Farewell. This is my last issue as editor in chief of Mother Jones. For six years, I’ve been blessed with gifted colleagues, passionate readers, and a wealth of corruption to investigate.
This issue is no different. As we go to press, the House is contemplating the impeachment of President Clinton. Based on the available evidence (drawn from a mere 50,000 documents), the inquisitors seem to me more dangerous than the crime. If those entrusted with the power of the law don’t use prosecutorial judgment, they can damage our society more than any transgressor. The American press similarly enjoys extraordinary power and freedom, which it also is squandering. The country’s elites have no indignation available for the truly lewd acts that the president and other politicians perform daily with big donors in return for hard cash.
To take one simple example: On Presidents’ Day in 1996, Bill Clinton told Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office that he “no longer felt right about their intimate relationship, and he had to put a stop to it.” According to the Starr report, Clinton “hugged her but would not kiss her.” Lewinsky remembered that at this point the president got a phone call from somebody named “Fanuli.” According to White House records, the caller was Florida sugar magnate Alfonso Fanjul Jr. The call came through at 12:24 p.m., and Clinton returned it less than 20 minutes later. He and Fanjul then spoke for 22 minutes, from 12:42 to 1:04 p.m. — an eternity in presidential time.
Why call the Oval Office on a federal holiday? Had the media bothered to follow up, reporters quickly would have discovered that, a few hours earlier, Al Gore had announced in Everglades National Park a plan to levy a penny-a-pound tax on Florida sugar growers. The money raised would go toward a $1.5 billion effort to clean up the Everglades, polluted primarily by years of sugarcane runoff. Florida was set to be a key battleground in the upcoming presidential race, and according to one poll, most Floridians wanted to make sugar growers pay for their own mess — hence the Clinton-Gore plan. This wasn’t the sugar industry’s only worry. The House was debating a measure, inserted into the 1996 farm bill, to phase out the industry’s federal price support program — a subsidy worth an annual $1.4 billion. Gore’s proposal apparently sent a message to sugar barons: Don’t take White House support for granted. Or: Make it really worth our while to support you.
As Mother Jones reported in our last list of the top 400 contributors, the Fanjul family pumped a total of $900,000 (including $128,080 from company executives) into the political system in the 1995-96 election cycle. For example, in April and October of 1995, Fanjul attended two White House kaffeeklatsches. Shortly after each, the Democratic National Committee received $40,000 in soft money, sent in $5,000 and $10,000 chunks on the same day by several different Fanjul companies. This precaution to evade disclosure also sent a clear message to Clinton: Fanjul was a player who could deliver.
Most big players realize that political contributions are a fantastic investment. The 18-cents-a-pound sugar subsidy — which inflates domestic sugar prices to twice what they average elsewhere — is worth $65 million a year just to the Fanjul family, according to the General Accounting Office. Gore’s so-called Everglades tax, which the sugar industry cast as “a multimillion-dollar boondoggle,” was in reality a mere penny-a-pound reduction in this $1.4 billion-a-year corporate welfare program.
The House measure to eliminate the program, sponsored by Rep. Dan Miller (R-Fla.), looked like a winner: Free-marketeers — and big companies, such as Coca-Cola and Hershey’s, whose costs were bloated by the price supports — decried the subsidy as a big-government handout; environmentalists hated it because phosphorus-laden runoff was destroying a national wetlands treasure; liberals wanted it repealed because it doubled sugar costs for ordinary U.S. consumers. Factor in that only 45 congressional districts grow sugar, and you have a commonsense understanding of why the bill should have passed.
The measure was defeated by a 217-208 vote after four Democrats and two Republicans — all co-signers of the bill — switched their votes at the last minute. Five members of Congress — all Democrats — did not vote. Crucially, the Clinton White House offered absolutely no support. “Most of the representatives who switched were Democrats,” Miller told me in a phone call. “If the president had supported us, [the measure] would have passed.” But, equally significant, Newt Gingrich also withheld support. “The speaker doesn’t vote,” Miller reminded me, conceding, however, that Gingrich could have swayed enough Republicans if he wished.
What Gingrich did, in fact, was to amend the farm bill so that the Everglades would be partially cleaned up with $200 million in public funds, leaving the industry unscathed and under less pressure. This measure was championed in the Senate by Bob Dole before he left for his 1996 presidential run. (Alfonso’s brother, José Fanjul, No. 384 on this year’s list, served on Dole’s presidential campaign finance committee.)
So what about Newt’s pledge to end big government? Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who came to office during Newt’s revolution and whose district produces the largest amount of sugarcane in the United States, articulated the incompatibility of logical consistency and donor dependence. “While free markets sound good on the surface, we’re quickly finding that the free market doesn’t always lead to the best end result,” he told Time magazine in April 1996.
And what about Gore’s original clean Everglades proposal? After winning kudos, the White House quietly shelved its plan. It resurfaced on a Florida ballot initiative the following November, but was defeated after the sugar industry swayed voters with an estimated $25 million advertising blitz casting the measure as “a classic big-government land grab.” (The Fanjuls reportedly chipped in $3.6 million.) Once again, behind closed doors, the Clinton administration was unstinting in its apathy for the initiative, perhaps out of gratitude for a final $50,000 campaign contribution from a Fanjul company, Flo-Sun Land, timed close enough to Election Day to escape press detection.
Clinton’s presidency is in shambles not just because he has a weakness for illicit sex, but also because his commitment to honest government isn’t strong. The Republicans sensed this from the start. One minute they savage him and the next they conspire with him to do the business of the business community. Clinton has been a good Republican president, which makes the Republicans’ fury at him all the more frightening.
Sanctimonious Washington is up to its ears in institutionalized bribery. Hidden entitlements alone, buried deep in the tax code, will cost an estimated $3.7 trillion between 1997 and 2003. This is a form of patronage favored by New Democrats as well as tax-cutting conservatives, both of whom want to subsidize powerful constituencies without any DNA evidence showing up in the official spending budget.
Alfonso Fanjul Jr. would qualify as a surprise star witness in any impeachment trial; his testimony could shed light on the president’s fundraising from the Oval Office and the influence of foreign money on U.S. elections. Cuban-born, the Fanjul brothers hold Spanish passports.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for the Fanjuls to be called by either the Congress or the press. And don’t expect either to explore the shakedowns occurring outside of the impeachment limelight — e.g., how the defense industry and the Pentagon are using the commander in chief’s political weakness to press for even more obscene levels of funding. The House spent less than one hour discussing the new defense budget, even though it consumes one-seventh of all federal dollars. And the very week the Starr report emerged, the Senate killed campaign finance legislation. The media played it as a one-day story.
The money behind politics — whether we’re exposing Newt and GOPAC, the tobacco and gambling industries, Social Security privatizers, Loral Space & Communications, Microsoft, or phony grassroots groups — has been the dominant story in Mother Jones during my tenure. I’ll always treasure my time here.