There is a distinct smell of immorality about our national elections. You can spell that odor M-O-N-E-Y.
The humorist Will Rogers once said the American Congress is the best that money can buy. The current campaign should dispel any notion that he was wrong, except he should have included the presidency and, of course, the governorships.
So much cash is available that TV operators are running out of time slots to sell. Candidates and their supporters in so-called super PACS are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into key U.S. House and Senate races in an effort to sustain their points of view and protect their special interests. President Barack Obama and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney are expected to spend more than $2 billion combined to secure what most sane men and women consider the worst job in the world.
A tsunami of "filthy lucre" is coming in from everywhere. A big casino operator recently pledged $100 million for the Romney campaign and donors on Obama's side probably will equal that.
We could take a hunk out of the notorious national debt with what is being made available for campaigns, including by a lot of those who have been loudly decrying our profligate spending.
A friend recently related an invitation to sit down in a small gathering with the president. Asked what the price would be, he was told $35,000. He declined the offer. Obama reportedly picked up more than $1 million in another quick visit and was back in the White House in an hour.
Where in the world does all this money come from? While the list of billionaires has grown substantially, there can't be that many willing to throw money into the political maelstrom with no charitable tax benefit. Or can there be? Senate and House races are chockablock with outside money from influence seekers.
Those who contend they know how to fix the unemployment dilemma think nothing of raising and spending more for the privilege of office than most of the electorate will earn in a lifetime. What is wrong with that picture? More seriously, what does it say about corrupting influences? Does anyone think for a moment that those pouring such huge amounts into the campaign troughs want nothing in return but good government?
If you're among those who assign no ulterior motive to such generosity, the pumpkin truck you rode into town on must have been pretty uncomfortable. That is, if you didn't come from the drought-stricken Midwest, where your livelihood most certainly has been retarded lately by a lack of marketable produce. If that's the case, you should run for public office. Perhaps you could skim enough off the top to help you through the drought.
Frighteningly, there seems to be no limit on the amount of money that can be thrown into this bubbling pot poisoning the political system and creating an atmosphere of special-interest preeminence as never in our history. To paraphrase the brilliant folk balladeer, John Prine, the gold has run through their veins like a thousand railroad trains.
Is that too harsh an assessment? I hardly think so. Guess how this debilitates the selection process. For instance, it hasn't been lost on those seeking the White House or any other office that the gun lobby cost Albert Gore his election to the top job in 2000 by pouring money and effort into convincing Tennessee voters he would take away their constitutional rights to bear arms. Had he won his home state, Florida wouldn't have mattered.
If ever we needed to limit the amount spent on election to public office, it is now. The immorality and corrupting influence of all this cash is pervasive and a blot on our system. The winner may not be the most qualified, just the one who can raise the most money.
(Dan Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)