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Making Ends Meet in Coin-Operated Washington

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With apologies to the late, great Damon Runyon)

So I am in Washington, DC, our nation's capital, admiring the buildings and the fine monuments and so forth, when I run into my very dear friend Gorilla Bagsley, whom I have not had the pleasure of seeing for many a year.

We shake hands with joy indeed and Gorilla says to me, come and have a drink for old time's sake. I have not imbibed in a very long time, I tell him, and fear that such a thing will give me gas, but he persuades me to come into an establishment he knows and to bend an elbow with a pint of something pale and weak while he imbibes a beverage of a more muscular variety.

I have not been with Gorilla since he and I were young and flimflamming the tourists around New York Harbor, telling them that the Statue of Liberty is green on account of it was a gift from the generous people of Mars. Now here he is in Washington, which to me is passing strange. For if Boston is the home of the bean and the cod, as the poet once said, then surely Washington is the home of the scheme and the fraud, and so I ask Gorilla, who I thought had gone the route of the straight and narrow, what he is doing in such a place.

"Oh," he says. "This is a wonderful place."

"Why?" I ask, and Gorilla replies, "Because, dear pal of mine, it is coin-operated."

"Crime does not pay," I point out to Gorilla. "At least as I recall, not the way you do it."

"That is a point upon which I must concur with you," he says. "Certainly my attempt to hold up a financial institution with a staple gun was not my finest hour. In fact, I have learned during my brief time in this burg that I should have applied for bailout money instead. But I assure you that I have changed. This is the land of opportunity. And coin-operated, as I have said."

"Coin-operated indeed," I reply. "Look at what is in the newspaper here. According to The Washington Post, and I quote: 'Interest groups are spending five times as much on the 2010 congressional elections as they did on the last midterms, and they are more secretive than ever about where that money is coming from. The $80 million spent so far by groups outside the Democratic and Republican parties dwarfs the $16 million spent at this point for the 2006 midterms.'

"And get this," I continue, "It says, 'The trends amount to a spending frenzy conducted largely in the shadows.' Frankly, Gorilla, it is my belief that this is a far too dangerous place for one who has a curriculum vitae such as yours. I do not want your parole officer should be disappointed in you."

"I appreciate your concern," says Gorilla. "Truly I do. But trust me, everything is jake. I am in no danger of reapprehension."

"How can that be?" I respond. "Leave us face it, there is an awful lot of lettuce rolling loose in this fair city and I fear it is far too great a temptation for one as light-fingered as yourself. The Democratic National Committee raised more than $16 million last month even though they are supposed to be losing. The Center for Responsive Politics, an organization filled with honest types who I take to be very much on the level, says big oil and gas have spent more than $17 million on federal elections this year -- so far. News Corp, the people who own Fox News, although they call themselves fair and balanced, has given a million bucks to the Republican Governors Association and another million to the US Chamber of Commerce which freely throws around money on pro-business candidates like a guy who is out of his mind about a doll."

Gorilla gets impatient with me and swats the air with his enormous mitt as if he is sending a fly into the next solar system. "You are not telling me anything I do not know," says he. "But I have found a legal way to benefit from this corporate largesse without threatening my always tentative freedom."

"And that is?" I query.

"Catering," Gorilla says. "All of these high rollers must eat when they are here, and all of these candidates have fundraisers here in the capital at which food is served -- even the ones who say Washington is a place in which they would not be caught dead, unless they are elected. I provide the edibles - pizza, doughnuts, little hot dogs wrapped in dough, fish eggs and sour cream on tiny slivers of toast or half a baby red potato - you name it. Here, taste."

He reaches into a bag and hands me a buttery croissant. With my mouth full, I ask, "And from this you are making a living commensurate with the income once earned from your past nefarious activities?"

"Better," Gorilla says, and pulls a piece of paper from his inside pocket. "Feast your eyes upon this. According to the website known as Politico.com, in just the last two weeks before the House adjourned so its members could go campaigning, more than 400 fundraisers were held in Washington for congressional candidates -- wine and bourbon tastings, beer blasts, barbecues, swanky cocktail parties, dinners and luncheons. Thousands of people, hungry for my finger food and pastries. After all these years, I am making it hand over fist."

"Well, good for you, Gorilla," I conclude, "and I certainly do not begrudge you your industriousness and good fortune, but I do not care what the Supreme Court says about limitless contributions. There has to be a new law so that these corporations cannot buy elections."

"That is a good and noble idea," he agrees, and brushes a trace of baking flour from his neatly tailored, plaid lapel. "But bad for business."

"This is important!" I yell, and then look up at the television above the bar. Fox News is reporting that the Statue of Liberty is green on account of it is a gift from the people of Mars. Protesters are at the scene, demanding the statue's destruction because it was donated by aliens and is much too close to Ground Zero.

I sigh and think maybe I will stay here with Gorilla Bagsley. He makes a very good croissant.


Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.