One Man's Dairy Product
By Calvin Trillin
(TIME, February 24) -- A few weeks ago, I happened to tune in to a CNN program that included as one of its guests Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a leading opponent of campaign-finance reform. In dismissing the notion that the cost of a political campaign these days is bound to make politicians beholden to fat-cat contributors, Senator McConnell said Americans spend less on political campaigns than they do on yogurt. By chance, I was eating a container of yogurt when he said that. Blueberry. Low fat.
I looked down at my yogurt. Then I looked back at Senator McConnell's image on the television screen. He was smiling. The format of the program was a sort of debate with Governor Roy Romer of Colorado, new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Senator McConnell seems to be one of those politicians who are careful to keep a smile on their face when they are being combative. I think it's meant to be a knowing smile. Did he know something about my yogurt that I didn't know? Because to me, it was as if he'd said we shouldn't worry about the safety of high-rises because Americans spend less on bribing building inspectors than they do on buying sun-dried tomatoes. I couldn't think of a strong connection between buying yogurt and buying access to public officials who have to raise millions of dollars to remain in office. I couldn't believe Senator McConnell was implying that I had purchased my container of blueberry yogurt with the thought of receiving preferential treatment from regulators in Washington.
Also, from what I'd read, it took $250,000 in the last campaign to get what Republican fund raisers call a "season ticket"--access to the committee chairmen of your choice--and about the same amount to get what President Clinton calls "a respectful hearing" at the White House. As they used to say on the South Side of Chicago, that ain't yogurt.
When Senator McConnell compared campaign spending and yogurt outlay, nobody said, "Your point being, Senator...?" He maintained his knowing smile--presumably pleased with himself for having adroitly played the yogurt card.
In the weeks that followed, I couldn't get Senator McConnell's remark out of my mind, particularly when I was eating yogurt. Although just about every morning's paper was bringing another allegation of influence-peddling blatant enough to make Boss Tweed blush, the estimable John McCain had been able to attract only one other Republican Senator to the campaign-finance reform bill that he is co-sponsoring with Senator Russell Feingold. With a number of Democratic Senators also reluctant, McCain-Feingold was increasingly spoken of as a dead issue.
The cynical view is that Senators have lost their enthusiasm for campaign reform as they contemplate the fund-raising advantages of incumbency. Or maybe they have simply been persuaded by Mitch McConnell's logic. Maybe they are stopping him in the Senate cloakroom to say things like, "That yogurt image really changed my thinking on this issue, Mitch."
If Mitch McConnell is on his way to burying campaign-finance reform with his silver tongue, I realized while approaching the supermarket dairy counter one day, buying yogurt was only bolstering his argument. So I'm off yogurt. Maybe if everyone quits buying yogurt, we'll have campaign-finance reform. If not, we won't.
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