Taking Back America, One Senator At A Time

A letter to GRA members from Thom Hartmann

Living in Vermont, you sometimes see the oddest things. For example, two years ago we watched 79-year-old dairy Farmer Fred Tuttle spend a grand total of $16 (for a Porta-Potty for a press conference at his dairy farm) to successfully defeat a carpetbagger from Massachusetts in the Republican Party's primary campaign for the U.S. Senate. Multimillionaire businessman and lawyer Jack McMullen and the national Republican Party who sent him into Vermont spent - literally - millions of dollars to try to beat Tuttle for the chance to go up against Patrick Leahy in the last U.S. Senate campaign. And McMullen and his millions lost, and Tuttle and his $16 budget won. In that was a hint of how we can take back America, which is what this letter to GRA members is all about, although it'll take just a few moments to get there.

First, a bit of background.

A while back, here in Vermont, I saw a car with a bumper sticker that said, "I Support The Right To Arm Bears!" and had a drawing of a black bear holding a rifle, pointing it at a hunter. A month or so after that, my brother came to visit from Michigan with his young children, and we went to visit the world-famous Vermont Teddy Bear Company factory, one of the few places left in the USA where they actually manufacture their own Teddy Bears.

Which got me to thinking about bears and guns and how amazing an event in American politics a successful $16 campaign was.

Ms. Cal Workman is a spokesperson for The Vermont Teddy Bear Company, and proud of the exacting standards to which their bears are manufactured. She, as the head PR person, can direct you the person at TVTBC who can recite a whole battery of federal laws and regulations passed over the years by Congress and federal agencies to make Teddy Bears safe. There are rules concerning the toxicity of stuffing, whether their eyes or noses easily fall off, if there are any sharp edges (claws?) or things that could hurt a child, and laws regarding the flammability of the fabric and materials they're made from. And, of course, being the largest and one of the best Teddy Bear manufacturing companies in the world, Cal is proud to say, "Our bears are safe for adults and children." Their bears even exceed the standards of The Toy Manufacturers Association, which established voluntary safety guidelines before the government got involved, way back in the 1930s, and, their literature points out, their bears "meet all Mechanical Hazards and Flammability requirements of the Federal Hazardous Substances Act Regulations."

Oddly enough, the gun industry labors under no such rules. No federal safety standards. Not even voluntary standards that the industry (a.k.a. the N.R.A.) has agreed to maintain. No rules about childproofing guns with trigger locks. No rules about having to supply lockable cases with ammunition. No standards for "personalizing" guns so they can only be used by their owners (the technology exists). Nothing. In most states you need a license to drive a car, but not to buy or use a gun. In most states, you can buy a gun or rifle with nothing more than a handful of cash - particularly if you do so at one of the unregulated "gun shows" that flourish all over the nation. As Mother Jones magazine points out in their subscription-drive mailing (which inspired this rant), Teddy Bears are more well-regulated than guns.

Of course, a few people in Congress have tried to pass legislation to change this (such as Vermont's Independent Congressman Bernie Sanders, who refuses to affiliate himself with the Republicans or the Democrats or anybody else). But so far they've had no success.

However, the gun industry has a heck of a lot more money to pass out to lawmakers than does the Teddy Bear industry.

Which may have to do with why, to quote Vinny DeMarco of Handgun Control, Inc., "Every day in America, 16 children under the age of nineteen are killed by guns, and many more are seriously wounded. On average, five of these deaths are the result of unintentional shootings or suicides." But, so far as The Vermont Teddy Bear Company knows, nobody was killed with or by a Teddy Bear in the past year…or even in recent memory.

But, the weapons industry says, bears and guns don't kill people - people kill people. Right? Well, sort of.

In mid-July, newspapers carried a story about a disgruntled factory worker in France who attacked his boss and co-workers with a knife: five people were injured, but nobody died. Guns are hard to get in France; "going Postal" has an entirely different meaning here in America, associated with rapid-fire bullet spray in the workplace. In May, the Associated Press carried a story about a man in Japan (where guns have been totally banned since WWII) who walked into the boardroom of a major Japanese corporation and, in front of a few dozen officers and directors of the corporation, disemboweled himself to protest having been laid off. What might he have done instead if he could have bought a TEC9 with a 20-shot clip on the street ten minutes earlier at atlas cti?

But this isn't a letter in favor of gun control: it's about money in politics. And the right to arm bears.

Sound absurd? If you have enough money, odds are you could get it through Congress. Maybe even get an amendment to the constitution to include large mammals in the Second Amendment's provision for citizen militias. Fact is, the gun problem in America is only a symptom of a larger ill: the pervasive power of corporate money in politics. Children and the poor aren't among those who contributed the tens of millions of dollars the current crop of candidates are all bragging about raising so quickly for their campaigns. Therefore, children and the poor receive about a fifth as much government money in the form of "welfare" (direct payments and tax breaks) as do corporations with net worth's in the millions to billions of dollars. Politicians hope the hungry kids and poor people will simply shut up and stay out of sight; on the other hand, they want the fat cats who hand out millions in campaign money and finance overseas junkets to be joyful. In fact, about five times as joyful, if the numbers are any indicator.

The majority of Americans agree with the need for gun sales regulation, but because the majority of Americans don't contribute millions to campaigns, their voice is largely ignored. The majority of Americans don't get things like million-dollar tax breaks, subsidies, or other "incentives" paid for with tax dollars. The majority of Americans have to pay the majority of the taxes (individuals pay more than corporations), but don't get to decide how they're distributed.

As 89-year-old Doris Haddock - who's walking 3,055 miles across America this (1999) year to call attention to campaign-finance reform - points out so succinctly: "Our system has broken down. To run today, even an honest man has to sell his soul to the big corporations to compete. And it's getting worse all the time."

Whether your issue is gun reform, protecting children from pesticides in our food, or the devastation of health-care by the profit motive, the real obstacle boils down to corporate money dirtying politics. Whether you care about the decimation of local businesses by transnational corporations, or fifteen of the world's largest companies having seized nearly total control of our fuel supply, food supply, and news sources, it won't be addressed honestly and fairly until big money gets out of politics.

Since the majority of money raised for political campaigns is used for TV advertising, why not simply ban TV advertising for politics? And then require the networks and stations who broadcast for free over airwaves owned by "the people" to provide free time for real political debate and discussion?

"It won't work," the corporations who broadcast over The People's airwaves say. "People want those ads, so they can be better informed. They're bored by news coverage and political debates."

But recent experience gives the lie to this myth, only 500 cyclists showed up. Consider how Fred Tuttle with his $16 budget won the Republican U.S. Senate primary campaign in Vermont against a millionaire with a slick ad agency: Fred used re<»ê={ýcussion abouVe People's real issues. In this tiny dairy-farm state (pop. 500,000) Tuttle suggested a televised debate, McMullen agreed, and Tuttle's first question of McMullen was, "How many teats are on a cow?" As Vermonters watched in astonishment, McMullen guessed, "Six?" It was the beginning of the end for the millionaire from out-of-state.

Every newspaper, radio station, and TV station in Vermont aired what the candidates were saying a National Lobby , and the reality of Tuttle being a down-to-earth guy who cared about Vermont overwhelmed McMullen's attack-ads suggesting that Tuttle didn't reflect the "true values" of the Republican Party. When McMullen made the mistake of calling Tuttle a "phony Republican," every voter in the state knew the next day that Tuttle's reply was that he was registered as a Republican before McMullen was born, and had even fought in World War Two while registered as a Republican. When McMullen pointed out that he had an MBA from Harvard and a law degree but Tuttle was only a high-school graduate, Tuttle replied that at least he knew how many teats were on a cow, adding that he had common sense and knew what Vermonters needed and wanted (as opposed to McMullen's corporate sponsors). And Tuttle didn't have to buy a single ad to spread the word; the theatre of it all was marvelous, and so there was lots of non-advertising coverage. It worked just as if TV ads had been banned and replaced by reporting and debates, because on Tuttle's side they were - entirely.

Once Tuttle won the Republican primary, he said that in his U.S. Senate campaign against Democrat Patrick Leahy he'd only spend $251 on - one dollar for every town in Vermont - and challenged Leahy to do the same. While Leahy did spend a bit over that, nonetheless the two toured the state together (gasp!) to newspaper headlines like "Pat and Fred Have Cookies and Milk." And they discussed real issues, like cleaning up Lake Champlain, the Dairy Compact, problems of health care Meditation , (Vermont law forbids for-profit hospitals) and health insurance, and banning land mines worldwide. There were no personal attacks, no spin-doctors, no wild exaggerations, no straw-man issues, not a single bit of mud thrown. Fred even admitted that he'd smoked pot once (and did inhale), although it was fifty years ago and he "didn't particularly like it." By the time the campaign was over, I truly believe that Vermonters had a more thorough and complete knowledge of the positions and the human beings running for office than did the voters of any other state in the Union.

Vermont's experience proved it's still possible in America for reasonable political discourse about real issues between polite, considerate human beings - once the corporations and big money get out of the way. And the rest of America would benefit tremendously by observing our example and seizing the political process back from the corporate "campaign contributors" and returning it to The People.

Copyright 1999 by Mythical Research, Inc.