Pointy-Headed, Yes. But Unicorns? Nope!

From the lowliest assistant to the loftiest pundit, nearly every political journalist in America cultivates cynicism and disdains naïveté. “Tough-minded” is the highest compliment in these circles, while “idealistic” is often intended as an insult synonymous with “woolly-headed.” Coverage of the 2000 Presidential campaign, however, has revealed a sentimental and rather childish side to the nation’s hardened hacks. Until lately, at least, quite a few reporters and commentators seem to have believed in the political equivalent of the unicorn: that is, a successful politician who is free of big money’s influence.

Some thought the unicorn was named Bill Bradley; others insisted the name of this mythical creature was John McCain. But journalists and others hoping to sustain their faith in the purity of a favorite pol should probably avoid The Buying of the President 2000 , by Charles Lewis, a new volume of data and analysis published by the Center for Public Integrity-which debunks such media myths with nonpartisan scorn.

Of course, neither Al Gore nor George W. Bush fare especially well under Mr. Lewis’ examination of their careers and financial patrons, but that will hardly come as a surprise. Neither of the Presidential front-runners is considered a paragon of virtuous fund raising.

For the more credulous fans of Mr. McCain, however, the chapter on his life in public office may come as a disappointment. As everyone who cares must know by now-and as he confesses with such eagerly disarming sincerity-the Arizona Republican hasn’t entirely reformed himself since his brush with shame in the Keating Five affair. Shady savings and loan mogul Charles Keating was hardly the last major donor to enjoy the Senator’s official attentions. As The Boston Globe reported recently, he has enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with a Pittsburgh broadcasting firm.

Indeed, Mr. McCain’s capacity to raise millions for his Presidential campaign has depended almost entirely on his perch as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, where he will remain powerful even if, as seems likely, he is eventually defeated in his quest for his party’s nomination.

In fact, despite his brave crusade for campaign finance reform, Mr. McCain seems slightly below average in his resistance to the blandishments of contributors. To take just one category cited by the Center for Public Integrity, he has received more than $100,000 from gambling interests during the past several years, and has served their needs just as reliably as a slot machine. “Even during his battle to [enact] tobacco legislation,” writes Mr. Lewis, “McCain found a way to help the gambling industry. At the urging of the American Gaming Association, he agreed to exempt gambling establishments from his bill’s ban on indoor smoking.” We don’t want the poor saps in the casinos having nicotine fits, do we?

Actually, Mr. McCain’s favors to the casino business may be the least of his sins. The correlation between the money he receives from airlines, railroads, media companies and other special interests and his endeavors on their behalf as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee is remarkable, even for a conservative Republican. In the weeks to come, his symbiotic relationship with his largest career donor-US West, the telecommunications giant-is expected to generate some interesting stories. And it will be interesting to see whether Mr. McCain’s technique of deflection-by-confession continues to satisfy his admirers in the press corps.

Meanwhile, the jarring discovery of the Arizonan’s weakness for special interest money has increased the moral pressure on his counterpart from New Jersey. Mr. Bradley insists that, unlike Mr. McCain, he is a true unicorn. The other day, he invited the press to peruse his Senatorial documents, now in storage at Princeton University, to prove that he had never sought government favors for a contributor. Unfortunately, he seemed to have forgotten that he had instructed his alma mater not to let anyone look at his papers.

The chapter on Mr. Bradley in The Buying of the President 2000 suggests bluntly that his status as high-minded outsider is merely a pose. “Only running against a sitting Vice President could diminish the 18 years [Mr. Bradley] spent inside the Beltway and inside the pockets of special interests,” Mr. Lewis writes. In the Democratic challenger’s case, according to Mr. Lewis and his research team, those unsavory interests included junk-bond capitalists, chemical polluters and drug companies.

With a seat on the Senate Finance Committee, Mr. Bradley specialized in providing tax breaks and tariff exemptions to his biggest contributors. He justified those favors in terms of his principled commitment to free trade, although that probably made little difference to the companies that benefited from his patronage. His solicitude was rewarded by the pharmaceutical industry with what Mr. Lewis describes as “record amounts of campaign money.”

That doesn’t mean Mr. Bradley is any worse than his rivals. It only proves that there are no unicorns-not even in New Jersey.

Pointy-Headed, Yes. But Unicorns? Nope!