So the Democratic Party leadership has decided to sue House Majority Whip Tom DeLay for allegedly engaging in extortion, racketerring and money laundering.
Rarely has a liberal assault of this sort against a conservative leader attracted less support. Even Democrats and their allies in the press are not jumping on the bandwagon this time. The New York Times did give the announcement a screaming headline -- "Democrats' Lawsuit Accuses DeLay of Racketeering In Fund-Raising" -- but it buried the story on page 20.
Most damning of all, the two law professors responsible for drafting the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), both Democrats, denounced the suit in unmistakably clear terms.
One of them, Notre Dame law professor Robert Blakey, who served in Robert Kennedy's Justice Department, described it as "the kind of case that gives RICO a bad name." Congressman Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., also disassociated himself from the suit, describing it as "almost the criminalization of politics."
Equally blunt was the judgment of USA Today's Walter Shapiro, normally considered a liberal, who began his column by grousing, "It is hard for anyone, save rabid conservatives, to muster up much compassion for DeLay."
But Shapiro then went on to call the suit "frivolous" and said it was contributing to a "poisonous" political atmosphere. Washington, he observed, "has lost all claim to civility, but there are still boundaries and the DCCC lawsuit has crossed them."
Even a professional Clintonian like Paul Begala was embarrassed. In an op-ed piece, he warned his political brethren: "The Congressional Democrats' racketeering lawsuit against Tom DeLay, the House majority whip is wrong, ethically, legally and politically."
To be fair, Begala tried to put the blame on the other partisan foot by comparing Democrats' move to the Republican investigations of Clinton. Begala seems to have forgotten that there were 25 investigations conducted by Democrats against members of the Reagan and Bush administrations, including the hounding of dedicated civil servants by the Office of the Independent Counsel (a Democratic creation).
Begala also failed to note that the allegations against Clinton were crimes -- perjury, obstruction of justice, fraud and sexual harassment -- and not, as in the RICO suit, perfectly legal activities regularly engaged in by politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Since Pandora's box has been opened, it is instructive to peek inside.
In particular, look who's leading the Virtue Squad in its crusade to purge the House of campaign finance excess. Why it's young Patrick Kennedy, latest issue of the Kennedy machine, and in all other respects a political nobody, a face familiar only as having thrust itself into the camera eye during the impeachment process with a display of barroom incivility which the Kennedys are noted for.
Notwithstanding such handicaps, and the lack of any legislative acheivements to date, Patrick has managed -- in three short congressional terms -- to elevate himself to a position adjacent to the throne. He is Minority Leader Dick Gephardt's chief fund-raiser, right-hand man, and executive director of the DCCC, the Democrats' campaign arm that turns the money spigot on and off for the party's congressional candidates.
The reason Kennedy has this job is simple: the high-octane fund-raising power of the Kennedy machine, which is the best example of the excess that crusader Patrick now proposes to correct. This is hardly a partisan judgment. In a recent survey of campaign finance abuse, the National Journal summarized educated opinion on the subject in these terms: "For reformers bent on cleaning up political campaigns, the Kennedys epitomize what's wrong with the system." Talk about the fox and the chicken coop!
Patrick's father, Senator Ted, let us not forget, survived political ruin by deploying cash -- an estimated $1 million -- to the family of the woman he left for dead at Chappaquiddick. The disbursement helped ensure that the family of the dead woman would refrain from seeking the appropriate manslaughter prosecution he had earned.
Patrick's cousin, Congressman Joe, made his own career possible by ponying up another Kennedy million to palliate the girl he left behind in a wheelchair, after a reckless driving episode. Eventually, Joe was forced into premature retirement when his brother (and campaign-manager) Michael was caught in an affair with an underage babysitter. Then Joe himself was exposed by a discarded wife as having tried to get the Church to annul a 16-year marriage by claiming he didn't know what he was doing when he said "I do."
These are neither idle nor merely prurient reminiscences. Celebrity, as every politician knows, is money. And once established, celebrity drives itself. No one has yet proposed a ban on political fund-raising by individuals who have been on the cover of People magazine, but a good case could be made for it if anyone were really serious about controlling money in politics.
Once upon a time, the Kennedy money machine was powered by the celebrity of achievement. "Camelot" was more than just a public-relations idea. But in the last thirty years -- one could date the moment Ted Kennedy's driving lapse at Chappaquidick -- the Kennedy fame has been most frequently powered by the celebrity of tragedy and scandal, and of celebrity itself -- Kennedy vehicular recklessness, Kennedy drug abuse, reckless skiing episodes and flying accidents, along with just plain old Kennedy glamour and nostalgia and celebrity couplings.
Are these suitable sources of political power, or do they have a corrosive and corrupting effect on good government and the political process? Are such credentials better than those of the corporate chieftains the left may turn into demons, but whose political cash is part of their return for creating jobs and opportunities for others?
Does it make our political culture healthier to elevate a Patrick Kennedy with no discernible political accomplishments, whose funds are raised out of the tragedies and scandals of the Kennedy past, rather than a Tom DeLay who not only can point to legislative achievements but has won his place of power the old fashioned way, by garnering the votes of his peers?
DeLays ticket to Congress was through a competition in an arena of equals, as it should be. Patrick's scale, on the other hand, was decisively tipped at the start by the heavyweights of America's longest-running political soap opera. To win Patrick's first race for a congressional seat, the Kennedy money machine buried his opponent under an avalanche of money, outspending him 50-to-1 ($1 million to $23,000).
Before that, Patrick won his first local office when his family repaid its debt to a lifelong Kennedy loyalist, John Skeffington, by using all their political muscle to deprive him of his seat in the Rhode Island State House. On election day, the celebrity clan gathered outside the main polling booth (there were only two in the district) offering every citizen a photo opportunity with one of the famous Kennedys, complete with autograph, just before he or she went in to vote.
Nor are Patrick and his father innocent of more recent campaign-finance abuses. Both are recipients of cash gifts from Bernard Schwartz, the Loral CEO under investigation for buying White House influence to bend security controls and allow his company to slip the Chinese technological secrets which one day may be used to incinerate us all. Both uncle and nephew were visitors to the famous Buddhist temple of Al Gore notoriety, both beneficiaries of the same illicit fund-raising schemes, using nuns as political shills and orchestrated by convicted felon and Chinese agent, Maria Hsia.
The alleged sins for which Tom DeLay has been targeted by the Kennedy vigilantes are, in fact, ubiquitous practices on both sides of the political aisle, and were invented by liberal Democratic institutions like the Sierra Club to promote their issues. The offending institutions identified in the Kennedy suit are corporations (in the category c-4 and 527) that don't come under the elections code and the scrutiny of the Federal Elections Commission. But what is wrong with private citizens expressing their views on issues like the environment or tax policy, and funding the dissemination of those views with their own money?
A nonprofit corporation, the Public Broadcasting Service, fueled by billions of taxpayer dollars, has been promoting Democratic Party agendas for 33 years. A minor scandal even erupted last year when it was revealed that tax-exempt and tax-supported public television stations were selling their subscriber lists to Democratic Party fund-raising efforts.
Why Democrats? It's the politics, stupid!
For 33 years, public television stations have been (illegally) pushing a Democratic perspective, and consequently attracting an overwhelmingly Democratic support base. This abuse developed during two and a half decades of "oversight" by congressional Democrats who turned a blind eye towards the practice.
Why isn't this abuse the target of a RICO suit? Public television star Bill Moyers, who has made a personal fortune disseminating anti-Republican propaganda on taxpayer-financed public television stations, is also the head of the "philanthropic" Florence and John Schumann Foundation, which recently gave $5.5 million -- a king's ransom -- to a liberal political magazine, the American Prospect. This allowed what had been a typically under-financed and politically irrelevant opinion journal to publish twice-monthly and become a force within the Democratic Party.
Is this illegal? It certainly violates the spirit of the tax laws, but the Clinton IRS has so far failed to notice.
And what about the unions -- especially government unions, which are Al Gore's chief supporters. Government unions mobilize political slush funds to elect Democratic candidates who promise to expand government, and thus raise their salaries and expand their job base. Talk about conflicts of interest! Talk about campaign-finance scandal! Yet no liberal reformer ever does.
While the existing criminal law and the tax codes should be rigorously enforced, it's time to reconsider the misguided effort to dam up the Niagara of political money. Money is not really the problem. In fact, most of the current problems that reformers complain about have been created by the campaign-finance reform laws of the 1970s. These did attempt to dam the flow but only succeeded in driving it underground. The fundamental reality that the reformers refuse to face is that you can't take money out of politics without stifling the power of individuals to express themselves and disseminate their views to the public. This is the essence of democracy, and that's why it can't and shouldn't be stopped.
That some people should have more money with which to express themselves is the inevitable result of democracy as well. We are not all equal in our ability or will to utilize the opportunities that democracy presents to us. Some of us make more money; some of us have more influence. Every government-enforced effort to make us equal takes away our freedom, and -- as the unintended consequences of campaign-finance reform efforts show -- gives us perversity in return.
Just look at the Reform Party which has been rejected by its own leader, Jesse Ventura, as a fringe operation, controlled by a Marxist-Leninist sect. Would Reform Party presidential aspirant Patrick Buchanan, who was roundly rejected by his own party, have access to a platform in the coming national election if it weren't for the $12.6 million coerced out of taxpayers -- who also have rejected him -- by misguided campaign finance laws?
Our real political problems stem from the fact that our system is democratic. There are no grounds (except breaking the law) for excluding anybody from participating in them. This means that there are no rules that require politicians to be civilized or honest, or to possess even a modicum of civic responsibility as the price of their participation. In other words, the only remedy for a social primitive and political witch-hunter like Patrick Kennedy is to resort to the court of public opinion or to the jury of his Democratic peers.