Sep 1 1992

The Anti-Democratic Convention

Corporations, the real "special interests," get little play

It was fashionable to bemoan the networks’ lack of gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Democratic conventions. ABC‘s Peter Jennings (Washington Post, 7/12/92) said it was “a little sad” that the networks were passing up “a chance to present the democratic process in the purest sense.”

Of course, modern stage-managed conventions are anything but a democratic process–and the media bear a lot of the blame. Anything that resembles democracy–a debate over a contested issue, a resolution that isn’t pre-approved–is denounced as “mischief” from “special interests.”
There was to be none of that this year: “Certainly the portents are brighter than they were at the conventions of 1980, 1984 and 1988, when turmoil marred the nomination spectacle,” wrote David Broder (Washington Post, 7/12/92). Juan Williams, in the same edition, praised Clinton for having “a strong enough hand to control Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown, thereby staging a peaceful, unified convention.”
During the convention, reporters pushed for more exclusion, not inclusion. “Are you annoyed that you have to deal with people like Jerry Brown and Jesse Jackson?” PBS‘s Jim Lehrer asked Clinton (7/13/92). “Should Brown be allowed to speak if he hasn’t endorsed the ticket?” NBC‘s John Cochran asked a Brown delegate (7/13/92). Reporters seemed to endorse the evolution of these events from a political party’s convention to a nominee’s coronation by repeatedly calling it “Clinton’s convention,” which intrusive delegates were trying to disrupt.
The national media were constantly on the alert against grassroots activists, usually referred to as some kind of “interests”: One Thomas Edsall piece in the Washington Post (7/13/92) featured “liberal interests,” “various minority interests” and (in a quote from a Clinton delegate) “every weird special interest that could exist on the face of the Earth.” The conflict at the convention was supposed to be between these “interests”–defined by Edsall as “blacks, gays, unions, feminists”–and the “middle class” (as if most blacks, gays, union members and feminists weren’t middle class), whose representatives were said to have taken control of the party.
Journalists’ acceptance of the view that the party was moving toward the middle class showed their failure to “follow the money.” It’s not that journalists don’t understand that there’s a connection between money and politics–here’s a David Broder column on Jackson (7/14/92): “Clinton played hardball politics with Jackson, especially after Ross Perot’s comments about homosexuality made it clear that the gay community, whose financial support is critical to Jackson’s operations, would find no alternative to Clinton in November.”
Broder can analyze this kind of political triple-bank shot–when he’s writing about marginalized sectors of the party. But the national media made little effort to interpret the role of the Clinton campaign’s corporate backing in changing the direction of the party. There was little talk, for example, about Clinton’s campaign manager, Mickey Kantor, whose law firm represents such tribunes of the middle class as General Electric, Martin Marietta, United Air Lines, ARCO and Chemical Bank (New York Times, 6/7/92). Two important fundraisers for Clinton (New York Times, 3/3/92) are Robert Barry, a longtime lobbyist for GE, and Thomas Boggs, a $1.5-million-a-year lawyer whose firm has represented various corporate interests, including the notorious BCCI. Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair Rob Brown is a partner in Boggs’ firm, where Brown has personally represented the Haitian dictatorship of “Baby Doc” Duvalier, as well as the association of foreign auto dealers (Village Voice, 7/14/92).
The money Clinton used to achieve early “front-runner” status didn’t come from the middle class. As William Greider noted in Rolling Stone (4/30/92) “half or more of Clinton’s funding came from conservative corporate interests”–including Wall Street investors and Washington lobbyists.
The Democratic Leadership Council, the group fronted by center-to-right Democratic politicians (including Clinton and Gore) that has assumed control of the Democratic Party is not a middle-class organization. It is bank-rolled by–and speaks for–corporate America: ARCO, Dow Chemical, Georgia Pacific, Martin Marietta, the Tobacco Institute, the American Petroleum Institute, etc.
There’s little attempt to make any connection between these corporate ties and the program Clinton espouses, except in the alternative press: Thomas Ferguson in The Nation (4/13/92), for instance, related Clinton’s vague, timid position on health care to his support from the medical industry; John Judis in In These Times (3/11/92) connected Clinton’s trade policies to donations from investment bankers who deal in overseas capital.
Perhaps there would have been more discussion of these connections if the spectrum of commentary hadn’t been so narrow. On the issue of the Democratic platform, you could turn to CNN‘s Capital Gang (7/11/92) to hear it criticized as “anti-capitalist” by Robert Novak and “mildly socialist” by Mona Charen. For an opposing view, you can read “Column Left” on the L.A. Times op-ed page (7/9/92), where Elaine Ciulla Kamarck praised the Democratic platform for avoiding Republican attacks by adopting Republican rhetoric and positions on everything from crime to welfare to corporations. A progressive perspective that holds that it’s a bad idea for a Democratic platform to adopt Republican positions is apparently too far-out to be considered.