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McCain, Money and a Movie

Speaking in 2006 before a group of businessmen in Washington D.C., John McCain vowed to pursue reform of the corruptive influence of money and politics. “This fight will go on as long we are alive,” he said, before offering a wry quip comparing the Beltway to the devil.

This snippet is one of the few times that McCain appears in the new documentary, “Mr. Schneider Goes to Washington,” Jonathan Neil Schneider’s look at the choking hold that lobbyist money has on the political process, despite years of efforts at campaign finance reform.

Schneider got a myriad of officials to talk candidly: retired Sen. Ernest Hollings, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), a Federal Election Commission official, public interest lawyers, and even lobbyists.

What he did not get, however, was an interview with McCain, the champion of campaign finance reform.

“I thought for sure this would be something he would be thrilled to be involved with,” says Schneider. Instead, when he inquired with his staff toward the end of 2006, “Each time I just got the cold shoulder. It became increasingly obvious with each call that he wanted no part in this project.”

The reason, he suspects, is that by then McCain was in the early stages of his presidential campaign and, for practical purposes, has tamped down the campaign finance rhetoric.  “Reaching out to donors one week and being critical the next isn’t the best strategy,” Schneider says.

His documentary, which he finished last year, is an effort to make sense of a campaign finance system in which lawmakers complain about having to spend 70% of their time raising money, yet always fall short in their efforts at bringing true change to the system. Schneider calls the system of financing elections the “incumbency protection program,” with those who raise the most money far and away the most likely to win.

The former producer of “America’s Next Top Model” says he was inspired to make the film after watching Hollings, then retiring from the Senate, give a blunt interview to “60 Minutes” in 2004 in which he blasted the influence of money and lobbyists on the process. Anxious to break out of voter apathy, Schneider gave up his career, exhausted his savings and even waited tables to finish the project.

The resulting documentary is a mix of talking heads, point of view narration and Michael Moore-like stunts. For instance, there’s an ambush interview with Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.) when Schneider catches up with him in Las Vegas, where Weller was hosting a $5,000-per-person event. In another scene, he uses Skid Row homeless to re-enact Sen. Mike Crapo’s (R-Ill.) promotional video to entice lobbyists to come to his fund-raising weekend of outdoor fishing. (Crapo wouldn’t allow any of that video’s footage to be used for the doc.)

Schneider does not yet have a distributor, but he has tried to capitalize on the attention from the 2008 presidential race. During the lead up to the Iowa caucuses, he arranged a screening at the University of Iowa, although Joe Biden was the only candidate to show. Lee Iacocca recently gave the pic his endorsement, saying that “Throughout the film I kept asking myself, “Where is our democracy heading?” “Aren’t there any rules anymore?””

Schneider’s biggest trouble was in getting many lawmakers to participate. But he does get candid comments from lobbyists Wright Andrews and AT&T’s Rodney Smith.

“I think [many lobbyists] believe the system is way out of control as well,” Schneider says. “The lobbyists were going to be the big bad guys, and at the end of the day, I think the people who are most accountable are members of Congress. But we are equally responsible for not making government an important part of our life and taking it for granted.”

He’s skeptical any change is coming, even with candidates like Barack Obama declining to take contributions from PACs and registered lobbyists. Internet fund-raising is a “far better way of collecting those funds,” but candidates like Obama still have to rely on bundlers to provide initial cash infusions to launch their campaigns.

This election cycle also has seen McCain secure the nomination despite an under-financed, bare-bones campaign.

Schneider suggests that he’s still the exception to the rule, but says, “If he were in the film, he would be the hero of this thing.”

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