Published on Sunday, March 5, 2000 in the Manchester UK Guardian
Pay Back Time As Bush's Buddies Demand Their Money's Worth
by Ed Vulliamy
|At the Ramada Hotel in Long Beach, Republican Party fundraisers were meeting over weak coffee and clean-cut sandwiches. They were businessmen, lawyers, doctors, corporate consultants.
The view out of the window was the breathtaking edge of America: the otherworldy port-scape of brightly-lit, fiery refineries and the hinterland of container depots and iron bridges.
The company harboured no doubts as to what John McCain means in their minds: 'A Clintonite liberal, not one of our kind,' said Ross Romaine, who had just given $500 to George W. Bush's campaign funds. 'Bush is the Republican Party, and we'll make sure he wins.'
McCain trails in the polls, has only two campaign staffers and no personal links to Los Angeles. His populist touch is as sure here as it has been elsewhere. But increasingly he fears that the election is being stolen from him by the Republican money-machine which has anointed Bush.
As the contest moved back to New York on Friday, a Texas businessman who is one of Bush's biggest contributors, said he had paid for $2 million for television commercials in New York and other primary states that criticised McCain and promoted Bush's record on clean air. The businessman, Sam Wyly, who recently sold a software company he co-owned for $3.9 billion, said he and his family paid for the advertising to draw attention to environmental issues. But McCain's aides accused the Bush campaign of being behind the advertising, which was scurrilous and part of a broader attempt to steal the campaign.
But it is California, with its 38 million citizens, which is the heart of Super Tuesday, and therefore of American politics over the next four years. And Orange County - fortress of the serious Republican Right - is its core. Although 17 states poll on Tuesday, neither candidate can survive the loss of California.
Even if McCain takes the the other mega-state, New York, he needs California too if he is to barnstorm his campaign into the last round, 'Southern Tuesday' comprising Texas and Florida. Bush, conversely, must establish his authority among hardline Republicans to enter he final count as the party's favourite son.
Bush is at once the familiar figure and the mystery in this campaign. Son of the ex-Presidentwhose career he has sought to duplicate, he is one of America's very few aristocrats; ubiquitous, he has a high-profile life behind him, and yet he remains something of an enigma. The question is 'What is George Bush?'
In 1998, the FBI in California opened a file on a curious case - the purchase of a boat from a financial consultant, Christopher Bower. Bower had sold the 47-footer to Tom Hicks, a Texas businessman who had never seen it, for $300,000 - $45,000 more than the original price. Bower had just advised the California state employees' pension fund to invest $100 million in Hicks's web of companies. Another $100m followed. The Feds found no reason to proceed, but the case afforded a peep into a remarkable empire built by Bush.
He is selling himself to voters in California as a man with a record of government in Texas. Yet he introduced himself to politics while he was an unsuccessful businessman drafted in to work for his father in Washington in 1987. From then on, Bush's inauspicious businesses developed a Midas touch, as powerful interests in Texas jostled for proximity to the son of presidential power. His small oil company, Harken, won a miraculous contract in Bahrain. Bush was able to harvest the resultant bonanza, only to unload his stock just in time before a 24 per cent price crash.
His tiny share in the Texas Rangers baseball team was mutated by a consortium of others into a high-profile and lucrative association worth $15 million.
But Tom Hicks the boat-buyer, one of the wealthiest men in Texas, was the man who really made Bush - and vice-versa. In return for a hefty donation to his gubernatorial campaign coffers, Hicks was made a regent of the University of Texas Board.
As such, Hicks revolutionised the way in which the university invested its funds, 'privatising' some $9 million of assets into a new investment management company, Utimco, which also guaranteed good salaries for Hicks and his fellow regents on the Board.
Utimco soon went into politics. The company placed $10 million with the Carlyle Group merchant bank in Washington, whose chairman was Frank Carlucci, Ronald Reagan's former Defence Secretary. Governor 'Junior' Bush has a seat on Carlyle's board.
The Republican Party likes this kind of synergy between politics, family and finance. This is why Bush personifies not only industrial and financial interests but with them the power elites on Capitol Hill and in governors' mansions across the country - elites that cannot and will not see him go down to a man who threatens their very raison d' etre .
Before Bush's candidature was made known publicly, some of the heaviest financial hitters in the land decided that Bush was the man to get their party back into the White House, come what may.
Word went out that Bush would stand, and fundraising began. Bush thus managed to amass the largest electoral war chest America has ever seen - some $70 million. The spending has been giddy, almost reckless, but until Bush's victory in the Virginia and Washington primaries last week largely ineffectual against McCain.
On Tuesday comes the moment when Bush's backers need to get what they are paying for: California. The coffers are now down to a reported $10 million, so to win California, The Observer is told, the drive against McCain has begun 'borrowing' from reserves earmarked to combat the Vice-President in the next race, to the White House.
But the Bush juggernaut can never run out of the essential fuel. It has too many friends in too many high places for that - especially in southern California.
Brad 'Fargo' Freeman, a merchant banker and multi-millionaire who likes to squire supermodels around Beverly Hills, is part of what Bush's campaign finance manager Don Evans calls 'a grassroots, broad-based individual effort across America'. Freeman, like 200,000 others, gave the maximum of $1,000.
But Freeman is also chairman of Bush's finance committee in California, and a leading 'Pioneer' - that is, one of a core working for Bush who manage a particular system of campaign finance manipulation which he has elevated into a fine art. It is called 'bundling': in addition to giving 'soft money' to the Republican Party, these 'Pioneers' get thousands of others to give their individual $1,000 to the candidate too. The system is simple: memoranda, circulars, phone calls and petition forms sent unsolicited around clients, employees, friends and contacts - urging them to join the club and support 'W'. Bush. The staff of entire companies has been invited to support the boss by helping his candidate.
California is of central symbolic as well as statistical importance in Tuesday, as home state of the man to whom George Bush Senior owed his career and whose legacy the son now claims - Ronald Reagan. But there's a twist: so does John McCain. McCain calls himself 'a proud Reagan Republican', while Bush calls his policies as 'Reaganesque'.
The choice of the Gipper is one of a figurehead, a man seen as the quintessential 'Un-Clinton', a Hollywood cowboy hero who united America on a wave of patriotic fervour, and who did so by winning the crucial middle ground - middle ground the Republicans have since lost.
This is becoming the theme at the kernel of the struggle between Bush's big-buck backers and McCain's challenge: the fact that, while Bush consolidates the Republican vote, McCain - especially after his withering attack on the Christian Coalition this week - is appealing further and further afield across the political spectrum.
The result - in California and beyond - is one that could blow the Republican Party apart: it is an 'open' primary inasmuch as all registered voters can poll for whoever they wish, but 'closed' inasmuch as only registered Republicans' votes will count towards the primary nomination result, and likewise for Democrats.
So there are two votes: the 'party' and 'popular' vote - the Republican nightmare is that Bush wins the former while McCain takes the latter.
Bush could emerge as the man with the party powerhouse interests and delegates behind him sufficient to win the nomination but lose the White House. McCain, meanwhile, would command the popular mandate and the polling power to beat Al Gore.
Whatever happens across the nation on Super Tuesday, it is in California that America will see itself in the mirror.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000