By Steve Weinstein
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WASHINGTONThere is nothing mirthful, festive, or jolly about Office 3A at 1611 Connecticut Avenue NW. Except, perhaps, the man who has occupied the corner desk there for the past six and a half years. ¶ Not that one should conclude, based on his grin this December afternoon, that he's always happy. Quite the contrary. In his capacity as director of the Congressional Accountability Project and, more recently, Commercial Alertone-man operations under the aegis of Ralph NaderGary Ruskin generally exits the office each evening on the grim side, fully ready to exorcise the demons of the day at the local Y. But he usually enters the office feeling good, since he is undeniably on the side of the angels. As CAP director, he attempts to force those who sit on the Senate and House ethics committees to hold their more egregious colleagues accountable for corruption, graft, influence peddling, and abuse of power. As Commercial Alert's director, he is rather like an everyman Don Quixote charging at thegiant windmills of mendacious rapacity that are corporate marketing and advertising.
Not a popular man on the Hill because of his quaint notion that the public has a right to hold its servants accountable even when they're not up for reelection, he goes through the average day enduring setback after setback with wry grace. Even though most of his efforts to see formal charges brought against members of Congress fail (in part because Newt Gingrichwith an eye toward Ruskinmade it virtually impossible for the average citizen to file a complaint against a House member), he is beloved by reporters, for whom he does a great deal of heavy lifting and who make sure that the fruits of his dogged research are not wasted by making them the basis for their stories. (The reporters, at least, will act on what Ruskin has done, and their calls will be returned.)
But for a legislator to take either swift or proactive action based on something that has emanated from Ruskin's office is virtually unheard of. While Ruskin can claim credit for successfully nailing now-deposed Speaker/adulterer Gingrich on House Rules violations, that his punishment amounted to a slap on the wrist gave it the feel of a Pyrrhic victory. And while an influence-peddling investigation of Representative Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania is under way thanks to Ruskin, that "it's been over three years since I filed the complaint and there's still not even an interim report" is hardly inspiring.
But as Ruskin sits in his gray swivel chair surrounded by a wonky Manhattan of books and papers (the whole office isn't even hishalf of it is occupied by author Jonathan Rowe), he is practically beaming. "For the first time in six years," he exclaims, "someone has actually committed to doing something just weeks after I wrote them!"
That this would come based on his actions as director of Commercial Alert, not CAP, hardly disappoints him. Nor does it disappoint right-wing luminaries such as James Dobson and Donald Wildmonallies of the definitely nonpartisan but assuredly left-wing Ruskin, now a linchpin in a coalition of progressives and Christian conservatives who agree on at least one thing: that laissez-faire corporate America needs to be reined in as its denizens find, by turns, ever more insidious ways to peddle their wares, especially by targeting the young. (Example: the inspirational-to-the-Fortune 500-set works of Texas A&M professor James U. McNeal, who encourages Madison Avenue to look at children merely as what Ruskin calls "economic resources to be mined.") That the coalition's target in this case is a segment of the powerful gambling industry isn't startling. That their apparent congressional ally is a wily presidential candidate who's taken quite a bit of money from the gambling industry, however, has come as a pleasant surprise.
On December 14, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committeewho just happens to be GOP presidential contender John McCainfired a shot across the bow of International Game Technology honcho Charles Mathewson over what have come to be known as "slots for tots"machines that feature familiar childhood icons like characters from Spiderman, The Pink Panther, Candy Land, The Addams Family, and South Park, among others. Having just received a letter from "a wide range of educators, religious leaders, and consumers groups" expressing concern about the potential of such machines to hook kids on gambling, McCain urged Mathewson to "reconsider your company's decision to produce electronic gaming devices such as slot machines, video poker games, and video keno games with child-based themes." Reminding the gambling magnate that the National Gambling Impact Study Commission recently concluded that "[A]dolescent gamblers are more likely than adults to become problem or pathological gamblers," and that the National Research Council estimates over one million teenagers already have gambling problems, McCain added that "the problem of child-themed electronic gambling devices is exacerbated by their prevalence throughout communities that allow their use."
Though pleased that Nevada gaming authorities seem inclined to keep the machines off that state's casino floors, McCain added that "I remain very concerned about children in other states," since almost 100,000 machines of this ilk can be found beyond Nevada's borders. "Considering the risk that these machines might entice young children to develop gambling habits," McCain wrote, "I seriously question the benefit of using themes obviously attractive to children." His proposed solution: Drop the kid-oriented themes immediately.