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Ignorance is Bliss

11.01.2000 | POLITICS

In just a few days, millions of people will flock to elementary schools, town halls and other public citadels, stand in a voting booth perplexed and say, "Who the hell is Ralph Nader?"

On the day they will collectively decide the next leader of the strongest nation in the world, a large segment of the population will not even know who some of the candidates are or what ideas they represent. For this we can thank the Commission on the Presidential Debates. But wait, what is this Commission? And why and how do they control the terms of the debates? First, some history. The League of Women Voters had organized the presidential debates since 1976, negotiating with both sides over the terms of the process, even including Independent John Anderson into the debates in 1980. President Jimmy Carter refused to participate after the first debate, so by the second round Anderson was gone.

The League quit organizing the debates prior to the 1988 debates, citing their reasons in an October 3, 1988 press release:

"The League of Women Voters is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debates ... because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates' organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public."

The window of opportunity opened. With start up funds from the Twentieth Century Fund, the Commission on Presidential Debates was formed in 1987. It was formed and presided over by Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., a former head of the Republican National Committee and current president of the American Gaming Association, the thirteenth highest paid association presidency, and Paul Kirk, Jr., the former head of the Democratic National Committee and chairman of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. Neither looked favorably on including third parties in the future. "Mr. Fahrenkopf indicated that the new Commission on Presidential Debates was not likely to look with favor on including third-party candidates in the debates," the New York Times reported. "Mr. Kirk was less equivocal, saying he personally believed the panel should exclude third-party candidates from the debates." Mr. Kirk explained: "As a party chairman, it's my responsibility to strengthen the two-party system." Based on the conclusions of two debate studies, one chaired by future CPD member Newton N. Minow, the commission was born.

Its board consists of eleven members, ten of whom are deeply entrenched in the two major parties and the corporate structure that supports them, with substantial stakes in maintaining the present status quo and keeping third parties, and their threatening ideas, out of the mainstream political forum. They are:

Clifford A. Alexander Jr. served as Secretary of the Army from 1977-81 under Jimmy Carter. He has been president of Alexander and Associates, Inc. in Washington, DC since 1981 as well as on the board of directors for MCI, Inc. He is the former chairman and Executive Officer of The Dun & Bradstreet Corporation, where he was the 499th highest paid CEO in the nation. He is on the board of directors for American Home Products Corporation, one of the world's largest research-based pharmaceutical and health care products companies.

Howard Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, was the Democratic Commissioner of Douglas County Board in Omaha, Iowa until he became the company spokesperson and assistant to the chairman for the Archer-Daniels Midland Company, resigning in 1995 in the midst of price fixing allegations. In a statement defending ADM's substantial campaign contributions to the two major parties, he said, "It is always incredible to me that people accuse dedicated public servants of making judgments based on these contributions. This implies that every time you write a check to support the political process, the individual accepting it puts that above his credibility, his integrity, and his service to his constituents." The public policy think tank Cato Institute has repeatedly cited ADM as a case study in corporate welfare. He is currently chairman of GSI, an agricultural equipment manufacturer.

John C. Danforth was the Attorney General of Missouri from 1969-1976 before rising to the Senate and serving three terms as a Republican. He is currently on the board of directors for Dow Chemical Company, Time Warner, Inc, General American Life Insurance Company, GenAmerican Corporation, and the General American Mutual Holding Company. This year, he was instrumental in bringing the presidential debates a second time to Washington University in St. Louis, the only school to host the debates more than once.

Jennifer Dunn was the State Republican Chair from 1981-93 in Washington State before graduating to Congress as the representative of the 8th district in Washington in 1992, where she has voted against banning soft money from elections. She became a member of the House Ways and Means Committee in 1994, vice chairman of the House Republican Conference and the Master of Ceremonies at the Republican National Convention this year. She named her son Reagan, after the former President, incidentally an honorary member of the CPD.

Antonia Hernandez, attorney and president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, began work in the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary as Staff Counsel to the Committee, then chaired by Senator Edward Kennedy. She is a member of the Profile in Courage Selection Committee, of which Caroline Kennedy, another CPD director, is a member as well as being the president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, the sponsor of the Courage award. She is an avowed supporter of affirmative action programs, but not for third parties.

Caroline Kennedy, lawyer, author and president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, of which CPD co-director Paul Kirk, Jr. is chairman, gave a speech in support of Al Gore at the Democratic National Convention on August 15 of this year, before introducing her uncle, five term Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy.

Newton N. Minnow is a former assistant counsel to Illinois Governor Adlai E. Stevenson, former FCC chair under JFK, former chairman at CBS, Inc. and a former board member of CBS, Inc. He was Chairman of the debate study, published by the Twentieth Century Fund, a sponsor of the CPD in 1996 and 2000, which urged the creation of the CPD, of which he then became a board member. He is an Annenberg Professor of Communications, Law and Policy at Northwestern University, as well as sitting on the board of directors at Aon Corporation, Foote, Cone & Belding Communications, Inc., Sara Lee Corporation, and the Tribune Company.

Paul H. O'Neill was the assistant, then associate director and finally deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1967-77 under the Nixon and Ford administrations, before becoming a director of the International Paper Company. Until May of 1999 he was the 155th highest paid CEO in the country, of Alcoa, the world's largest integrated aluminum company. He now sits on the board of directors for Eastman Kodak as well as Lucent Technologies, a 1996 sponsor of the CPD.

Dorothy Ridings is a former journalist, editor, professor, and former president of the League of Women Voters from 1982 to 1986, and serves as a bridge to the past for the CPD. She is acting President and CEO of the Council of Foundations.

Executive director Janet H. Brown served on the staff of Senator John C. Danforth, a board member of the CPD, as well as a figure in the Office of Management and Budget under the Reagan administration, the same office CPD board member John H. O'Neill served under only four years earlier.

Notice, there are no current professors of electoral politics or political science, sociologists, polling experts or journalists, only former Washington bureaucrats, corporate representatives and politicians, many donning all three crowns, half on the board of directors of major corporations. Many have worked together before, or still do, their kinship very likely acting to tighten the already secure partisan nature of the commission.

The CPD has functioned through private funding by major corporations, who have poured millions into the debates, demonstrating their support of the two party system and the efforts the CPD has made to keep it that way. In return, the corporations "receive free debate tickets, receptions, trinkets and access to the candidates and most glaringly, selective exposure to the American public." Cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris in 1992, after investing some $250,000 in contributions to the debates, won the right to hang a "large banner visible during post debate interviews." Nevertheless, Executive Director Janet H. Brown declares the debates "the single set of events during the election year that still belong to the public. Advertisements, conventions, primaries and caucuses are perceived as being the province of powerful, well-financed entities. By contrast, the debates are perceived as offering citizens a chance to hear the candidates unfiltered, unedited, and unscripted." Which candidates exactly she does not specify.

The CPD maintains that the bipartisan nature and corporate funding of the debates makes no impact on the actions of the commission. The truth says otherwise. At a February 1997 Harvard Institute of Politics panel looking back at the 1996 election, top Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos discussed his campaign's negotiations with the Commission on Presidential Debates and the Bob Dole campaign. Stephanopoulos stated, "[The Dole campaign] didn't have leverage going into negotiations. They were behind. They needed to make sure Perot wasn't in it. As long as we would agree to Perot not being in it, we could get everything else we wanted going in. We got our time frame, we got our length, we got our moderator." The moderator then asked, "Why didn't you have the debates when people were watching the election?" Stephanopoulos replied, "Because we didn't want them to pay attention. And the debates were a metaphor for the campaign. We wanted the debates to be a non-event." The CPD not only stood by, they approved this bit of backroom decision-making, a gesture long thought only applicable to corrupt Third World nations far, far away, but in fact, most prevalent in our own backyard.

The criteria for third party inclusion in 1996 were a complex set of indicators involving polls, media coverage and the like. Early this year, the Commission put an end to this by stipulating a national 15 percent minimum polling level to be met by Labor Day. In a report by CPD sponsor The Century Fund (formerly Twentieth Century Fund), CPD member Newton N. Minnow and two other authors championed these changes as "objective, known, defined, concrete, and ascertainable" even though neither Ross Perot in the 1992 presidential race or Jesse Ventura in the 1998 Minnesota Governor's contest were above 15 percent by Labor Day, and their results were 19% and victory, respectively.

But that is the fear. If given a chance, the third parties might win or gain enough exposure to do so later, thus spoiling the party for everyone, politicians and corporations alike. But as long as the electorate doesn't know who the candidates are, the two major parties will never lose control. And it is the plan by the Commission on Presidential Debates to keep it that way.

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