So You Want to Buy a President?

Charles Lewis

Charles Lewis

Q: What got you started on this?

Lewis: It was intriguing to us that no one has ever looked at the money and the influences behind the candidates in the last 30 or 40 years. No one has tried to systematically look at the forces in play behind the candidates.

The Making of the President, for example, hardly mentioned money, in all these books. And they're all wonderful books, but it's sort of impolite to even discuss it. It's the hair in the soup. Let's not talk about the money. . . . let's not discuss how they got all of that. And in particular where they got the money and what those folks wanted in return.

And in fact, perish the thought that they wanted anything in return. People just gave because they're red, white and blue Americans, and they believe in their country, and they say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. And that's sort of been the way we look and think about our presidential campaigns, really in the last couple of decades that I've been watching and listening. I mean, that's overstating it a bit, but the money forces have never been really looked at.

Q: Well, now that you've looked closely at the money moving about, how do you come out? Do you come out convinced that elections are in huge part 'favors for sale,' or in tiny part 'favors for sale,' or somewhere in the middle?

Lewis: I was taken aback, actually. I did not realize how expensive things had gotten. This is the most expensive presidential campaign, and the most expensive political campaign in U.S. history. The numbers are absolutely off the chart.

Q: But just because there's a lot of dollars chasing candidates, does that mean that there's a lot of selfish people trying to turn the system to their own purposes? Or couldn't it mean that there's just a lot of wealthy people who want to express broad philosophical issues?

Lewis: I think there are a lot of wealthy people that do want to express broad philosophical issues. I think there are also a lot of very narrow, specific, corporate and labor and other vested interests that have very narrow agendas that they want pursued, and they see these candidates as their handmaidens or their puppets. The presidential campaign is not a horse race or a beauty contest. It's a giant auction. And all these forces are at play with these candidates. And it's not any more complicated than that.

. . . [T]he last twenty years in this country, the candidate who has raised the most money before their campaign starts, before the first vote is cast, gets the nomination. Since '76, every single Presidential campaign. And guess what? Clinton and Dole have raised the most. They're the front runners. They've raised the most money. And there are several candidates who did not even enter the race, because the idea of 200 fund-raisers a year all over the country was repugnant to them. We are getting a certain kind of individual who is willing to go into an ordeal like this with a tin cup day in and day out every day of the year . . .

They also know that unless they raise $15 or 20 million minimum, they will not even be a player in the game. The game has gotten that expensive. You have the number one fund-raiser in US history, Pete Wilson, who raised more than $80 million, could not compete in this game. He got in too late.

Today, the first thing that parties, when they're recruiting candidates, want to know is, how much money can you raise? What kind of resources are available to you? How willing are you to raise money? And take that times about 1,000 at the Presidential level. I interviewed Jack Kemp. It was a fascinating interview. And he said he had to go to 200 to 250 fund-raisers a year, he found out, and he said, 'I'm 60 years old. I like to ski. I have 9 grandchildren. Why am I going around the country begging people for money? It makes absolutely no sense.'

He said that to run for President, you have to be compulsive. And he said, and this is somewhat amusing, Phil Gramm is compulsive. He has 160,000 names of every person he has met in his political career . . . And he has been striving and pushing and pursuing and plotting his presidential race literally for 10 to 15 years. That is who runs for president in the 90's in this country. That kind of person, that kind of drive.

Q: Do you think that lots of this money comes from unselfish, just highly opinionated rich people?

Lewis: I think a proportion of that comes from highly opinionated rich people. But that's the whole point, isn't it? Rich people. That's who's funding your elections. The last congressional election that they did statistics for, '92, one percent of the American people gave 77% of the contributions to Congress. Most people that are funding elections are wealthy. That's the whole point. A little old lady doesn't have $1000 to send off to Bob Dole. Let's be honest. Who does? The chairman of a company, maybe. The vice president of a company. . . . All I'm suggesting is, most Americans may want to contribute to their campaigns. Most Americans have trouble doing the dollar check-off, which is now $3, on their taxes. Most people don't do $1,000 for anything.

Q: So anybody who's given more than a [thousand] is up to something in your view?

Lewis: Well, yes. And when you look more closely, this is not the first election. This is not the first time they've met or had dealings with this candidate. We have found that most of them have been doing it persistently for many, many years. And they are, in essence, patrons.

Q: Let's talk about the Gallo family. This is a family that's been involved in grapes for many generations. Is it perverse to you that this family has acquired legislation that happens to affect them mightily?

Lewis: It's perverse and it's outrageous. That's why this is bothersome, because the wealthy, the old thing about he who pays the piper calls the tune. I mean, basically, they have poured millions of dollars into Congress and to the presidential candidates over the years--

Q: And they didn't break any laws here?

Lewis: No, this is legal. We think this is perfectly fine today in the way things are done. And so they've poured substantial sums of money in. And actually it's a drop in the bucket to them. I mean, if you're trying to get $100 million inheritance tax jammed through the Senate Finance Committee, and you have to spend a few hundred thousand dollars to a few pols on the committee, well, it's like a tip. It's like chump change to these guys. I mean, it's a very small amount of money. And obviously, does the average citizen have the wherewithal to get a special thing for them in Ohio or Kansas or Arkansas or Florida? Can a retired family even get one of these guys on the phone in Washington . . . ? But if they're a donor, even a $1,000 donor, they'll get a meeting and all kinds of access.

Q: How about the subsidy they get for selling wine abroad? Now that helps them, surely, but then again, it helps all of their workers. It helps the state of California, that income will be taxed. . . . What's so terrible about that?

Lewis: What's so terrible is that there are only thousands of products out there that all would like to be exported around the world. Are we going to subsidize every one of them? How do we make these decisions? And has anyone ever systematically tried to make these judgments? How many jobs? What's the gross of their annual, their industry sector? How important are they to America?

Q: So you suspect that an equally good American wine company, without the political connections, would not have gotten this support when it went off to Africa or the Middle East to sell its wine?

Lewis: I not only suspect it. I think it's a virtual certainty.

Q: So in your view there's a quid pro quo here. The Gallos want specific things?

Lewis: There's no question. I mean, take the so-called Charmat method. They bulk process wine. They had this requirement under the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency inside Treasury that they had to use the not-particularly pleasing phrase "bulk processing" meaning they use large vats, and there wasn't anything all that special about this wine. But if they called it the "Charmat method," it would sound very appealing. It would have a real nice ring to it. And so they went to Bob Dole, and they said, 'Senator Dole, we need your help. We need to get this label approved so we can change it to Charmat method.' And Dole wrote a letter, and of course, he'd gotten tons of money from them. And, lo and behold, it was lifted, and they could do the Charmat method.

Q: Well, let me imagine a Bob Dole defense here. He says, 'Look, I'm the head of an important committee of the Congress, and this is a strong, competitive American business. They come to me wanting a sweeter-sounding phrase like the Charmat method which will help sales. Why should I say no? '

Well, because there are scores, and perhaps hundreds of other wine companies in the United States that go to great lengths to do upscale, special wine. I don't know how wine is made, exactly. It's a lot of grapes is all I know. My point is, there are a lot of folks that didn't pay the money, didn't grease the skids, and guess what? They don't get heard. And they don't get these little special dispensations. Only Gallo gets them.

Q: Do you think that the Gallos would have bumped into Bob Dole had he not been a successful member of the United States Congress? Would they be paying as much attention to him?

Lewis: Well, they're not really in Kansas, you may have noticed. I mean, the most striking thing to me about Bob Dole and the Gallo family, they are his number one patron in his career over the last 15 years, this California wine company. Now, why in the world is a wine company his number one donor? Well, he's a very powerful guy. He's been on the Finance Committee. He's been a leader of the Republican Party in the Senate for over a decade. And he is [in] a position to help them. It's not any more complicated than that.

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