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Big money's pitfalls

If the presidential candidates need proof that the corrupting influence of big money can make government ineffective, they can look to scandals all over the world _ or at themselves.

The latest story about the $1-million in secret payments Helmut Kohl admits he accepted while chancellor of Germany ran next to the latest story about the millions of dollars that were sneaked into the election campaign of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

On the next page was the story about the reported involvement of the wife of Beijing's top Communist Party official in a huge smuggling ring in the port city of Fujian. Alongside it was the story of Pavel Borodin, a senior financial adviser to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin who is under investigation in a major Swiss money-laundering case.

Meanwhile, the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates were wrapping up their campaigns in New Hampshire, where the subject of big money's corrupting effect on our own political system was broached only tentatively. Vice President Al Gore takes extravagant umbrage every time former Sen. Bill Bradley brings up Gore's involvement in the fundraising abuses of President Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign. And Texas Gov. George W. Bush and other Republicans ridicule Sen. John McCain's decision to make campaign-finance reform the linchpin of his candidacy.

Gore seems to think it's disloyal for another Democrat to criticize the Clinton-Gore campaign's receipt of hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal contributions from foreign sources _ including those Gore solicited at a Buddhist temple. Bush says the reforms favored by McCain would be bad for the Republican Party; he doesn't say they'd be bad for American democracy.

Most entrenched incumbents of both parties are betting that voters aren't really all that bothered by the corrupting influence of big money _ often difficult to trace _ on our political system. They think campaign-finance reform is an esoteric, insider story that isn't relevant to the lives of voters more concerned with health care, Social Security, education and other issues.

However, the link between official corruption and ineffective government is more obvious when the focus is on other countries. The broadening allegations against Kohl already have begun to cloud the future of the major initiatives with which he was most closely linked, including the political and economic reunification of Germany. The allegations against Barak are compromising his most crucial attribute: his reputation for integrity. If his word cannot be trusted, neither Israelis nor their Arab neighbors are likely to put their faith in him as he negotiates a regional peace. And the corruption scandals in Russia and China are symptomatic of discredited political systems that are resistant to serious post-Communist reforms.

The U.S. presidential candidates who defend the status quo of unlimited soft money and inadequate financial disclosure risk compromising their ability to govern if elected. To see the problem, they need to take a good look at the newspaper. Or in the mirror.