Opinion writer January 16, 2012

Sheldon Adelson is supposedly a bad man. The gambling mogul gave $5 million to a Newt Gingrich-loving super PAC and this enabled Gingrich to maul Mitt Romney — a touch of opinion here — who had it coming anyway. Adelson is a good friend of Gingrich and a major player in Israeli politics. He owns a newspaper in Israel and supports politicians so far to the right I have to wonder if they are even Jewish. This is Sheldon Adelson, supposedly a bad man. But what about Howard Stein?

The late chairman of the Dreyfus Corp. was a wealthy man but, unlike Adelson, a liberal Democrat. Stein joined with some other rich men — including Martin Peretz, the one-time publisher of the New Republic; Stewart Mott, a GM heir; and Arnold Hiatt of Stride Rite Shoes — to provide about $1.5 million for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 challenge to Lyndon Johnson. Stein and his colleagues did not raise this money in itsy-bitsy donations but by chipping in large amounts themselves. Peretz told me he kicked in $30,000. That was a huge amount of money at the time.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post. View Archive

That sort of donation would now be illegal — unless it was given to a super PAC that swore not to coordinate with the candidate. And until quite recently, even that would have been illegal — the limit being something like $2,400. Many people bemoan that the limit is no more, asserting that elections are now up for sale, as if this was something new. They point to the Adelson contribution and unload invective on the poor right-wing gambling tycoon. I understand, but I do not agree.

Back in 1967, a small group of men gave McCarthy the wherewithal to challenge a sitting president of the United States. The money enabled McCarthy to swiftly set up a New Hampshire operation and — lo and behold — he got 42 percent of the popular vote, an astounding figure. Johnson was rocked. Four days later, Robert F. Kennedy, who at first had declined to do what McCarthy did, jumped in himself. By the end of March 1968, Johnson was on TV, announcing he would not seek a second term.

My guess is that a lot of the people who decry what Adelson has done loved what Stein, Peretz and the others did. My guess is that they cheered Johnson’s defeat because they loathed the Vietnam War and wanted it ended. My guess is that while they pooh-pooh the argument that money is speech, they cannot deny that when McCarthy talked — when he had the cash for TV time or to set up storefront headquarters — that was political speech at the highest decibel.

In the end, the 1968 campaign was won by Richard Nixon — and so was the next. Nixon was always awash in cash, huge donations from the scrupulous, the unscrupulous and the just plain weird. (Google W. Clement Stone to see what I mean.) Some of this money came from abroad and some of it funded the Watergate burglary and the cover-up. Too much money chased too little morality. Reform was demanded and reform is what we got. It limited money and it limited speech.

History was changed by the sort of political donations that are now derided. Lyndon Johnson stepped down. The Democratic Party was ripped right up the middle. Bobby Kennedy joined the race (and was assassinated in June), and nothing — but nothing — was the same afterward. McCarthy’s quixotic campaign became so real that Paul Newman came up to New Hampshire, and so did throngs of kids with long hair and incredible energy. I was there, a graduate student-cum-cub reporter, eating off the expense accounts of soon-to-be Washington Post colleagues (My God, what a life!). So when the Supreme Court says that money is speech and ought to be protected, I nod because I was in New Hampshire in 1968 and I know.

Sheldon Adelson is not my type of guy. I don’t like his politics. But he has no less right to try his own hand at history than did that band of rich men who were convinced the war was a travesty-tragedy — and they were right. Since 1968, my views have changed on many matters. But my bottom line remains a fervent belief in the beauty and utility of free speech and of the widest exchange of ideas. I am comfortable with dirty politics. I fear living with less free speech.

cohenr@washpost.com