Hollywood on the Potomac: Donors and Democracy

by Janet Donovan

A new HBO documentary follows the money trail behind campaigns. 

MeetTheDonors04 Wesbite

Alexandra Pelosi interviewing Haim Saban. (Photo Courtesy of HBO)

There are two things that are important in politics,” Ohio Republican Senator Mark Hanna said in 1895.“The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.”

Both major parties rely heavily on the generosity of big donors to bankroll multi- million dollar presidential campaigns.As citizens, it is fair to ask who these donors are and why they are giving their money away. Emmy-nominated filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi’s new HBO documentary “Meet the Donors: Does Money Talk?” seeks to address these questions. You may be surprised by the answers. It’s not exactly “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” starring Jimmy Stewart.

In an exclusive interview, Pelosi told us that she wanted to start with the 1939 Hollywood film to counteract America’s romanticized notions about democracy and the past. She reminds us that in 1896 the Robber Barons put Republican William McKinley in office for their own selfish reasons.“People like to think that it’s only getting worse, but it’s probably getting better,” Pelosi joked. “Back then there were only three people controlling who became president.At least now it’s 100.”

According to Pelosi, the two types of contributors — transactional and ideological— have a clear distinction between them. Ideological donors support their ideals and beliefs with a checkbook. Transactional donors are a part of the political industrial complex and write checks in order to get laws passed that are in the best interest of their venture.

All of the donors who participated in the film consider themselves to be of the ideological mindset. During the course of Pelosi’s conversations, she learned the difference between buying influence versus buying access. “Writing the check gets you access. You’re peeing with the large dogs in a private setting. [Donors] spend $100,000 and up to get a picture with their candidate,” Pelosi explained. “It always cracks me up because you could go to a diner in Iowa and get it for free.”

There was one exception to the donor group. Texas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens admitted to being a transactional donor, noting “I tried to buy this legislation,but I got outbid.” Pelosi was taken aback by his courageous and candid responses.“He would go on camera and admit he tried to rig the system but it didn’t work. No matter how hard I tried, no one else would ever say that on camera.”

And then there are those who simply like ‘The Art of The Game,’ as Donald Trump might say.“It gives you something to do on a Wednesday night.You can have all the money in the world but if you don’t have some place to go on a Wednesday night and hobnob with high society, who are you?”

It’s hard to make sense of it all in the end. Democracy is supposed to be for everyone, but capitalism is for the happy few.The question is, can capitalism and democracy coexist? Is taking money from the few to speak for the many fair?

“I have a hard time about the way we fund our elections,” Pelosi concluded. “It does seem strange that you have these billionaires who are writing multi-million dollar checks, and they’re the winners in the game of capitalism.There’s this weird link between the winners in our society being the ones who bankroll our democracy. There’s something not right about that.”

“Both Republicans and Democrats seemed very patriotic,” Pelosi said of those whom she interviewed. “Somebody has to pay for these elections and the public certainly doesn’t want to, right? If you don’t have money your campaign will never get off the ground. However, it doesn’t mean that the person with the most money will win. Jeb Bush proved that because you can’t force people to buy a candidate they don’t want. He had a lot of money and nobody cared. His money didn’t translate into votes.”

This article appeared in the September 2016 issue of Washington Life. 

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