A young politician bought me off the other day. He wrote me a check for $15 trillion. He said he hoped I would write a story. It seemed like a fair price.
The secret of political survival, James J. Mallon said, is "you just buy off the opposition, pay off the press, and give the people what they want."
Mallon is president ("president for life," he says) of the University of Wisconsin student government, a job normally occupied by earnest young men and women, full of personal ambition, high-sounding goals and idealism. In 1978, he sensed the mood of the nation's campuses, and ran for student body president as a clown.
His campaign bore some striking similarities to the 1980 presidential race. Only his methods were novel.
He jogged around campus (remember George Bush?) to prove he was fit for office. He engaged in mudslinging (he pinned caricatures of his opponents on a wall and threw mud pies at them). He dodged issues (he stood on a platform and invited students to throw copies of Rolling Stone and the Milwaukee Journal at him.
He made outlandish promises (he pledged, for example, to move the Statue of Liberty to Madison). He geared his campaign to the lowest common denominator. ("Basically, students are only interested in the Big Three -- sex, drugs and rock and roll," he says. "So that's what I'm interested in.") He bought votes, passing out play money on election day.
When he won by some 300 votes, his predecessor said it was the biggest insult of his life.
Once in office, Mallon, 24, behaved like some politicians. He used his position for self-aggrandizement. He used his office phone to call friends all over the country. He hired his cronies and relatives. His sister is student association secretary, his girlfriend is its official photographer, and his roommate is his executive assistant and field marshal of his army. (It's an all-draft army; members drink only draft beer.)
He used the student treasury to fulfill campaign promises. He built a mock Statue of Liberty on the ice of Lake Mendota, and sponsored a gigantic toga party and marijuana rally.
The difference between Mallon and most politicians is that he had told people he intended to do all these things.
When he ran for reelection last fall, his campaign literature boasted that he and vice president, Leon Varjian had "made wackiness, nuttiness, irresponsibility, craziness and self-motivation household words . . . reflect the kind of government you're proud to write home about, especially to your nutty Uncle Clyde."
Students did. Mallon's Pail and Shovel ticket won by 1,000 votes.
All this is significant because the day I visited Mallon he was worried. Some 5,000 students, the largest crowd to turn out for a political event on campus since the height of antiwar demonstrations, had just gathered outside his office to listen to John B. Anderson, the maverick Republican presidential candidate, talk about his brand of "new politics." Six hours later, almost 4,000 students showed up at a rally, broadcast on live television, for California Gov. Jerry Brown.
Perhaps the days of clown politics were over. Mallon couldn't be sure.
What would happen to the toy plastic machine guns stacked in his office? Or the declarations of war he has issued against UCLA, Berkeley and about 50 other campuses? Or his plans to make all of neighboring Iowa an enclosed shopping mall?
A few days later Mallon was back in normal wacky form. Brown and Anderson had finished third in Wisconsin's Democratic and Republican primaries. "What's third in the Olympics -- a bronze medal?" asked Mallon, who voted for himself. "Nobody remembers who won a bronze."
Anderson and Brown had handled everything all wrong, he said. They should have "bought off student leaders." Mallon and Varjian would have gone for only $5,000 each. They would have thrown a gigantic toga party with free beer for everyone.
"Honesty and integrity are fine," he said. "But they don't compare with the Big Three."
The press had misjudged the significance of the crowds. "Basically, students more than anything else want to get on television," he explained. "What better chance with all three networks there? You have to realize that in the 1980s the primary goal of a lot of people in life will be to get on national television."
As one might expect, Mallon has been on national television. "We made David Brinkley smile," he said. "That was the high point of my life."
What's in the future?
Although he has graduated, Mallon intends to run for a third term. "It's the greatest job in the world. I've got four electric typewriters," he said. "My phone has six buttons on it."
For later, he has bigger plans. "I might run for president," he said. "Have you ever been in his house? It's huge. He's got a big yard and a bowling alley in the basement and one funny Marine who plays the piano."
Mallon has been to the White House twice and has two letters from Jimmy Carter to prove it. The first time he showed up in a clown outfit."Have you ever tried getting in dressed like a clown?" he asks. "It's really hard, especially when all you have in your briefcase is a slinky, a bunch of silly putty and a hunk of Wisconsin cheese."
The next time Mallon dressed more conventionally and claims he presented the president a poster picturing the 1,000 plastic pink flamingos he put on a campus hill.
"I think Carter felt a little guilty," Mallon said. "I think he'd really like to do some of the things I've done."
One footnote: I lost the $15 trillion check. I don't think my bank would have accepted it anyway.