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Bill Moyers: Our Politicians Are Money Launderers Not Too Different from Tony Soprano

Americans have learned the hard way that when rich organizations and wealthy individuals shower Washington with millions in campaign contributions, they get what they want.

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And Lewis Powell was shocked – shocked! – at what he called “an attack on the American free enterprise system.” Not just from a few “extremists of the left,” he said, but also from “perfectly respectable elements of society,” including the media, politicians, and leading intellectuals. Fight back, and fight back hard, he urged his compatriots. Build a movement. Set speakers loose across the country. Take on prominent institutions of public opinion – especially the universities, the media, and the courts. Keep television programs under “constant surveillance.” And above all, recognize that political power must be “assiduously (sic) cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination” and “without embarrassment.”

Powell imagined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as a council of war. Since business executives had “little stomach for hard-nose contest with their critics” and “little skill in effective intellectual and philosophical debate,” they should create new think tanks, legal foundations, and front groups of every stripe. It would take years, but these groups could, he said, be aligned into a united front (that) would only come about through “careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and united organizations.”

You have to admit it was a brilliant strategy. Although Powell may not have seen it at the time, he was pointing America toward plutocracy, where political power is derived from the wealthy and controlled by the wealthy to protect their wealth. As the only countervailing power to private greed and power, democracy could no longer be tolerated.

While Nader’s recruitment of citizens to champion democracy was open for all to see – depended, in fact, on public participation – Powell’s memo was for certain eyes only, those with the means and will to answer his call to arms. The public wouldn’t learn of the memo until after Nixon appointed Powell to the Supreme Court and the enterprising reporter Jack Anderson obtained a copy, writing that it may have been the reason for Powell’s appointment.

By then his document had circulated widely in corporate suites. Within two years the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce formed a task force of 40 business executives – from U.S. Steel, GE, GM, Phillips Petroleum, 3M, Amway, and ABC and CBS (two media companies, we should note). Their assignment was to coordinate the crusade, put Powell’s recommendations into effect, and push the corporate agenda. Powell had set in motion a revolt of the rich. As the historian Kim Phillips-Fein subsequently wrote, “Many who read the memo cited it afterward as inspiration for their political choices.”

Those choices came soon. The National Association of Manufacturers announced it was moving its main offices from New York to Washington. In 1971, only 175 firms had registered lobbyists in the capital; by 1982, nearly twenty-five hundred did. Corporate PACs increased from under 300 in 1976 to over twelve hundred by the middle of the l980s. From Powell’s impetus came the Business Roundtable, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Manhattan Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy (precursor to what we now know as Americans for Prosperity) and other organizations united in pushing back against political equality and shared prosperity.* They triggered an economic transformation that would in time touch every aspect of our lives.

Powell’s memo was delivered to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at its headquarters across from the White House on land that was formerly the home of Daniel Webster. That couldn’t have been more appropriate. History was coming full circle at 1615 H Street. Webster is remembered largely as the most eloquent orator in America during his years as Senator from Massachusetts and Secretary of State under three presidents in the years leading up to the Civil War. He was also the leading spokesman for banking and industry nabobs who funded his extravagant tastes in wine, boats, and mistresses. Some of them came to his relief when he couldn’t cover his debts wholly from bribes or the sale of diplomatic posts for personal gain. Webster apparently regarded the merchants and bankers of Boston’s State Street Corporation – one of the country’s first financial holding companies – very much as George W. Bush regarded the high rollers he called “my base.” The great orator even sent a famous letter to financiers requesting retainers from them that he might better serve them. The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wondered how the American people could follow Webster “through hell or high water when he would not lead unless someone made up a purse for him.”

 
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