For sale: the key to the White House

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THE Republican Party raised $16m (pounds 10m) towards this year's presidential election campaign over dinner in Washington on Wednesday night. The huge black-tie affair, billed as "the Road to the White House" by the Republican National Committee, was priced at $1,000 a plate.

The reason why the 3,200 guests at the event donated an average of $5,000 each was that the the committee, known as the RNC, had offered some pleasing inducements to generous contributors. On the menu, for a mere $4,000, was an opportunity to pose for a photograph with Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

More intimate encounters with Republican celebrities were offered in exchange for larger donations. Those wishing to go down in history as the dinner's "co-chairmen", for example, parted with $250,000, a sum which also secured four tickets to the Republican National Convention in San Diego this summer and lunch with both Mr Gingrich and Bob Dole, the senator who leads the Republican race for the party's presidential nomination.

The Democratic National Committee has not been above engaging in similar transactions. But because the Democrats do not find it as easy as the Republicans to raise money from wealthy Americans, they offered richer fare at better prices.

A letter sent out by the DNC last summer promised people who contributed $100,000 two meals with President Bill Clinton and two with vice-president Al Gore, plus a DNC staff member to deal with contributors' "special requests''; $10,000 earned "preferred status" at the 1996 Democratic National Convention; and $1,000 clinched invitations to events hosted by Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore.

Crass as all these blandishments are - and vain as the impulse often is to succumb to them - underlying the transactions between those who make the laws and those who make the money is a pervasive system of institutionalised patronage corrosive of the Founding Fathers' vision of American democracy. Campaign funding does not come without strings attached. Those abroad who wonder at the ideological similarities between the two main US parties, at the under-representation in government of the unemployed and the working class, at President Clinton's cheerful embrace in his State of the Union address on Tuesday of previously right-wing Republican positions, need look no further than the statistic that shows 70 per cent of election donations come from big corporations.

The New Democrats, led by Mr Clinton, have displayed less concern than the Old Democrats for the plight of the bottom half of the American labour force who, according to Tom Geoghegan, a celebrated labour lawyer and author from Chicago, are worse off than the bottom half of any country in Europe.

"It's very difficult for someone like Clinton to go to a fund-raising dinner and tell his audience he wants to see wages go up," Mr Geoghegan said, "because the money would have to come out of the pockets of his contributors."

The difference between, say, Jimmy Carter's priorities and Mr Clinton's may be measured in terms of the fact that in the first half of last year, presidential candidates raised six times more campaign money ($60m) than they did in the first half of 1979, the year before the election Mr Carter lost to Ronald Reagan.

If dependence on wealthy contributors, many of whom fund both Republicans and Democrats in the same election, fosters a general bias among presidential contenders towards the interests of big business, evidence also abounds of mutually beneficial relationships between individual politicians and their affluent donor-clients. The much-trumpeted Whitewater affair derives its frisson from the suspicion that Bill and Hillary Clinton abused their positions when he was Governor of Arkansas to engage in property speculation with a wealthy local banker. Examination of the records of the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination reveals that they have their Whitewaters too.

A glance at Mr Dole's long list of corporate contributors shows none donated more than Gallo Winery, a company based not in his Kansas constituency but in California. The Buying of the President, a book out in the US this month, details Mr Dole's mutually profitable association with Gallo and other companies.

A typical example of the kind of assistance Mr Dole has long been in the habit of giving his benefactors was provided in 1992 when Gallo appealed to the Treasury Department for permission to remove the words "bulk processing" from its champagne labels and replace them with the more enticing "Charmat method". Other champagne producers objected but Mr Dole, the most powerful Republican in the Senate, wrote to the Treasury Department arguing "champagne is champagne, regardless of the production". Gallo, which had contributed $93,000 to Mr Dole between 1989 and 1992 (and much more since), prevailed.

Lamar Alexander is a former Governor of Tennessee who hopes the down- home, checked-shirt image he cultivates will translate into a successful late charge in the Republican primaries. Mr Alexander has become strikingly "in" in the public sector. In 1981, while he was governor, he managed to translate a $1 share option for the purchase of a Knoxville newspaper into $620,000. It was never revealed who advised him in the transaction but a few years later, when he made $1.9m out of a $20,000 investment, one of his partners was Whittle Communications, a company whose ambitions in the private schools sectors he substantially advanced when he rose to become Secretary of Education in the cabinet of George Bush.

Phil Gramm, a senator from Texas, declared with bluff candour at a fund- raising dinner in February last year: "I have the most reliable friend you can have in politics: ready money." The two biggest contributors to his 1996 campaign, which has so far tallied $20m (the same as Mr Dole), have been the National Rifle Association and the American Medical Association. Mr Gramm has introduced, sponsored or supported 18 congressional bills supporting NRA interests and he was the most belligerent opponent of Democratic legislation plans in 1994 to limit the extortionate fees levied by doctors and health insurance companies. "The Clinton health care plan is going to pass over my cold, dead political body" was one of his favourite speech lines.

Mr Gramm's wife, Wendy, chaired the federal Commodity Futures Trading Commission in the Bush administration. In the last days that she held the post, she responded favourably to a request by nine energy-derivative companies to exempt them from government regulation. Seven of the nine companies were donors to her husband's election campaigns; one appointed her to its board of directors.

The one Republican candidate who has not had to stoop to selling political favours is the publisher Steve Forbes. This is because he is worth at least $200m, $25m of which he is investing in his own campaign. Yet, while he argues that he cannot be tarred with the same brush as the Washington insiders, he might also be described as the extreme expression of the anti-democratic alliance between American politicians and big business - living proof that the real foundations of political power in the US lie not, as Charles Lewis, the author of The Buying of the President has written, in "the pap, vacuous rhetoric and advertising" of the election campaigns, but in "an entirely legal, corrupt mercenary culture full of nuance ... in which ultimately all participants in the money become tainted".