I was listening to a presidential candidate -- it happened to be Joe Biden, but it could have been any one of them -- talk the other noon. He mentioned an all-day meeting with some economists. He repeated some of the ideas he had gotten from them. And suddenly I was reminded of a peculiar slant in the coverage of politics in this country.
Suppose Biden had said he had spent the day with his big contributors. The reporters around the table would have been scribbling notes furiously, pummeling him with questions about what these ''fat-cat, special-interest'' guys wanted in return. But because he was talking about idea-merchants, no one blinked an eye.
When it comes to campaigns, dollar contributions are deemed to be potentially or actually corrupting. The view is that they need to be limited -- as the Senate is again struggling to do -- or at least made subject to strict rules of disclosure.
But no such taint attaches to other vital campaign ingredients, notably manpower and ideas. People who make their contributions by volunteering to walk a precinct or, as with Biden's group and its counterparts, by offering to write a position paper or conduct a briefing for a candidate, are deemed to be performing a generous act of good citizenship.
Why is it dangerous to contribute dollars, but not to contribute labor or thoughts? The answer has to lie in the eye of the beholder.
When it comes to influence on policy, few would seriously maintain that a $1,000 contributor exerts more leverage than the person who drafts a speech for a contender or gives him his briefing on trade policy or the Persian Gulf.
But the people who write about politics -- like myself -- are far closer in spirit to the briefers and the ghost writers than we are to the big contributors. So when organizations like Common Cause, which provides the lobbying muscle behind the recurrent drive for ''campaign reform,'' sound the alarm, we in the press tend to respond.
Frank J. Sorauf, a professor at the University of Minnesota, has just demonstrated that point nicely in an article in Political Science Quarterly. He analyzes news coverage, not editorials, on three recent campaign-finance developments in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.
In every instance, he makes a convincing case that the coverage reflected, not a partisan or an ideological bias, but a particular strain of American thought: the Progressive tradition, which was a powerful force in our politics from the 1890s to the 1920s. The Progressives, political scientist Austin Ranney once wrote, believed that ''the great enemies of society are the big political machines, the business trusts, and the other special interests that try to advance their selfish goals at the public's expense by buying elections and corrupting public officials.''
Progressivism faded as a political force 50 years ago, but it remains alive and well in American journalism and in many self-styled reform organizations. The Progressives' belief in the corrupting power of money is the assumption underlying most of the current efforts -- led by Common Cause and endorsed by many leading newspapers -- to cut down on contributions by interest-group political action committees, to introduce public financing of congressional campaigns and to place ceilings on overall campaign spending.
Reformers and journalists tend to share that Progressive tradition. Reformers and journalists also know our influence derives from our presentation of information and ideas, not from our wealth. We may be right when we say that dollars corrupt politics while ideas enlighten it. But there is enough of a coincidence between our assets and our arguments to justify a degree of skepticism.
I happen to think that the rapidly rising costs of many Senate races do justify an effort to slow down this form of political inflation, at least temporarily. I agree with Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.) that a limit on the share of the campaign budgets PACs can provide would have the healthy effect of pushing candidates to seek more individual contributions in their home states.
But there's an excess of moralism in the Common Cause and newspaper preachings on this topic. A pluralistic society properly should allow many channels by which people can seek to influence decision-makers. And you can see more than a tinge of intellectual elitism in the notion that only the money channel corrupts.