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Reg Henry: Money talks, but for some it's a mute point

My wallet has been acting up. Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed in a recent ruling that money is a form of free speech vital to democracy, my greenbacks want to get out and buy the best politicians they can. Without, of course, any hint of corruption.

I told my bills to rest easy and not get their hopes up: "Hey, stop your complaining in there. Chief Justice John Roberts and his pals didn't have the likes of you in mind. Do I look like a high roller? Can't you tell by the fabric of my pants that you are in the pocket of a simple toiler?"

The single dollars weren't happy to hear this but they know that they are the bottom of the money pyramid, the one on the other side of George Washington with the elevated eye looking to see if they remain humble.

Not surprisingly, the fivers were more restive and the Hamiltons were plainly irritated. As for the Jacksons, they were outright feisty, as befits their namesake. Fortunately for me, my wallet didn't have many $20 bills and no Grants or Franklins to back them up.

Money talks, but in a pocket like mine -- and maybe yours -- the bucks are not in sufficient strength to do anything but mumble. Their part in democracy is limited to buying a cup of coffee after a visit to the polls.

Poor money! Now the Supreme Court has gotten its hopes up.

While I try to limit how much I talk to my money -- it looks bad in public and, anyway, the dough I have in my wallet is rarely big enough to constitute a crowd -- I felt obliged to tell the moolah that it should look on the bright side: This is America and any single dollar could end up in the pants of one of the Koch Brothers or in the wallet of George Soros, there to make free speech and democracy more rewarding for the bottomless pockets community.

In the recent ruling, the sequel to the infamous Citizens United case -- this time I think called Citizens Go Pound Salt Until You Are Rich -- both flesh-and-blood people and their modest funds must admire the courage of Chief Justice Roberts. He knew there would be grumbling, but he pressed on in his opinion, explaining that Congress "may not regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics, or to restrict the political participation of some to enhance the relative influence of others."

Oh, no, it may not. "Many people might find those latter objectives attractive: They would be delighted to see fewer television commercials touting a candidate's accomplishments or disparaging an opponent's character," he wrote. Oh, yes, they would, but that would spoil the fun of having tons of money.

As Chief Justice Roberts pointed out, while money in politics "may at times seem repugnant to some ... so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects. If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades -- despite the profound offense such spectacles cause -- it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition."

Well, that should give us all pause. Apparently to object to papering money all over the political system with a view to buying power and influence puts populists in the position of tolerating a special break for flag burners, funeral desecrators and Nazis.

Is the chief justice really sure about this? It seems to me that the jerks who burn flags, wear swastikas and harass funerals usually speak for themselves, achieve nothing and impress nobody except by way of providing proof of their own jerkdom. As irritating as they are, the only corruption they do is to their own souls.

Those who try to buy elections on behalf of politicians they expect to speak for them often do impress a lot of voters. The damage done is to democracy itself. Little Nellie and Her Dog can see the danger, but the learned majority on the court cannot.

Money itself could not buy such naivete. In overturning the aggregate limits on campaign financing, Chief Justice Roberts acts like a judicial Mr. Magoo. If it's not actually quid pro quo corruption, almost actual bribery, he and his pals can't see it. The Tooth Fairy will make it right and Santa Claus will come down the chimney with the election results.

That's my two cents worth of political speech, and even my wallet knows it won't make a dime's worth of difference.

Reg Henry is deputy editorial-page editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Email, rhenry@post-gazette.com.



By REG HENRY