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Crashing the Party
Taking on the Corporate Government in an Age of Surrender
By Ralph Nader
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2002 Ralph Nader
All rights reserved.
BUSINESS AS USUAL:
THE BEST CONVENTIONS MONEY CAN BUY
The seat next to me on the stage was reserved for George W. Bush, but on that afternoon of August 2, 2000, it remained empty.
For months, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group called Youth in Action tried to have that seat filled in Philadelphia's Drexel University auditorium. The event was part of the National Youth Conventions, which involved thousands of high school students and other young people contributing to a National Youth Platform, and coincided with the Republican and Democratic national conventions. The platform covered ten subjects of concern to youth — political involvement, community involvement, education, human rights, health, drugs, juvenile justice, environment, violence, and poverty — and offered solutions in well-written, concise presentations.
As the presidential candidate for the Green Party, I was asked to listen to each youth panel summarize its points and then respond, which I did in some detail. Our interaction was one of the most stimulating exchanges in the campaign. I was pleased to hear young people in their teens and early twenties articulating a political agenda separate from the tactics, fund-raisers, and fluff and bluff surrounding the major-party candidates.
These Youth convocations were intricately planned and promoted. They were supported by major foundations, such as the Pew Charitable Trusts, and major nonprofits, including the League of Women Voters and the YMCA and YWCA. These conventions give young men and women a voice and involvement, when so often they are alienated from presidential campaigns that ignore their existence, except for the occasional scripted photo op.
By demonstrating a serious engagement with the presidential campaign of 2000, as well as their deep stake in America's future, Youth in Action was hoping and desperately believing that it could lay claim to some personal attention by George W. Bush and Al Gore, just as large campaign donors had done throughout the year. Its schedulers made sure that there were no conflicts with the big events at the two conventions. Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore had their platform fights behind them and their nominations cinched, and they were more than capable of bringing their ever-hovering media a few blocks away for an hour to talk with a diverse group of fact-immersed, solution-oriented young people from all over the United States.
It was not to be. Mr. Gore matched Mr. Bush in declining to appear. The two candidates had more important events to attend — lavish parties where politicians shook down corporate lobbyists and fat cats, while the latter in turn were pleased to pay off their political friends for past and future favors.
The day after the gathering at Drexel, there were no stories in the major media, no mention of George W. Bush — the self-described education candidate who pledged to "leave no child behind"— being absent from an event that he could have turned into an advantage over Al Gore. Why? Because Bush and Gore's supposedly savvy staffs had polls showing that young adults do not vote in large numbers and their interests are more universal, unlike elderly voters whose demands are more particular and insistent, such as prescription-drug benefits, preserving Social Security, and patients' rights. Older voters have money. Older voters have influence. Younger voters tend to have neither. Then there are the less inhibited questions young people tend to ask and a risk of being caught off guard or being embarrassingly out of touch. Why should the candidates deviate from the carefully constructed script and emerge from the force field erected by their political consultants and handlers? How sad, empty, and shortsighted, I thought. Later I learned how disappointed the youthful panelists really were.
Leaving the Youth in Action event, I went to find NBC for an invited interview by Maria Shriver on the premises of the Republican National Convention. The area was like a military encampment without the tanks. Security personnel, police cars and vans, high fences, multiple checkpoints, and trailers with security equipment were omnipresent. Demonstrators were not allowed within a Hail Mary pass of the fenced encirclements.
Inside, I was driven in a golf cart to the NBC installation. I asked the driver where the interview was to take place, and he pointed skyward. There before us rose a forty-foot red scaffolding, slightly swaying from a vigorous wind. At the top were perilously perched Ms. Shriver and her camera crew. To reach them, I climbed the stairs of this rickety structure, greeted them, and asked why — why this Tower of Pisa? She pointed to the view of the Convention Center bathed in a spotlight as the one and only reason. A quick three-minute interview on MSNBC followed, allowing only for short answers to complex questions. I climbed down the narrow staircase, wondering how reporters like Shriver can take year after year of what they believe are shallow formats with ever shorter sound bites heading, it seems, for a future of sound barks.
Over at the Convention Center, the delegates were settling down to listen to Dick Cheney's acceptance speech. I walked over to the entrance where crowds of reporters were milling about, jabbering with one another and anticipating nothing much to make their day less routine. The formal sessions of these conventions, with their foregone conclusions, seem simply practices in applause and bore reporters silly (as they've told me countless times). The mind-numbing routines of the campaign trail with a major candidate become a source of cynical jokes and tedious logistical small talk. The convention, however, takes media redundancy to new levels, as every four years the major parties turn out their robo-candidates. I asked one British reporter what could possibly occupy him hour after hour, and he replied, "Well, you try and garnish the dullards a bit as best one can." At the Republican convention, the real action took place outside the main hall in the streets with the demonstrators and in the hospitality suites and parties in Philadelphia's luxury hotels and Main Line mansions.
But for me there was a little excitement during Cheney's mon-otonal address: I met Amy Goodman, arguably the most tenacious radio interviewer around (ask Bill Clinton, who called Pacifica and sparred with her in a memorable November 2000 exchange for twenty-six minutes). She invited me inside the building for a peripatetic interview. Amy presented our credentials, then we passed the typical bevy of security and were led down the runway to where the Florida delegation was sitting and restlessly listening to the vice presidential nominee. A score of reporters followed us down with mikes, cameras, and pads and began hurling the obvious questions about what I was doing there and what I thought of the goings-on. The Florida delegation was becoming more agitated at the commotion. But I managed to observe that while more than $13 million in taxpayer funding had gone to this convention because an earlier Congress viewed such gatherings as civic affairs, the Republicans had added to that millions of corporate dollars. Elections, I told the reporters, are supposed to be for real people — the voters — not for corporations, artificial entities that cannot vote (at least not yet).
Ultimately the head of the Florida delegation, Al Cardenas, had enough of what he saw as a rapidly expanding embarrassing situation and asked us all to leave. So back up the runway we went, then down another runway to sit with the Michigan delegates, who were astonished to find me — the auto makers' number-one nemesis, in their minds — in their midst. While I was again talking with reporters, a wandering corporate fellow, having overheard my remarks about the convention's corporate omnipresence, blurted, "It's free speech, Ralph." I responded, "Sure, money talks freely, doesn't it?"
And business money donated to the Republican Party and its convention made even more public money gush in its service. While visiting Leaven House, a large homeless shelter and soup kitchen in the severely impoverished city of Camden, New Jersey, I heard a frustrated shelter director refer to the nearly $50 million that the states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania spent to spiff up the Camden waterfront and remove retail eyesores, such as by-the-hour motels and topless joints on Admiral Wilson Boulevard, for the welcoming ceremonies of the convention on Camden's waterfront. The shelter director wistfully described what he could do for his beloved shelter with the mere $300,000 he had requested but not received from the state.
As for the waterfront, then-governor Christine Todd Whitman readily approved this expensive window dressing for four miles of dilapidated buildings so that Republican dignitaries would not be offended by scenes that are all too prevalent in many other less visible parts of Camden. "The first impression is important," said this latter-day Marie Antoinette. In the meantime, this city is not even eating cake. A devastated place of eighty thousand people, it is an economic and living disaster. Indicative of the devastation in Camden is the absence of a single supermarket, motel, or movie theater within the city limits. Camden's woes are hard to exaggerate: two thousand debris-filled vacant lots interspersed between thirty-five hundred vacant buildings and block after block of poor families trying to send their children to run-down schools with dropout rates soaring over 50 percent. Property values are so low that Camden's tax receipts can't begin to meet school and city government expenses; the bulk of the dollars come from the state. Street crime and drug addiction surge through much of Camden's 210 miles of roads. The state, which is the largest employer in Camden, has finally taken over the city's finances, while the mayor joined two of his predecessors in being convicted of political corruption.
In 1990 census figures put Camden, now the nation's fifth-poorest city, in destitution land. One-third of its people lived below the poverty level. Ten more years of decay have made the situation worse, with more companies "evacuating" Camden, as one executive put it. The eleven-story RCA building, which goes back to the Victor Talking Machine company when the city had a manufacturing base, is deserted. But the city does have a championship high school basketball team.
Campaigning in Camden, political consultants say, is a waste of time. For me it put human faces behind the government's statistics; it made clear the difference between charity and justice. Speaking at the Rutgers University Camden campus, I learned how local students saw their education as vocational in order to escape the city.
Camden is emblematic of a systemic collapse in our smaller inner cities, with across-the-board unemployment, non-living-wage jobs going nowhere, pulverized lives of addiction, and serious crimes of violence and ghetto exploitation by loan sharks and unscrupulous merchants and landlords. People who can make a difference leave for greener pastures so that they can put hopelessness behind them. Remaining are churches, nonprofit organizations, and dwindling public welfare programs offering stopgap assistance for food, housing, medical care, and counseling. Visiting a church on a lowincome residential block, I heard the usual outspoken indignations, dreams of improvements, and the daily ministering to the poor souls who dread each day.
Who did Camden in? It wasn't always this way. Ordinary folks do not work overtime to ruin their lives. What brutish conditions lead to brutish behavior? Racism, top-down class warfare, political betrayals, concentrations of economic power? These questions are rarely asked and especially not during political campaigns. Instead, Camden is described with phrases of conclusions: "a disaster area," "chronic decay," "a basket case."
There are many Camdens in America — the world's richest and mightiest economy. Not just entire cities like East St. Louis and Bridgeport, Connecticut, but large areas of just about all our large cities. People left behind in the tens of millions with only the urban renewal of gentrification available to push them out. Nearly abandoned farm towns and villages, former factory towns with shuttered plants dot the scarred, contaminated landscapes and join with the longtime poor regions of Appalachia, the Ozarks, Indian reservations, the bypassed rural South, former mining and textile towns. These places represent the "other America" so graphically described by Michael Harrington, who helped motivate Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty in the mid-sixties.
"It's a casualty," Rev. Michael Doyle, a priest in South Camden, told the New York Times's Matthew Purdy, "and America is to blame for Camden. They don't see it that way. It's like a drunk on a grate, and people say, 'It's not my problem.' If you can't save Camden in a powerful economy, then when will we be able to make it livable? When?"
Just across the Delaware River, lavish parties were setting spending records for national political conventions. In addition to the sensual pleasure they afford, these events are the "convention behind the convention," as described by Republican functionary Dan Matton. The business discussed, casually or intently, while imbibing, strolling, or backslapping, has very little to do with the other America.
The talk almost always centers around big-business demands — contracts, permits, grants, subsidies, giveaways, tax breaks, bailouts, and reducing or eliminating regulation. Paying for these concessions with ever-larger campaign donations gives new meaning to what the wry Will Rogers once said about Congress: "the best money could buy." So when the corporate greasers and persuaders finished their work at the Republican convention, they took a few days off and then flew to Los Angeles for the opening of the Democratic convention. For them, it was the same racket, just different coastlines.
Ruth Marcus, an energetic graduate of the Harvard Law School who went to work at the Washington Post in the late eighties covering important but often dry legal subjects, observed both "conventions behind the conventions" for her newspaper. She rose to the occasion:
The nonstop festivities had a certain end of the Roman Empire feel, from cruises on the Amway corporate yacht in Philadelphia to lunches at the Beverly Hills mansions of Hollywood moguls, where contributors chatted with senators as they strolled among the topiary animals and artificial waterfalls.
Democratic National Committee donors who gave $50,000 enjoyed a private reception and shop-op at the Giorgio Armani clothing boutique on Rodeo Drive, receiving $100 gift certificates as they entered.
The biggest donors watched the action from private sky-boxes far above the floor, while a sold-out post-convention fundraiser — featuring Barbara Streisand's rendition of the Democratic anthem —"Happy Days Are Here Again"— brought in more than $5 million in valuable "hard money" contributions to the Democratic Party.
It was a fittingly glitzy finale to the two-week orgy of revelry that began at the GOP bash in Philadelphia, paused briefly and resumed in full force as Democrats went Hollywood with a vengeance behind the scenes even as their candidates lashed the industry in their prime-time comments.
Not to be outdone, the Washington Post's Mike Allen, a rising star with a flair that earned him a profile in The New Yorker, delivered his scrutiny of the Republican digs:
By one official estimate, there were 900 separate events at this year's gathering — candidates' fund-raisers, thank-you spreads laid on by the party for its biggest donors, and corporate-financed tributes to lawmakers who hold sway over their businesses.
One senior Republican official called the four-day convention, which ended tonight, "the biggest orgy of hedonism in the history of politics," a marathon of rock and blues concerts, golf and fishing tournaments, yacht cruises and shopping excursions.
Another GOP official said one party cost about $500,000 and three ran around $400,000, all paid for by corporate sponsors with business before the congressional leaders who were honored at the extravaganzas. ...
One Republican official, after a reporter was physically barred from a lavish hospitality suite, explained that some of the guests might have people "on their arms" who were not their spouses.
Press coverage of conventions delights in pointing out the political styles of the rich and famous with a flair usually reserved for the sports or style pages. One of the themes reporters relish is candidates saying one thing and doing another. John Broder of the New York Times led his story on August 17 from the Democratic convention with this focus: "Barely an hour after Vice President Al Gore issued a call for reforming the ways political campaigns are paid for, he headed back to the fund-raising circuit for a concert that raised $5.2 million for the Democratic Party. In his acceptance speech tonight, Mr. Gore vowed to 'get all the special-interest money — all of it — out of our democracy. ...'"
Excerpted from Crashing the Party by Ralph Nader. Copyright © 2002 Ralph Nader. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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