Sneaky pols don't give voters credit

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Over the telephone from Washington, Lisa Wright attempted to stifle a groan. Here we go again, the groan said. Another reporter wanting to know about Patrick Buchanan's man, Larry Pratt, and his connection to Lisa Wright's man, U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, and whether there was anything to this business about bigotry and right-wing militia ties and, for what it's worth, campaign contributions.

Bigotry? No way, said Wright. Militia ties? No way, said Wright. As the designated mouthpiece for the Western Maryland congressman, she should know. This isn't about racism or militias, she said. It's only about guns. And, not to put too fine a point on it, maybe it was about money, too. Campaign money that Bartlett had no intention of returning, declared Wright. Until a few hours later, when the Bartlett people decided, things being how they are, they'd better return every cent of the money and hope this trouble blows over.

Bartlett, being a politician, needs money to survive. Sometimes politicians are a little careless about noticing where such money comes from. Two years ago, it turns out, about $6,700 of Bartlett's campaign money came from Larry Pratt's group, Gun Owners of America.

Remember Pratt? Three months ago, when Pat Buchanan was running for president, the Larry Pratt white-supremacist ties were a cardiac blow to Buchanan's doomed White House hopes, and for a simple reason: They seemed a reflection of Buchanan himself.

There are politicians with the sneaky habit of running various remarks up the rhetorical flagpole and waiting to see who salutes. If, instead of saluting, there are cries of revulsion, the politicians tend to back off and claim they were misunderstood.

Thus, Buchanan declaring: "Why are we more shocked when a dozen people are killed in Vilnius than a massacre in Burundi? Because they are white people. That's who we are. That's where America comes from" -- and then feigning shock when blacks were infuriated -- or Buchanan declaring that American kids with non-Jewish names went to war in the Persian Gulf only because of Israel's "amen corner" in Washington -- and then feigning shock when Jews were outraged.

Thus, similarly, Roscoe Bartlett a few years ago, getting into trouble with Asian-Americans when he complained that many scholarship winners didn't have "normal" names, and getting into trouble with feminists he labeled "femi-Nazis" -- and then backed off both times and claimed he'd been misunderstood.

That's what happened last week, too, when the business about Bartlett's ties to Larry Pratt surfaced. Pratt was co-chair of Buchanan's presidential campaign until allegations by the Center for Public Integrity that he had "a track record of working with leaders of the Aryan Nation, a white supremacist organization that organizes neo-Nazi skinheads and leaders of the militia movement."

Pratt is also founder and executive director of the Gun Owners of America, a group that makes the National Rifle Association look moderate by comparison. It's been reported that, after the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995, Pratt attended a meeting of militia supporters in Missouri.

So now, as Roscoe Bartlett runs for re-election, he has an opponent named Steve Crawford who has his folks do a little digging. What they come up with is $6,726 sent to Bartlett's campaign two years ago by Pratt's Gun Owners of America.

"I think it's fair to ask Bartlett to explain campaign contributions from a group led by an individual who was fired from the Buchanan campaign for his ties to militia and anti-Semitic groups," Crawford campaign manager Alec Kohut said last week.

Thus we come back to Bartlett spokeswoman Lisa Wright. Last Thursday morning, she was saying, "Why that money should be an issue now is a mystery. Gun Owners of America lobbies for 2nd Amendment rights, that's our only connection to them."

In fact, there's another. Bartlett publicly endorsed a book, "Safeguarding America," written by Pratt and published by Gun Owners of America, which Wright said explained "why the Founding Fathers were such avid supporters of militias."

But, what of the allegations concerning Pratt and white supremacists, of modern "radical" militia groups, and of Bartlett's possible sympathies to such thinking?

"Very disturbing," said Wright, "that anyone would think such a thing. [Bartlett] rejects absolutely the philosophy, the attitudes and actions of any white supremacist group."

Furthermore, she said last Thursday, there was no way her candidate would be returning the $6,726 received from the Pratt people. And that stance lasted for about four more hours, until Bartlett declared: "I don't want my positions to be misunderstood in any way. So, as of today, I have gone through records of this and my previous campaigns and have instantly returned any of these contributions."

Putting aside the word "instantly," there are lessons here: about political figures who say controversial things, and who hold hands under the table, and then imagine that, when such things are pointed out in public, voters will be too dumb to find anything disturbing about it.

Pub Date: 5/18/96

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