Poor Little Rich Boys (and Girl)

When John F. Kennedy was running for president and asked how he became a war hero, he had the wit and grace to reply, "It was entirely involuntary. They sank my boat."

Rudy Giuliani, on the other hand, would have you believe that God and Fate had somehow aligned the spheres to place him -- and only him -- at the helm of New York City on 9/11. He bestrode the metropolis to save it from certain doom, even though he had less than four months to go in his second, up-until-then undistinguished term as mayor.

After the September 11 catastrophe, despite term limits, he made a last ditch attempt to change the rules so we could continue to have him as our fearless leader for -- oh, how about forever? -- but cooler heads prevailed.

Instead, Giuliani decided to parlay his new reputation for in extremis leadership into megabucks. When he left City Hall, his gross assets were listed at between $1.16 million and $1.83 million, most of it in retirement funds and two Manhattan apartments. Since then, his company, Giuliani Partners, has pulled in more than $100 million in consulting, security, management and financial service fees, and has quadrupled in size.

As reported on the front page of the May 13 Washington Post, "That success helped transform the Republican considered the front-runner for his party's 2008 presidential nomination from a moderately well-off public servant into a globe-trotting consultant whose net worth is estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars."

With that achievement has come baggage detrimental to his quest for the White House. He brought into the business his notorious crony, the former police commissioner Bernie Kerik, as well as, the Post noted, "a former FBI executive who admitted taking artifacts from Ground Zero and a former Roman Catholic priest accused of covering up sexual abuse in the church." (Kerik, under continuing Federal investigation, has since resigned.)

What's more, clients have included "a confessed drug smuggler who hired Giuliani to ensure his security company could do business with the federal government; and the horse racing industry, eager to recover public confidence after a betting scandal."

Plus Purdue Pharma, the drug company that gave an unsuspecting world the potent painkiller OxyContin. Last month, the company and three past and current executives paid fines and other fees adding up to $600 million. They pled guilty to deliberately downplaying the vicious addictiveness of the narcotic.

Giuliani met privately with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to help broker the deal, a far cry from twenty years ago when he and former New York Senator Al D'Amato dressed up in biker drag to participate in an undercover crack buy, a photo op described by one reporter as "one of the most laughed-over pictures in the city's political history."

Laura Nagel, the former head of the DEA's office of diversion control who directed the OxyContin investigation, told the Post that personally, she "would not have been happy unless we put [Purdue Pharma] in shackles in front of the courthouse."

Instead, she said, "They went and got Rudy. I think they thought they were buying access and insight into how to manage things politically."

Oh well. You have to be rich to run for the presidency, or have lots of friend who are, and these days it doesn't necessarily seem to matter much how the cash was acquired. Monday's New York Times reported how Republican Mitt Romney amassed his personal fortune of almost $350 million through his creation of the private equity firm Bain Capital.

As per the Times, "Mr. Romney's Bain career -- a source of money and contacts that he has used to finance his Massachusetts campaigns and to leap ahead of his presidential rivals in early fund-raising... exposes him to criticism that he enriched himself excessively, sometimes by cutting jobs to increase profits."

The Times quoted Boston University business professor James E. Post: "Increasingly, this world of private equity looks like a world of robber barons, and Romney comes out of that world."

Big bucks and corporate attachments aren't limited to Republicans by any stretch. John Edwards, who has made the fight against poverty in America a keystone of his presidential candidacy, was a consultant for the Fortress Investment Group, a hedge fund with assets of more than $30 billion. Fortress employees thus far have contributed $167,460 to his '08 campaign. Barack Obama's wife Michelle just resigned from the board of TreeHouse Foods, a Wal-Mart supplier (and quit her $215,000 a year job as a vice president at the University of Chicago Hospitals).

And then, of course, there's Hillary Clinton. A recent cover story in The Nation suggests, "If Clinton really wanted to curtail the influence of the powerful, she might start with the advisers to her own campaign, who represent some of the weightiest interests in corporate America."

The comprehensive and engrossing article, by Ari Berman, goes on to chronicle the big business connections of such strategists and confidantes as Mark Penn, Howard Wolfson, Robert Rubin, Roger Altman, Harold Ickes and Senator Clinton's own husband. "Not only is Hillary more reliant on large donations and corporate money than her Democratic rivals," Berman writes, "but advisers in her inner circle are closely affiliated with unionbusters, GOP operatives, conservative media and other Democratic Party antagonists."

Not, many would suggest, that there's anything wrong with that. "I'd rather have him be a millionaire comin' in than goin' out," was the sentiment expressed by a supporter of fried chicken magnate John Y. Brown when he successfully ran for governor of Kentucky back in 1978. And there's a case to be made that business experience makes for better governance, as seen, for example, in the administration of Giuliani's successor, Mike Bloomberg.

Nonetheless, all that money sure as hell is a strong argument for the public financing of campaigns. And in an era of increased outsourcing and globalization, subcontracting and privatization -- the so-called "externalization of state functions" -- it raises questions whether those with ties to big business interests truly understand the purpose of government.

That would be to protect its citizenry from war and want, to provide services and infrastructure that make the pursuit of health and happiness accessible to all -- without profit for itself.

Cheap at twice the price.

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York. This article originally appeared on Messenger Post.

Copyright 2007 Messenger Post Newspapers

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