In her new book, "The Corruption of American Politics," Elizabeth Drew, the veteran Washington journalist, has a searing description of what has happened to the nation's capital since she and I began working here and became friends.
"Indisputably," she writes, "the greatest change in Washington over the past 25 years . . . has been in the preoccupation with money. . . . It has transformed politics and it has subverted values. It has led good people to do things that are morally questionable, if not reprehensible. It has cut a deep gash, if not inflicted a mortal wound, in the concept of public service."
I wish I could say she was wrong. She may exaggerate when she says, "Money now rivals or even exceeds power as the pre-eminent goal" in the capital. But the evidence of the cash obsession is, as she says, indisputable -- never more so than last week.
Washington went ga-ga over the news that Texas Gov. George W. Bush had collected a record-breaking $36 million in the first half of 1999 to finance his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. The Hotline, the electronic compendium of the day's political news, collected some of the phrases used to describe Bush's achievement. The list began with "astounding," "staggering" and "jaw-dropping," and concluded with the judgment that Bush's financial success "wipes out the Republican field" of contenders.
By raising more money than all his 11 rivals combined, Bush had, it was agreed, nailed down a preemptive claim to the Republican nomination. Dan Balz, always a careful, cautious reporter, wrote in The Post, "Only Steve Forbes, a multimillionaire who is mostly self-financing his campaign, will have the money to compete with Bush."
What was remarkable about the reaction -- and persuasive on Drew's point -- was the lack of astonishment, much less indignation, at the notion that the Texas governor's bulging treasury would, by itself, trump any possible counter-claim to consideration from a field including a former vice president, two former Cabinet members, three U.S. senators, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and the runner-up in the 1996 nomination fight.
Not a single Republican voter anywhere in America has cast a ballot in a primary or caucus. Bush has yet to appear on a platform for debate with any or all of his rivals. His five-year record in public office is largely unexamined, his views on most issues, unknown. And yet, on the basis of public opinion polls and, even more, his bank account, the New York Times said his third week as an announced candidate -- devoted largely to fund-raising -- "has the feel of covering a general election nominee."
In the midst of this insider swoon came a nasty eruption over the perennial issue of campaign finance reform. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, one of Bush's rivals and a veteran of many a futile effort to revamp the porous election laws, made a speech on the issue in New Hampshire in which he was impolite enough to say that the present campaign financing system "is nothing less than an influence-peddling scheme in which both parties compete to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder."
McCain did something else unforgivable. After citing the usual Republican litany of Democratic fund-raising excesses -- the Lincoln bedroom, the Buddhist temple, etc. -- he added a number of examples of special-interest favors granted to heavy-contributor industries by the Republican Congress.
That brought forth Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, the author of the clever strategy that has roadblocked campaign finance legislation for the past four years, to charge McCain with hypocrisy, for vigorously soliciting contributions from companies with interests pending before the Commerce Committee, which McCain chairs, even as he preaches reform.
McCain is the co-sponsor of campaign finance legislation in which Elizabeth Drew places much more confidence than I do. But she is right when she says, "Perhaps nothing has contributed more to cynicism about government than the hypocrisy of the politicians about reforming the campaign finance system." She cites the long record of both parties' claiming to support reform only when they can be confident the other side will kill it. And she correctly identifies President Clinton as "the champ" at this game of "proclaiming that one was for campaign finance reform and not lifting a finger to get it passed."
I confess I do not know how to roll back the tide of money that has swept over our politics and our capital. But Drew correctly says that it is drowning out decency and threatening the underpinnings of democracy itself.