery rhetoric against special interests, despite all the anti-Washington populism, most of the presidential candidates--Clinton included--relied upon Washington "insiders" to guide them to the White House. Clinton, for example, scored big political points by promising to "break the stranglehold of special interests" when he became president. But more than half of his unpaid campaign advisors were inside-the-Beltway lobbyists, lawyers, spin doctors, public-relations practitioners and the like.

The 1996 presidential campaign, to borrow Yogi Berra's classic phrase, is turning out to be "deja vu all over again." Publicly, candidates are running against Washington, but, privately, they have been turning to "insiders" for ideas, advice and financial assistance. Bob Dole, for example, told his Senate colleagues last year that "the real problem is . . . the appearance of a revolving door connecting government service and private-sector enrichment." He went on to say: "This appearance problem becomes all the more acute when former high-government officials work on behalf of foreign interests. . . . Service as a high-government official is a privilege, not a right." But at least 18 of Dole's campaign aides and advisors have passed through that same revolving door, and nine are or have been registered at the Justice Department as foreign agents.

Lamar Alexander has said, "I'm not from Washington, D.C. I was there long enough to be vaccinated but not to be infected." But most Americans do not realize that the "populist" in the red-flannel shirt once worked in the Nixon White House, was a member of the Bush Cabinet and, during the past three years, was on the payroll of former Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., a powerful Washington lobbyist whose law firm has paid Alexander $295,000 a year while he runs for president. And what does Alexander do for Baker's firm? Ben Adams, the firm's managing partner, said "he helps open doors and solidify client relationships."

Steve Forbes has said that America needs a president who "is not part of the Washington culture. . . . If the insiders had the answers, they'd have implemented those answers by now." Yet, Forbes has at least six advisors connected to Empower America, a Washington advocacy group. In addition, his national campaign co-chairman is Caspar Weinberger, a former defense secretary and director of the Office of Management and Budget.

The American people should not have any illusions about the '96 presidential candidates. None of them is truly an "outsider." When they utter anti-Washington rhetoric, it is public posturing. But more information is needed.

When Americans vote for a politician, they are getting a "package deal" that includes the candidate's financial patrons and their priorities. Politicians, of course, do not like to discuss who has underwritten their candidacies, and seldom do. But this lack of responsiveness by our representatives, the people who work for us, should no longer be acceptable. The people must be able to ask questions of their elected officials and be heard.

Three presidential candidates--Clinton, Dole and Alexander--should have to explain in greater detail their advantageous business dealings with financial backers connected to their campaigns. How does Dole explain why his top career patron, the Gallo wine family of California, which has poured $381,000 into Dole organizations, has, with Dole's help, received millions of dollars in tax breaks and other favors? How does Clinton explain the more than $400,000 in direct and indirect support from his top career patron, New York investment bank Goldman Sachs, and the personal role of former Goldman Sachs chairman, Rubin, now Treasury secretary, in the U.S. bailout of the Mexican peso? And how does Alexander explain why his financial net worth skyrocketed while he was governor of Tennessee?

These and many more questions--including questions about Buchanan and his extremist advisors--must be answered by the presidential candidates. A democracy without accountability is hardly a democracy. As Abraham Lincoln once said, "I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts."

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