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Brass Balls

President Clinton strikes a pose

By Bob Harris

BILL CLINTON announced this month that the corruption caused by private campaign financing can be solved by requiring broadcasters to provide free TV time to candidates. The president suggested that such a measure would help "free our democracy from the grip of big money."

What he didn't add is that a grip, applied two ways, is called a handshake.

Just hours after making the proposal, Clinton attended a $25,000-a-plate swordfish dinner in the Crystal Ballroom of the Carlton Hotel. In exchange for some grins with the guests and a couple of Kodak moments, Clinton raised over half a million dollars--90 percent of which would have been illegal under the man's own guidelines.

Brazen? It gets better. As the speculators and land sharks savored their candied chestnut ice cream, Clinton actually rose up and speechified about the need for reform, saying that "there is much more to do." Besides looking in the mirror, apparently.

We're talking serious brass. I'm surprised the TV mikes don't pick up the rhythmic clanking when the president jogs.

Why the lip service? Needing to happy-face the daily revelations about White House fundraising--go to the side door, small bills only, ask for Lenny--Clinton is cleverly trying to lower the heat by posing as a do-gooder, advocating a populist reform that he knows has zero chance of happening in the near term.

Make no mistake, the free TV proposal would help, and it's entirely doable, at least hypothetically. New legislation isn't even necessary; the FCC can mandate free time for political candidates whenever it wants. (The mythical "free market" doesn't apply here, since the broadcast industry wouldn't even exist without government-protected monopolies over individual frequencies.)

Not that such a mandate is likely. You're asking for concerted altruism from a bunch of silk-suited politicians and TV execs. You might as well ask a humming swarm of locusts to play "Kumbiya."

See, the Democrats want to keep the White House in 2000, which means Al Gore is about to eat more seafood dinners than Moby Dick. As will Kemp, Gramm, and the other whales of the GOP.

Once that first 50 million or so is burning a pocket hole, where do you think Al's gonna blow it? As you've probably realized, the ultimate recipient of much of the money spent in political campaigns is TV itself.

Next election season, go visit a TV station and sit in the lobby for an hour or two. You'll see an amazingly constant stream of opposing campaign staffers buying time and dropping off their latest attack ads and rebuttals. As you'd imagine, the more panicky the one-upmanship gets, the calmer the station bean counters become.

It's like watching a poker game where no matter who raises the bet, the casino gets to keep every chip.

In turn, the medium reinvests a big chunk of cash in candidates who favor proposals to make the Murdochs and Perelmans even richer. Clinton himself was financed last year in large part by Time-Warner, which, you'll notice, was the one media company Bob Dole consistently singled out for verbal abuse.

You think Clinton and Gore are gonna turn their backs on that cash by pushing the FCC to mandate free ad time? Sure, and Chevy Chase is just in a creative lull.

Predictably, the National Association of Broadcasters doesn't care for the idea of giving away what they can sell, and losing the influence the ad money buys. So they're ready to start using their government-granted monopolies to synonymize private financing of TV ads, "free speech" (for those who can afford it), and the American flag until we're all half-convinced that Paul Revere brought coaxial cable to Concord and the Boston Tea Party was hosted by ex-Playboy bunny-turned-MTV hostess Jenny McCarthy.

Free TV for candidates simply can't fly if the medium won't give it air.

Besides, there's only one real long-term solution--a public campaign financing system. Getting it will require citizen activism on a civil rights scale.

Which sounds like a big deal, but it's not asking much. We've no right to expect a healthy democracy until we behave as though we actually have one.

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From the March 20-26, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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