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So You Want to Buy a President?

Carl Lindner

Carl Lindner, a Cincinnati businessman with international interests ranging from banking to bananas, is one of the nation's wealthiest men. His frequent, abundant contributions to political candidates and parties have put him at times in the public spotlight.

His friends defend his political giving as merely the generosity of a public spirited citizen. His critics suspect that his money buys him political access and influence. In either event, he is one of several large contributors at the center of the controversy over whether the American campaign-finance system is serving the public interest.

Born in Dayton, Ohio, he dropped out of high school to help run the family's ice-cream store when his father became ill. With a head for figures and a knack for financial deals, Lindner built the business into a chain of stores known as United Dairy Farmers. Today there are over 200 such stores run by his brother Robert. Dairy-store profits have fueled Lindner's investments in financial institutions. First, he acquired savings and loans companies and then diversified into the insurance business. Today he runs a corporate empire known as American Financial Group.

As chairman and chief executive of American Financial Group, Lindner presides over business assets worth $14 billion by his own reckoning. He is a former part owner of The Cincinnati Enquirer. He controls, among other businesses, Chiquita Brands bananas. Lindner has made a name for himself on Wall Street as an astute investor. He has a reputation for "bottom fishing" -- that is, buying a financially troubled or undervalued company at a bargain price and transforming it into a profitable enterprise. He was an important customer of "junk" bond king Michael Milken, who worked for the now-defunct investment banking firm of Drexel Burnham Lambert. For years American Financial employed a Cincinnati lawyer, Charles Keating, as corporate counsel and executive vice president. Lindner and Keating parted company, and Keating moved to Phoenix and gained notoriety in the 1980s as the man behind the multibillion-dollar failure of Lincoln Savings & Loan.

Mild-mannered and shy, Lindner routinely refuses reporters' requests for interviews. He has a habit of handing out little white cards with gold-embossed, folksy sayings on them. One reads: "I like to do my giving while I'm living so I'm knowing where it's going." He is a devout Baptist who says he does not smoke, drink or swear. In 1990, he led the opposition to a Cinncinnati exhibit of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. Later that year, he withheld his usual financial support to the arts fund he deemed responsible for the show. As a philanthropist, Lindner has been generous. He has estimated his contributions to various charities over the past 10 years at $60 million.

Lindner gives heavily to political campaigns. While his contributions in Cincinnati and Ohio heavily favor Republicans, in national races he gives generously to both sides. Since 1988, Lindner and his associates and companies have given $650,000 in soft money to the Democrats and $1.5 million to the Republicans, according to Common Cause, a Washington watchdog group. Lindner, his family, and business associates also make donations directly to politicians. Among them: $106,000 to George Bush's presidential campaigns in 1988 and 1992; and $172,500 to Senator Robert Dole since 1980. In a field of the "top ten career patrons" of Senator Dole, Lindner ranks seventh, reports the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan Washington public interest research group. Dole has also made frequent use of private jets owned by the Lindner family -- twelve flights in 1995 alone, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Recently, Majority Leader Dole, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and members of the Clinton Administration have moved to help Chiquita open European markets to its bananas. For years, Chiquita grew lots of bananas throughout Latin America and was the largest supplier to Europe. Then in 1993, the European Union announced changes to its trade regulations on banana import quotas. Colombia and Costa Rica agreed to this new European "banana plan" and were key to making it work. Chiquita said because of this new policy, which it claims violated trade laws, sales and profits dropped.

Although there are relatively few US jobs at stake, Lindner has managed to bring his "banana problem" to the top of our national agenda. The Clinton Administration investigated the idea of imposing trade sanctions against Colombia and Costa Rica, and Bob Dole pushed the issue in Congress. In January of this year, US Trade Representative Mickey Kantor concluded his year-long investigation of the European banana trade dispute and determined that Costa Rica and Colombia's trade agreements with the Europeans are "unfair." Despite Chiquita's lobbying, the US has decided for the time being not to impose retaliatory sanctions against the two countries, instead pressuring the Europeans to open their banana market to free trade.

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