Safire Calls for Foxman to Resign
Working Its Will
Essay by William Safire - New York Times - March 26, 2001
WASHINGTON - The story is told of the corrupt Albany judge who called
opposing trial lawyers into his chambers.
"You offered me a $5,000 campaign contribution to throw this case to the
plaintiff," said the fair-minded judge, "and defendant's lawyer here just
offered me $10,000 to find for his client. Now how about plaintiff giving
me $5,000 more, evening things up, and we try the case on the merits?"
Whether the bidding war that is now American politics will continue in this
fashion is to be decided in the Senate this week. Every senator knows the
subject cold and need not rely on staff expertise or party discipline for
guidance. Rarely do voters see such a revealing free-for-all.
Money talks, but money is not speech. That, in essence, is the offense and
defense of campaign finance reformers.
That heavy political contributions influence officeholders is beyond
dispute. Money for "access" rarely qualifies as prosecutable bribery, but
the biggest givers are usually the biggest receivers. The pros know that a
quo has a way of following a quid and the public is not stupid.
The purchase of a pardon by Marc Rich haunts the Senate this week. The
stain spreads; now we learn that the fugitive billionaire, with $250,000
to the Anti-Defamation League, induced its national director to lobby
President Bill Clinton for forgiveness and thereby bring glee to the
hearts of anti-Semites. (Abe Foxman should resign to demonstrate that
ethical blindness has consequences.)
But the hurdle that Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold must jump is
this: does the restriction of money in campaigns deny anyone freedom of
Of course it does. But we abridge free speech all the time, in protecting
copyright, in ensuring defendants' rights to fair trials, in guarding
privacy, in forbidding malicious defamation and incitement to riot.
Because no single one of our rights is absolute, we restrain one when it
treads too heavily on another.
That's why our courts have held repeatedly in the past century that the
Constitution permits restrictions on political contributions. Just as
antitrust laws encouraged competition in business, anti-contribution laws
have enhanced competition in politics. Freedom of speech is diminished
when one voice who can afford to buy the time and space is allowed to
drown out the other side.
Washington opponents of campaign finance reform offer less lofty arguments,
- "Holding down the number of paid political spots will increase the power
of the media at the expense of the political parties." And what do my
ideological soulmates find so terrible about that? The wheezing liberal
voices of the Bosnywash corridor are as often as not clobbered by the
intellectual firepower of conservative columnists, Wall Street Journal
editorialists and good-looking talking heads. Wake up and smell the
right-wing cappuccino, fellas.
- "If we close the soft-money loophole, money will soon find another way
to reach politicians." Fine; that will provide a campaign platform for the
next generation's great white hat. The tree of liberty must constantly be
refreshed by the figurative blood of tyrannous fund-raisers, as Jefferson
- "If this goo-goo abomination passes with all its amendments, and any one
item is struck down by the courts, then the whole thing must go up in
smoke." Do Republicans really want to hold that unseverability gun to the
head of the Rehnquist court? Why, if you're so hot for freedom of speech,
tempt the high court to weaken the First Amendment by letting a
questionable part of an all-or-nothing law through?
Tomorrow the senators seeking to keep in place the Clinton-McAuliffe
fund-raising abuses that so polluted the 90's will offer the Hagel
substitute for the McCain-Feingold bill. It's sabotage, plain and simple,
"limiting" soft-money gifts to a half-million dollars per fat-cat family
per election cycle.
Senators, fresh from offending billionaire candidates and from thumbing the
eye of the powerful broadcasters' lobby, should cherry-pick a few items
from the Hagel substitute, up the hard-money limit to $2,500 and take
their chances on a sore-loser filibuster by voting down the all-or-
If that's the will the Senate works, I think President Bush would tut-tut
and sign McCain-Feingold. That's because I'm an optimist and believe in
the two-party system.
See Also: The Clemency Page