(07-06-2002) Left-wing Activists Can Learn From the Other Side - New York Times - U2 Feedback

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Old 07-06-2002, 03:55 PM   #1
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(07-06-2002) Left-wing Activists Can Learn From the Other Side - New York Times


Left-wing Activists Can Learn From the Other Side


The sound of money influencing politics and public policy reached a strange new pitch with news of the seemingly contradictory charitable practices of Steven T. Kirsch, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur turned venture philanthropist. With one hand he donated millions to reform campaign finance; with the other he gave more millions in soft money hoping to defeat George W. Bush in the 2000 election. Is this what we have to look forward to from a new generation of philanthropists?

Or is U2's Bono more typical? Bono's intention is to use philanthropic dollars to lobby for foreign debt forgiveness, AIDS relief and fair trade for Africa. His effort will be backed by findings from a think tank of his creation called DATA (Debt, Aids and Trade for Africa). DATA is supported by donations of $10 million or so from a handful of American foundations formed by celebrity billionaires like Bill Gates, George Soros and Ted Turner. Together they are creating what Mr. Kirsch whimsically calls a "vast left-wing conspiracy."

The only truly new thing here is the players, high-profile wealthy people with a slightly retuned liberal agenda. American philanthropists have been leveraging their assets into public policy for more than a century. Many of our education, health, science, energy and arts policies have been mediated from left and right by active foundations. And while they are not allowed to behave exactly like lobbyists (because their money is exempt from taxation), their goal is similar use assets to influence policy.

Conservative pundits, who have long tolerated soft money but never liked political advocacy for the down and out, believe foundations should restrict their grants to faith-based palliative charities. But the movement that brought them into prominence and punditry was itself foundation-financed. The 30 or so think tanks that, since the first Reagan candidacy, have provided intellectual fodder for the conservative revolution were all creations of philanthropic largess.

The Reagan revolution financiers can teach a lesson or two to these high-profile arrivistes from the left. Most important is patience. Of the original donors to the Heritage Foundation, all but a few were present at its 25th anniversary event in 1997. And they were still writing checks as they toasted the authors of "Mandate for Leadership," the manifesto of the Reagan revolution men and women who now have the ear of almost every legislator in the country. Such endurance is virtually unheard of in liberal philanthropy, where the grant-making rule is three years and you're out.

The foundations that created and supported the conservative sector Bradley, Olin, Scaife and Smith Richardson, known as the four sisters commenced their project quietly, with a clear strategic plan to which they remained loyal. Democratic revolutions take time, they knew, and they need an intellectual cadre hammering away at their arguments until a majority listens and votes.

A lesson about lobbying can also be learned from the other vast conspiracy, that of corporate campaign financing. Bono may know more about trade than most lobbyists and have a bigger heart for AIDS-afflicted infants than anyone, but not a word of his pleas will be heard on the Hill if his mellifluous voice is all he has. Noble causes have scant currency in our legislatures or in any executive mansion unless they are attached to a check. Steve Kirsch understands this.

Do Bono, Mr. Gates and Mr. Soros? If they start running up to the Hill to ask our representatives to forgive debt and protect the rights of women, but do so empty-handed, they will soon discover that their incontestable facts and high ideals are easily trumped by money. Will they then begin making contributions themselves to gain access and get attention while leaving their sense of righteous mission at the door? And what causes will go without as they play the ever escalating, two-handed game of political influence?

It would seem wiser for Bono and his benefactors to follow one example set by Steve Kirsch: focusing on reforms that level the playing field so the disadvantaged and their advocates can approach their legislators empty-handed, speak for themselves and be heard.

Mark Dowie is the author of "American Foundations: An Investigative History."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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Old 07-06-2002, 09:30 PM   #2
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I do find this article troubling. Money cannot solve all of our woes, and, in too many ways, money is the problem.

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