Monday, April 23, 2001

Money Does Talk

Offenses against language and sensibility come with the social activity known as fundraising. This is true of fundraising for political purposes and it is true of fundraising for philanthropic purposes. Attention is paid to those who have money and little or no attention is paid to how they came about their wealth. Those who give – more accurately, those who are asked to give – are called public servants, humanitarians, community leaders and they are extolled in language that often comes as news to those who best know these newly-anointed saints, including their family members and close friends. Money does talk.

Because the six-million American Jews have what seems to be a nearly equal number of organizations and causes to support, a good part of our communal creativity and energy is devoted to ferreting out those who might part with some of their riches. They are targeted by shnorrers, aka directors of development. We have an incredible number of fundraising events. While they do little for Jewish continuity, they are a boon for plaque-makers, caterers, printers and many other entrepreneurs. On occasion, a meaningful sum is left over for the cause that is the cause of it all.

It is probably true that there is little harm in all of this. False praise, ostentation and a shvitzer ambience are a small price to pay to keep our communal enterprises afloat. There’s nothing terribly wrong when we barter fleeting moments of ersatz glory for charitable contributions. For all of the obvious organizational fundraising excesses, they are insignificant when compared with what goes on in the political world where contributors seek to purchase access and influence and do not care about being given a plaque or any other honor. As public recognition is a key component of philanthropic fundraising, stealth is the hallmark of its political counterpart. With some exceptions, political contributions are not intended to promote good government but its reverse. The intention is to leverage gifts by obtaining governmental benefits worth many times more than what is being contributed.

The political process is tailor-made for contributors whose motives veer between the unethical and the illegal. Politicians often serve as the willing dupes of those who know how to exploit the need for campaign funds for personal gain. There is something pathetic, even comical, about politicians as they hustle to do the bidding of contributors. What isn’t funny are the consequences for the fundraising process. There is corruption galore and favoritism rules. Ethnic and religious groups are particularly hurt when operators claiming to represent them gain access. Orthodox Jewry in New York has been hurt by the eagerness of the Guiliani administration to embrace hustlers who cannot pass even the most attenuated spell test.

The already celebrated Marc Rich affair represents the unholy union of the evils of political fundraising and the excesses of philanthropic fundraising. American Jews have been embarrassed by the cupidity and stupidity of influential persons who should have known that what they were doing was far outside the pale of propriety.

For all of the fall-out from this affair and other cases of fundraising abuse, there is little reason for optimism that it will be possible to rein in practices that sully both philanthropy and politics. Where money is the prey, rectitude does not have a prayer.

Congress may enact, as it should, McCain-Feingold or some variation of what they propose. When this happens, there are certain to be hymns celebrating a great victory against fundraising abuses. When the dust clears – and it won’t take long – the no-goodniks will be back at their old influence-peddling stand, figuring out the loopholes and using money to purchase access and favors. It’s a good bet that politicians of all stripes will be eager to accommodate them.

We ought not forget that the current reform movement seeks to undo certain reforms enacted after Watergate, reforms that are now believed to have contributed to a worse situation than what previously existed. A generation hence, there will be a Senator Water and a Senator Gate who will introduce legislation seeking to undo abuses resulting from legislation enacted in 2001.

When I played courtyard basketball as a kid, my timing was invariably off. It’s apparently even worse when I write about basketball, thanks to Charlie Ward who immediately repaid my kind words about his religious commitment with a flurry of anti-Semitism. I feel like I was deliberately fouled, but while I perhaps should not write about basketball and find Ward’s remarks entirely offensive, I continue to believe that religious commitment is admirable.