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Dubious Donations

February 4, 1997

Campaign-finance reform is shaping up to be a dominant item on the political agenda for 1997. As a Senate committee prepares to launch an extensive and costly investigation into possible campaign-finance abuses in the 1996 election, many politicians are feeling the pressure to explain some of their recent fund-raising activities.

This is not the first time that widespread frustration with questionable campaign-finance tactics and a desire for large-scale reform has taken hold in this country. In "Political Assessments in the Coming Campaign" (The Atlantic Monthly, July, 1892) Theodore Roosevelt -- a figure professedly much admired by President Clinton -- evaluated the progress of the recently formed Civil Service Commission in exposing and outlawing unethical campaign-fundraising methods.

The fundraising abuses criticized in Roosevelt's time took a different form from those drawing criticism now. Campaigners today are commonly accused of accepting large donations in exchange for political influence, whereas the abuses cited by Roosevelt were examples of the pressuring of government employees to make donations to the party that had hired them. But the general dissatisfaction with how politicians and political parties get and use their money is common to both time periods.

Thus Theodore Roosevelt, writing more than a century ago, could have also been setting forth a motto for the Senate's investigative committee today.

In presidential years the pressure for funds is very great. The national and state campaign committees strive urgently to get every dollar possible. . . . A certain amount of soliciting for money, usually by indirect methods, goes on. . . . A great deal of it was done in the last presidential campaign, in 1888. It is too much to expect that the Commission will be able to put a complete stop to it now; but at least we intend to try to minimize the evils complained of, and to make them less than they have ever been before.

See the Flashbacks archive.

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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