The Real McCain

Given the presence of a man who may be the next President of the United States, the atmosphere in the small banquet room at the exclusive Tower Club in downtown Fort Lauderdale is surprisingly lacking in electricity. But it's not lacking in the sizzle of campaign cash.

Fifty people are sitting at bare banquet tables, courteously waiting until after the political speech to tuck into the breakfast buffet in the lobby. Standing before them is Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), an unexpectedly slight, gray-haired man in a plain blue blazer, gray slacks, and clunky rubber-sole shoes. McCain, who projects the simplicity and warmth of a good preacher or rabbi, is earnestly explaining that he wants to reform government. There's a gleam in his eye, though, suggesting that he'd really rather be telling off-color jokes. He does tell one, sort of, about how he was introduced on a TV talk show as someone who has made himself "as available to the public as a Hong Kong hooker." The audience loves his regular-guy persona.

Perhaps the bigger joke is on Texas governor George W. Bush, who must have thought he was a shoo-in with his $60 million-plus campaign war chest. "W" now finds himself trailing the lesser-funded McCain in some New Hampshire primary polls. Watching McCain work the Tower Club crowd last Friday morning shows why he has momentum -- and a growing amount of spending money.

While McCain doesn't throw off the magnetic aura of a Bill Clinton, he clearly had the admiration and respect of the audience. Even the news reporters looked less squinty-eyed than usual. After all, the man is an authentic war hero, not from an ancient war like World War II but from Vietnam, our very own war. The people in this savvy, mostly Republican crowd know that McCain has also shown bravery on the field of political battle -- bucking his party on big-ticket issues like making the tobacco companies pay reparations and reforming the system of legalized bribery known as campaign financing. As proof of McCain's broad appeal, the event was sponsored by a prominent Democratic attorney, Tom Panza.

Several people approached McCain shyly and asked the candidate to sign his best-selling autobiographical book, Faith of My Fathers. Like any good retail politician, he held them in his gaze and his handshake (he has small hands and a light clasp), and remembered their first names. After a few minutes of that, he started his speech by joking that he wasn't going to tout his book. Then he announced the price and the fact that it is available through, an Internet bookseller.

McCain told the well-heeled audience that, before he can reform the military and the veterans' system and all the other parts of the government, he must fix the campaign finance system. Millions of young Americans, he said in his quiet, high-pitched voice, have lost faith in government because they believe that politicians are bought and paid for by special-interest groups that contribute to their campaigns. He repeated his promise to ban so-called "soft-money" contributions -- unlimited donations by corporations, political action committees, and individuals to the political parties, which use the money to support particular candidates. The day before, he and Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Bradley had announced tentative plans to shake hands and eschew soft-money contributions if they become their parties' nominees.

He was in Fort Lauderdale, however, to snag some old-fashioned hard money, which is even better than soft money, if tougher to come by. Hard-money donations are made by individuals directly to candidates and are limited to $2000 per election cycle. Everyone at the Tower Club, except for the media freeloaders, ponied up $1000 a plate for eggs Benedict, bacon, pastries, juice, and coffee. Simple math shows that this little breakfast stop on McCain's moneygrubbing trail from West Palm Beach to Little Havana will net his campaign $40,000 to $50,000, according to Panza. Not bad for an eye opener, though it still leaves him tens of millions of dollars shy of Bush, who pulls in that much money while brushing his teeth in the morning.

And guess who some of the $1000 contributors at the Tower Club are? Surprise. Special-interest lobbyists. Panza, the organizer of the event, lobbies for various health care companies that do business with the government. He's responsible for nearly $200,000 in political contributions to state politicians in the past three years, according to state records. During the tax-evasion trial of former Florida House Speaker Bo Johnson this spring, a former health care executive identified Panza as the person who arranged her meeting with Johnson, during which payments to the speaker were made.

But if McCain promises to be the bane of special-interest contributors, why is Panza backing him? "He's a quality candidate and a true war hero who says things the way they are," Panza replied. Besides, he added, he lobbies only Florida government issues, so McCain's restrictions on federal campaign contributions wouldn't affect him at all.

But wait. Special interests comprise a big portion of McCain's contributors nationally as well. Last month Phoenix New Times reported that his most generous donors have business before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Transportation, and Science, which the Arizona senator has headed since 1997. Industries that have given lavishly include airlines and telecommunications. McCain was largely responsible for gutting the Airline Passenger's Bill of Rights, which the carriers fiercely opposed. And while he frequently criticizes the Telecommunications Act of 1996 for raising cable TV rates, he hasn't proposed any legislative remedy.

McCain looked slightly chastened when asked by New Times Broward•Palm Beach about all the booty he gets from businesses, which his committee is in charge of regulating. He had an appealingly frank reply. "Harris, the point is that the present campaign finance system taints all of us, including me."

That's more than he acknowledged in the past. When previously asked about this subject, he usually went ballistic. Larry Makinson, executive director of the Center For Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group in Washington, D.C., that tracks campaign contributions, believes that while McCain is taking money he probably shouldn't, he's sincere about wanting to revamp a thoroughly corrupt system.

"It's a difficult balancing act when you're running on a campaign platform of reducing the impact of money on politics, and you also have to raise enough money to run a competitive campaign," Makinson says. "McCain's in a very tough spot. At least he's admitting it now."

Would McCain's proposal to ban soft-money contributions affect breakfast fundraisers like the one last Friday in Fort Lauderdale? Hardly. "He could eliminate all the soft money in the world, but people who can afford a $1000 a crack would still meet in fancy restaurants and hand over checks," Makinson says with a laugh. "McCain is uncomfortable, but he's not going to stop doing it."

Contact Harris Meyer at his e-mail address:

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Harris Meyer