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Wednesday, Oct 9 1996
Good Government, Bad Editorials
Nothing unleashes the Good Government reflexes in editorial writers quite like the subject of campaign finance reform. With not one, but two such measures on the Nov. 5 state ballot, local opinion pages have gone beyond standard-issue goo-gooism to outright gaga.

U.C. Berkeley Political Science Professor Bruce Cain called our attention to the Chron's Oct. 3 endorsement of Prop. 208 as one particularly blatant example. Sponsored by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, 208 would limit contributions and set voluntary spending restrictions in state and local races and ban a variety of fund-raising techniques. The Chron says it "would prevent the sort of blatant wallet-stuffing practices that have grossly distorted the concept of representative government in the state Capitol." Not only that, but 208 also "cleans up ... other shady practices." Blatant wallet-stuffing and shady practices, oh, the evil of it!

The only problem is, that's not the problem. What the Chron is describing is bribery, and we've had laws against that for decades.

The Oakland Tribune endorsed 208 in a Sept. 12 editorial because it would "protect state politics from wealthy special interests." But the Trib devoted most of its space to explaining the flaws in the rival Prop. 212, being pushed by the California Public Interest Research Group and a collection of public employee unions.

Correctly observing that 212's mandatory limits on spending are intentionally designed to challenge a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found such restrictions violate free speech, the Trib seemed to argue that voters should choose the initiative that will pass constitutional muster and hope for the best. Besides, protection against "wealthy special interests" (whatever they are) is in and of itself a virtue, right?

Even the normally rigorous Sacramento Bee couldn't escape the goo-goo trap. "Useful and precise reforms," it said of 208. Alas, it never questioned just how useful a law can be when a growing source of campaign funding -- independent expenditures -- is fully outside its scope. The Bee also neglects to mention that portions of 208 may face their own constitutional challenges and ends by wrapping up the whole mushy package in a ribbon, praising 208 for "the depths of government interest of its sponsors." (!)

All this editorial lather stuffs discussion of campaign finance reform into an overworked and erroneous bribery/corruption metaphor while never getting to the nub of the real and much more complicated issue: Do we want a system that mandates equality among all candidates and all constituent voices, and are we willing to curtail some aspects of free speech in order to achieve that?

We don't presume to dictate the answer to that question. But, in the meantime the only real-world solution would seem to be full, easily accessible campaign disclosure. What rankles is editorial writing too sloppy or lazy to really explain the complications and too timid to oppose the popular clamor for "reform," even when it makes no sense.

Moore Is Less
Michael Moore brought his Rush Limbaugh-of-the-left act to the California Commonwealth Club last Friday. Like the right-wing radio ranter, the purported working stiff's spokesman distorts reality to suit his purposes, panders to allies of the moment, snubs inconvenient friends, and taps reservoirs of prejudice -- all in the name of his own career.

Moore was here on a 40-city tour for Downsize This!, his first book. He was dressed in baseball cap, windbreaker, and baggy (not fashionable-baggy, schlump-baggy) jeans. It was the same ensemble he wore to such comic effect in his 1989 sleeper movie hit, Roger & Me, where he chased never-seen GM chairman Roger Smith. These days, though, Andrew Wylie is Moore's agent, Random House his publisher, and Fox his studio.

The success of TV Nation, his TV 1994 series, broke a string of flops and perpetually-in-development Hollywood projects that followed Roger. Perhaps Moore is not as consistently funny as he'd like because he so often sounds mean. At the Commonwealth Club, his jabs at corporate "welfare queens" drew yuks, but his insistence on O.J. Simpson's innocence elicited near-silence.

Good thing he didn't rehash the chapter he wrote in Downsize This! following the murder of a German tourist in Florida. In it, he suggested arming Jewish retirees and sending them to kill all the "Jerries" who have settled in that state. Moore did treat the audience to a repetition of his "valentine" to Hillary Rodham Clinton, carefully avoiding mention of his 1992 association with presidential wannabe Jerry Brown, who regularly bashed Clinton on the ethics question. Mercifully, Moore's listeners were spared a recitation from the stomach-turning chapter where he imagines how good Hillary might be in bed.

Moore is the kind of author who assumes everybody is as fascinated by his own creative processes as he is. His book acknowledgments run to four full pages. The one that caught our eye was Ben Hamper, a bona fide autoworker who used to write a column for Moore's long-defunct paper, the Flint Voice, and in the '80s traveled with Moore to screenings of Roger & Me. Moore goes on at some length: "Much of this book comes from a lot of late-night 'shootin' the shit,' driving with [Hamper and friends] ... around Buick City."

Out of curiosity we gave Hamper a call last week. He was "mystified" by Moore's reference. "To the best of my memory, I haven't been in a car bullshitting with Michael Moore in at least 15 years. The last time I rode in a car with Michael, it was a limousine."

About The Authors

Phyllis Orrick


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