One day Ted Turner got mad about America's unpaid dues to the United Nations. Being richer than some U.N. member states, he had the means to make his anger felt: He resolved to settle the $1 billion debt right out of his pocket, then sue Congress for repayment. A pesky lawyer pointed out that Congress can't in fact be sued. So Turner used the billion to set up an outfit that would bolster the United Nations and make Congress see reason.
The Turner lobbying effort got off the ground in March; barring a last-minute upset, this week has brought victory. The budget fights of 1997 and 1998 yielded no money for the United Nations; this year's has produced $926 million for the organization. The contrast between the current breakthrough and past defeats owes something to Richard Holbrooke, the dynamic new ambassador to the United Nations. It owes something to the Clinton administration's willingness to give ground on abortion, which Republicans demanded in return for U.N. dues. And it owes something as well to Turner and his money.
You can't sue Congress. But you can hire Tim Wirth, an ex-senator, to run your campaign. And he in turn can hire an ex-congressman (Tom Downey, Democrat and Pal of Al) and an ex-chairman of the Republican National Committee (Haley Barbour) to lobby for you. You can also engage a former Senate staffer to run the nuts and bolts of your effort, and an insider firm to design your advertising strategy. In sum, you can roll your pants up and wade deep into the muck of politics, which is something that nice folks who believe in the United Nations have normally shied away from.
The cause of the United Nations has been argued earnestly by sympathizers for a long time--longer, in fact, than the United Nations has existed. Recalling the Senate's rejection of the League of Nations in 1919, Eleanor Roosevelt's pro-U.N. friends founded the U.N. Association in 1943 and dispatched worthy speakers (Sen. Harry Truman, Rep. Albert Gore) around the nation to make the case for internationalism. The U.N. Association still exists to this day, but its genteel speechmaking tactics are hopelessly dated. One blunt pro-U.N. Democrat calls the association "useless."
In 1997 a new group, known as the Emergency Coalition, stepped up to the plate. It was set up by David Birenbaum, an ex-ambassador who recruited various foreign policy experts to help him. The coalition puts out op-ed columns and letters to the editor at a rate of one a month, and lobbies congressional offices. Its executive director, Linda Jamison, came from a foreign policy think tank and plans to devote her career to internationalism. The coalition fought hard last year and the year before and was defeated.
Then there is Turner's outfit, the Better World Campaign, whose staff makes no claim to foreign-policy sophistication. They know spin; they know polls; they have political campaign posters on the walls of their office. The campaign's executive director, Phyllis Cuttino, comes out of organized labor; one of her recent jobs was to help defeat a ballot initiative in California that was hostile to trade unions. Before that she worked for a couple of senators and on the Dukakis campaign. "The U.N.'s got a great story to tell," she remarks, sounding exactly like the communications director for a starchy Senate candidate.
Team Turner knows how to get Congress's attention. Others before had commissioned national polls on American support for the United Nations. But nobody before had commissioned polls in the districts of key congressmen. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, it turns out, presides over a district in which 75 percent of likely voters disapprove of linking U.N. dues to abortion, and in which more voters feel favorable toward the United Nations than feel favorable toward Congress. This might help explain why Hastert was happy to do a deal on the United Nations and get the issue off the table.
The Turner folks gave nine senior congressmen this personalized poll service. They also opened a "dialogue" with 88 members of Congress, meaning that they bombarded them with calls and faxes. Then they ran TV ads in Washington, so that Congress would understand that the old rules had changed. This year, unlike any year before, someone with big money was on the U.N. case; if congressmen failed to pay the debt, they risked getting that money man seriously crazy, with who knows what consequences. Come election time, Turner might have started blitzing the districts of anti-U.N. congressmen with televised protests.
Cynics complain that American democracy is utterly poll-driven. This is a heinous lie: Last year three separate polls, taken in April, August and December, found large majorities in favor of full payment of U.N. dues, and yet the dues were not forthcoming. The truth is that democracy responds to polls plus cash plus interest groups--plus a bewilderingly haphazard mix of chance and personality.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.