THE 1,000 REPUBLICANS gathered under a pavilion tent Sunday
night at the Sea World theme park for a "Salute to Newt" got
convention week off to a rousing start with beef tenderloin, a
salad with tequila vinaigrette and a stirring speech by House
Speaker Newt Gingrich himself.
It was a rousing start as well for Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc., a
major sponsor of this week's convention and a vivid example of the
mushrooming role of politically savvy corporations in the nation's
quadrennial presidential sweepstakes.
The prominent role of companies like Anheuser-Busch is
perfectly legal but nonetheless worrisome to critics. They view the
commercialization of the conventions as a mockery of the campaign
finance laws that were supposed to take the purchase of special
access out of politics.
"Essentially, we've almost come full circle," said Anthony J.
Corrado, a specialist on campaign financing at Colby College in
Maine. "The types of contributions from corporations that the
reforms of the 1970s sought to end have returned, with the sums
more dramatic than ever."
Stephen K. Lambright, who heads Anheuser-Busch's government
affairs and legal departments, says the brewery's role at the
convention is just good corporate citizenship, no different from
the company's high-profile presence at events like the Olympics or
World Cup Soccer.
"We do it to maintain relationships," he said. "What do we get
in return? Maybe an open door to an elected or government official.
The only thing we ask is the chance to give our point of view - and
then they do what they're going to do."
The dinner guests Sunday night got the chance to take in Sea
World, one of Anheuser-Busch's top theme parks. They might also
have noticed that the company was one of four sponsors for the
Salute to Newt, each contributing up to $50,000 to cover the costs
of one of convention week's more elegant events.
The Illinois and California delegations both held private
parties at Sea World, too, courtesy of Anheuser-Busch contributions
to their respect ive state parties. The brewery was also among the
big corporate sponsors funding a brunch Tuesday on board a vintage
ferry at San Diego's Maritime Museum.
The "goody bag" that went to every convention delegate and
journalist contained a plastic beer mug that made the company's
interest as clear as an ice-chilled bottle of Bud.
The mug's false bottom contains red, white and blue confetti,
an elephant and a miniature can of Budweiser. Midway up the
container there's a "tax fill line" and the not-so-subtle message:
"Forty-three percent of the cost of every beer is hidden taxes.
Roll Back Beer Taxes."
Anheuser-Busch is among the most prominent and generous
corporate patrons in San Diego, but it is scarcely alone. Chrysler
Corp. has a pavilion graced with its hottest new cars, General
Motors Corp. has donated a fleet of automobiles for convention use,
and United Airlines has contributed free and reduced-fare tickets.
The elite of the donors, those like Anheuser-Busch that have
contributed upward of $100,000 each to the San Diego Host
Committee, get special access to convention perks - from Gingrich's
skybox above the convention floor to slots in golf tournaments and
receptions where business types mingle with politicians.
Federal money, raised from the voluntary income tax checkoff,
provides a total of $25 million for this year's Republican and
Democratic conventions. f That much or more will come in from
private donors, who, according to convention planners, have more
than doubled the amount they contributed four years ago.
What it means in practical terms, as Lambright put it, is this:
"You'll stumble over us all week."
The Brewery's Beef On Taxes
"I think our customers want us doing this," said Richard
Keating, who directs Anheuser-Busch's Washington office, in a
conversation about the brewery's role at the convention. …