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March of Dimes

Granny D.'s campaign-finance-reform campaign has the style of a Frank Capra movie. Does it have the substance of one, too?

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My 4-year-old isn't interested in campaign-finance reform. I learned this the other night when Granny D., a 91-year-old campaign-finance-reform activist from New Hampshire, came over to the house to meet my kids.

You may not have heard of her, but Granny D. is huge in certain circles. A couple of years ago, when she was still Doris Haddock, a retired shoe-factory employee living on Social Security, Granny D. set out to walk across the United States. Her mission: to wake America to the corrupting influence of big money in politics. She started in Pasadena and walked east, ten miles a day, six days a week, until she reached Washington, D.C. The trip took fourteen months. She did interviews with newspapers and television stations virtually every day. By the end, she was a B-grade folk hero.

Granny D. is still on the road. She came to Washington last week to lead rallies in support of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform bill. "Why don't you bring her back to your house?" asked the guy who was handling her press. He seemed to think she'd make a good interview but didn't want to risk my being mean. "That way you couldn't skewer her too much once your family fell in love with her," he added.

I thought he was kidding. He wasn't; and the next night, Granny D. was standing in my living room explaining campaign-finance reform to three small children in pajamas. They were sleepy, but they perked up when she mentioned John McCain. My kids don't know anything about politics, but they understand John McCain. Most kids do: The bad guys tried to make John McCain criticize America. He wouldn't. The bad guys kept him in prison and tortured him. Therefore, John McCain is a hero.

That was their understanding. But Granny D. added a twist. "John McCain," she explained, "is very brave because he is going against most of his colleagues and stands up for campaign-finance reform." My son looked confused. I could tell he wanted to ask if "colleagues" meant "bad guys."

There's something about campaign-finance reform that can give otherwise-normal people a faraway look. Warren Beatty once kept me on the phone for more than an hour speechifying earnestly about why all federal campaigns should be paid for by tax dollars. It was a beautiful day in Los Angeles, and I wondered: Doesn't he have anything better to do? You'd think a guy with his hobbies could find something more interesting to talk about. Then it struck me: To Beatty, nothing was more interesting, because nothing else unraveled so many vexing and seemingly unrelated mysteries. Nothing else shed so much light on the way the world works.

This is the beauty of campaign-finance reform: It doesn't just explain why lobbyists exist. It explains why bad things happen. It's a theological concept. The Theory of Everything.

Look at it right, and there is almost nothing imperfect or unjust about American society that can't be explained by the way campaigns are financed. Pollution. Low test scores. HMOs. Racial tension. Lopsided tax cuts. Global warming. The new bankruptcy bill. In every case, these are evils visited upon America by bad campaign-finance laws. It's that simple. Ask the campaign reformers. They'll tell you so, without embarrassment.

It's exciting once you understand the code. Salon.com maintains an entire archive of stories about campaign-finance reform. Collectively, they explain a lot. Ever wonder why California is having an energy crisis? Confused as to how an American submarine could have accidentally sunk a Japanese fishing trawler? There's a three-word answer waiting for you online.

At some point, you begin to wonder if this is really a debate about public policy, or if it's a religious denomination. Administer the test yourself: Scroll through Salon's archives. Replace "permissive campaign-finance laws" with "malevolent spirits." You'll find that the tone and logic of the stories remain essentially unchanged.

On the other hand, this isn't all superstition. Individuals and corporations and ideological groups do use money to influence legislation. This is a frustrating thought. But does it mean that democracy is a sham? And even if it does, what do you do about it? Ban certain forms of political advertising, as the McCain-Feingold bill proposes? Publicly finance all campaigns, as many good-government groups advocate? Maybe.

But what about the First Amendment? Do Americans, even those who belong to interest groups, suddenly not have a constitutional right to express their political views through advertising? And if you use tax dollars to fund campaigns, who decides which campaigns to fund? And what about candidates who want to fund their own campaigns? Can you prevent them from doing it?

It's not a conspiracy of moneyed special interests that has blocked campaign-finance reform. It's the details. They're complicated. Not that you'd know that by talking to the reformers.

The first thing you notice about Granny D. is that she's old. Really old. She graduated from high school during the Coolidge administration.

She's amazingly spirited, considering. Despite arthritis and emphysema (Granny D. smoked Salems for 50 years), she gets around like a fit 70-year-old. The desire to separate money from politics fills her like a life force.

She wasn't always this way. The spirit first came over her in the mid-nineties, shortly after her husband died. One morning, she read an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe about legislation that had been influenced by a tobacco company. Outraged, she began collecting newspaper stories about campaign-finance reform. She filled one scrapbook, then another. Suddenly, before you could say "mission from God," she was trudging across the continent.

Not that this bothers me. I like religious people. The other day, I went to the Capitol to see Granny D. lead a march. Organized labor isn't supporting McCain-Feingold this year, so there weren't many people at the rally. Those who showed up tended to be young, intense, informed, and wearing black. These are the sort of lefties who still smoke. It was nice to see them.

And they love -- absolutely love -- Granny D. One speaker introduced her as the "personification of democracy." He likened her to Dorothy Day, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks. I heard someone else compare her "presence" to that of Martin Luther King Jr., one degree from holiness.

Granny D. looked embarrassed. She may believe this stuff, but she doesn't show it. Granny D. has ironic distance.

After her talk with my kids, Granny D. told me about the interesting people she had met while traveling. It sounded like a wonderful trip. You ought to do it, she said. You ought to walk across America. She grinned thinking about it. "It was fun," she said, "certainly more fun than staying home in New Hampshire, playing Scrabble with the shut-ins."


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