Smoke, Mirrors, and White Noise

Campaign Notebook

At a welcome-back-to-New Hampshire rally last week, the crowd of poised Ivy Leaguers surrounding Bill Bradley enthusiastically applauded their candidate and even screeched their support a little — sort of like the political rally they’d once seen on TV. The candidate himself does convey a sort of electricity, even though he clearly is uncomfortable amidst the crowds. To counter his naturally aloof nature, Bradley sometimes now sounds a little like Garrison Keillor. At his Manchester HQ he managed to kiss one woman, give a grizzled old-timer a bear hug for the cameras, and even briefly put on a pair of smoky dark glasses. Girls do scream a little when he comes in the room. The people around Bradley are control freaks, micromanaging the tiniest details. “Sir,” an aide will say to a reporter, “sir, you must stand behind the red rope. Please, sir, get behind the red rope!” One aide blew up at a cameraman who placed a mike on the podium to record the candidate’s speech, because, he said, it would make Bradley go nuts. “It’s impossible,” said one reporter in exasperation. “He hates us.” Even with a boom — the long stick with a microphone at the end which TV crews stick out over the crowd to pick up what a candidate is saying — you couldn’t hear the little nothings Bradley was saying to his supporters because his campaign was playing old Michael Jackson records as white noise. Gore plays Patsy Cline, lest reporters overhear choice remarks to his supporters…* While Bradley’s press people are getting the hang of things, Bush’s Texas Ranger detail has become adept at steering cameras into the right shot for the governor. They move the cameras around like players on the board, gently pushing one camera forward, tugging another back…* Alan Keyes may be the hands-down orator of the campaign, but people shy away from sitting down to a meal with the former ambassador — an underling to Jeane Kirkpatrick at the UN — because he won’t make table talk and is a pill to be around…* In a torturous lecture to the New England Community Action Association last Thursday, Al Gore — all dressed to kill in casual brown — launched into one of those deadly college-style lectures you wish you’d skipped, on reconfiguring life for the new workfare mom: how we have to help mom get into the habit of turning up for her first job on time and making sure she wears clothing appropriate for the new workplace. As for the lousy money she’ll earn, Gore said he would be for raising the minimum wage by $1. Gore also promised he would fight to make government responsive not just to the special interests but to ordinary people.

Bradley’s Wall Street Love Affair

Junk Bond Dog

The Buying of the President 2000, the latest installment of election-year revelations from Charles Lewis and his Center for Public Integrity, delves into Bill Bradley’s enthusiasm for high finance, a subject the Rhodes Scholar had ample time to explore as a member of the powerful Senate Finance Committee in the 1980s. While Bradley’s ideas may originally have been influenced by his Princeton professors, he has always preferred consulting investors themselves. In 1984, he told a reporter: “I like to talk to people who are betting their own money. That doesn’t mean I don’t talk to economists or money managers, but I like people with their own money at risk.”

And as Lewis recounts, the New Jersey senator surrounded himself with corporate raiders who became experts in so-called leveraged buyouts, where high-flying financiers, putting up small amounts of their own cash, bought substantial old-line companies, reorganized their finances so as to take advantage of large-scale interest deductions, and then dumped the gutted firms on the market at hugely inflated prices.

For readers who may have forgotten how the leveraged buyout works, consider the example of Wesray Capital, a firm started by William E. Simon, President Ford’s Treasury secretary, and tax accountant Raymond G. Chambers. In 1986, Wesray bought out the Simmons Mattress Co. for $120 million. Wesray proceeded to sell off the firm’s overseas operations and cut the workforce from 4000 to 2500. It then sold the company to new investors for $249 million. The new investors were Simmons’s employees — and, as Lewis recounts the story, most of them never had a clue as to what was going on. Wesray did away with their 401(k) plans, instituting an employee stock-option plan (ESOP), then borrowed $249 million from banks, most of which ended up in the pockets of Wesray investors. The workers then undertook to pay off the debt over 10 years. In return they got company stock valued at $10 a share. By 1990 the stock was worth 50 cents a share. Simmons couldn’t pay the debt to the banks and defaulted. The employees, finally catching on to what was happening, sued the corporate raiders, and eventually Merrill Lynch took a 60 percent interest in the firm, bailing it out. By 1988, when this deal was put together, Simon had broken ties to Wesray, and while Chandler ran the firm for two more years, he also moved on, devoting himself to philanthropy.

Today, Bradley’s list of advisors is replete with leveraged buyout adepts, including Chandler; Joseph H. Flom of Skadden, Arps, and a major fundraiser for Bill Clinton; Louis B. Susman of Salomon Smith Barney; and John W. Jordan II of Jordan Industries, Inc., which deals in junk bonds and leveraged bailouts. All have contributed to Bradley’s campaign, Lewis reveals.

What Lewis is portraying here is a picture of Bradley as a personable Wall Street tout. His interest in the plight of so-called ordinary people may well turn out to be a facade for a shrewd Wall Street con. Or is he just another sucker for the high-flying finance crowd?

Protecting Whose Environment?

Gore’s Teapot

Bradley isn’t the only one to get raked over the coals by Lewis. Al Gore, for example, is revealed to be a yo-yo of Occidental Petroleum. Occidental’s late chairman, the eccentric Armand Hammer, used to boast that he had the senator’s late father, Senator Albert Gore Sr., “in his back pocket.” When the elder Gore left the Senate, Hammer hired him as an Occidental consultant for $500,000 a year. And according to Lewis, Gore Jr. still gets $20,000 a year from a land deal put together by his father and Hammer. The Occidental chairman carried on a cordial relationship with the younger Gore all through the ’80s, with campaign contributions and numerous trips aboard his personal jet.

Although Gore gets off as a big-time environmentalist, the book reports that the vice president asked Clinton to approve leasing oil on two big oil reserves held under the navy’s control since 1912 — Teapot Dome near Casper, Wyoming, and Elk Hills in Bakersfield, California. And in October 1997 the Energy Department announced the government would sell 47,000 acres of the Elk Hills field to Occidental. The deal tripled Occidental’s U.S. oil reserves, and amounted to the largest privatization of U.S. property in history.

The story doesn’t stop there. Theoretically, the Energy Department was required to assess the environmental consequences of the deal, but instead it hired a private company, ICF Kaiser International, to make the assessment. As it turned out, Tony Coehlo, the head of Gore’s campaign and big-time campaign fundraiser for the Democratic Party, sat on the Kaiser board.

Tossing Back a Few With McCain

Beer Money

Lewis also unveils Senator John McCain’s ties to the beer business. Cindy Hensley, John McCain’s wife, is heir to a big beer-distributorship fortune. Hensley & Co., started by her father, James, in 1955, now is the largest Anheuser-Busch distributor in the state and one of the country’s biggest beer distributors. While McCain was positioning himself to get into politics, Cindy’s dad gave him a PR job at the company — and the Hensley family has always been a sponsor of his political career. They are McCain’s second-largest “career patron.” Cindy is vice president and director of the Hensley company.

According to Lewis’s book, beer interests have given McCain at least $161,000 since 1982. And that doesn’t include thousands in beer-related speaking fees that McCain has donated to charity, nor free travel provided McCain by Anheuser-Busch. Most of the personal wealth of the Hensleys and McCain’s children is in Anheuser-Busch stock.

McCain has recognized the potential for conflict of interest with beer-related matters and pledged to recuse himself when it comes to beer. But there are so many issues involving beer coming before his Commerce Committee that this is difficult to do, and, in fact, he has rarely taken a stand against the beer industry. While he supports regulating tobacco and violence on TV, McCain sidestepped a controversy over where liquor companies should advertise on television. His committee scheduled hearings on liquor advertising in 1997, but never held them. Beer industry lobbyists worked hard to sever beer from the hearings because they feared beer would fall under liquor-advertising restrictions. The hearings never took place.

Yellow Menace

In jumping aboard the Bush bandwagon with high hopes of becoming his vice presidential candidate, Elizabeth Dole became an instant groupie, blabbering he is “my kind of conservative,” and gushing that we must “innovate not regulate… that is compassion you can put in the bank” and that “those who know [Bush] best, admire him most.” Then she got serious, warning that “rogue nations threaten their neighbors,” declaring we dare not think of America as a “medieval castle sheltering within its moat,” when “China and Russia pose their own inscrutable challenges.” “Elizabeth,” responded Bush, “You always said you were a lieutenant in Ronald Reagan’s army. I’m proud to have you as a general.”