Business and Government


hen Calvin Coolidge declared 75 years ago that "the business of America is business," he could scarcely have dreamed how pervasive the role of corporate money would become in electing future Presidents. This year's White House race will shatter all previous campaign spending records. The vast bulk of the $93 million raised thus far for Republican contender George W. Bush and the $53 million amassed on behalf of his Democratic opponent Al Gore comes from corporations and individuals with corporate ties.

While Gore's campaign war chest includes significant largesse from organized labor and other interests, such as trial lawyers, the bulk of the funds that he and his party have solicited come from business donors. This raises a legitimate question as to how seriously to take his avowal that he is the candidate who will defend the interests of working Americans against the greed of powerful corporations.

Although both campaigns are fueled by corporate cash, the Republican and Democratic presidential tickets offer at least one clear distinction. Voters will get to decide whether experience in business or public office best prepares leaders to strike the proper balance between government support of the private sector and its role in checking corporate excesses that may threaten the common good.

The issue isn't necessarily a matter of partisanship.

At the turn of the previous century, the Republican Party gave birth to the Progressive Movement, which waged war against the corporate trusts and sought to put government on a businesslike footing. The movement attracted strong support from middle-class professionals and managers who believed that government was corrupt and inefficient and needed to adopt the hard-nosed analytical mind-set of the business world.

But biographers of Progressive Movement leader Theodore Roosevelt, the GOP President (1901-1909) who reveled in the role of reformer and who famously demanded that "big business give people a square deal," stress that "T.R." saw government as a crucial player in the fight for social progress. Although born into a wealthy social stratum that frowned upon involvement in politics, Roosevelt eschewed mercantile ambitions and aspired instead to become a member of the governing class.

Over the ensuing century, Presidents of both parties have increasingly tapped corporate sources to help staff their administrations and to bring business insights into their policy-making councils. Sometimes, such forays into public life have caused eyebrows to rise. Charles E. Wilson, the General Motors Corp. president who was to become Dwight Eisenhower's Secretary of Defense suggested to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1953 that "what's good for General Motors is good for the country."

If voters have a preference between national leaders with proven skills in the marketplace and those whose interests lie predominantly in the field of governance, this November should provide them a clear opportunity to express it. The Republican ticket of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney offers two candidates who have divided their time between corporate boardrooms and government posts. The Democrats' pairing of Gore and Joseph Lieberman, by contrast, consists of two men who have devoted virtually the entirety of their professional lives to public office.

Before becoming Texas governor in 1995, Bush engaged in private-sector pursuits, starting out in the oil business by founding the firm, Arbusto Energy, which later became Bush Exploration. In 1989, he and a group of fellow investors purchased the Texas Rangers Major League baseball franchise and he became the team's managing general partner. Cheney, while spending the bulk of his career in government, has made his mark in the business world, as well. After serving in several Nixon administration posts, he joined Bradley, Woods & Co., a New York City investment research and securities trading firm. He then returned to Washington and became President Gerald Ford's chief of staff. Cheney next served for 10 years in Congress before becoming Defense Secretary under Bush's father. Most recently he headed the Dallas-based energy services giant, Halliburton Co., whose directors awarded him a $20 million retirement package when he left to become a vice presidential candidate.

Gore, following a brief stint as a newspaper reporter, won election to Congress in 1976 and has been in Washington ever since. After eight years in the House and eight in the Senate, he ran for Vice President in 1992 as Bill Clinton's running mate and was reelected in 1996. Lieberman has practiced law for short periods during a career mostly spent in public office. In Connecticut, he served 10 years in the state Senate, becoming its majority leader, and was the state's attorney general for six years. He came to Washington in 1989 after an upset victory over GOP Sen. Lowell P. Weicker.

Ironically, the careers of Gore and Lieberman more closely match that of pro-business President Calvin Coolidge, a career officeholder, than do the careers of Bush and Cheney.

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