The Appearance of Corruption: Both Theodore Roosevelt and John McCain Tried to Save Their Reputations by Pushing Campaign Finance Regulations

Article excerpt

When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, he quickly established a reputation as a trust buster, railing against the power of giant corporations. In 1902 he ordered a Sherman Act lawsuit aimed at dissolving the Northern Securities Company, the first of 45 antitrust cases pursued during his administration. For the 1904 election, Roosevelt amassed a $2.2 million war chest ($52 million in today's dollars), mainly by hitting up businessmen who had reason to fear him. The donations included $150,000 from Wall Street banker J.P. Morgan, $100,000 from railroad tycoon George Jay Gould, $125,000 from Standard Oil, and $150,000 from three insurance companies.

When Roosevelt's Democratic opponent, Alton Parker, claimed corporations were trying to curry the president's favor by donating heavily to his campaign, the Hero of San Juan Hill called it "a wicked falsehood." Embarrassed by publicity about his financial support from big business, Roosevelt took up the cause of campaign finance reform, pushing it in his 1905 and 1906 addresses to Congress.

Thus was born the Tillma n Act of 1907, which banned corporate contributions to federal campaigns. Nearly a century later, national campaign finance regulation reached its apex thanks largely to another politician determined to prove he was not corrupt.

John McCain was one of five senators who met with federal regulators in 1987 and encouraged them to ease up on the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, which was under scrutiny for risky investment practices. The taxpayers ended up bailing out the California-based S&L's federally insured depositors two years later at a cost of $3.4 billion. For his role in the debacle, Lincoln's chairman, Charles Keating, served more than four years in prison (although his state and federal fraud convictions eventually were reversed because of juror misconduct and faulty jury instructions).

Keating had been the single most important benefactor of McCain's early political career. Between 1982 and 1987, he had steered $1.4 million in campaign contributions and gifts to the five senators who intervened on his behalf. McCain received $112,000 of that, along with nine trips on Keating's jets to the Bahamas and elsewhere. In 1991 the Senate Ethics Committee reprimanded the Arizona Republican for his "poor judgment. …