×

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.”

More Voices

  • Hollywood Has Come Far With Diversity

    An Insider's Look at Hollywood's Diversity Efforts and How Far It Still Needs to Go

    I am a white man working in Hollywood. I grew up in Beverlywood, an all-white, predominantly Jewish, Los Angeles neighborhood sandwiched between 20th Century Fox Studios and MGM, where my elementary school had only one black student. I am compelled to write about diversity in Hollywood because “diversity” — in front of and behind the camera [...]

  • Venice Film Festival A Star is

    How Venice, Toronto and Telluride Festivals Stole Cannes' Luster (Column)

    In all the years I’ve been attending film festivals, I have never seen a lineup that looked as good on paper as Venice’s did this fall, boasting new films by Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”), Damien Chazelle (“First Man”), Paul Greengrass (“22 July”), Mike Leigh (“Peterloo”) and the Coen brothers (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) in competition, [...]

  • Black Women in Medicine BTS

    Hollywood Needs to Include People With Disabilities on Both Sides of the Camera (Guest Column)

    In five years, nothing has changed. Despite open calls for greater diversity and inclusion, recent research shows that there was little change in the number of characters with disabilities in popular films in 2017. A study conducted by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that [...]

  • Seven Seconds

    Fighting the Racial Bias at the Core of Hollywood’s Cop Shows (Guest Column)

    If fiction is the lie that tells a deeper truth, the TV crime genre has been, for the most part, the lie that simply tells a lie. As a storyteller (Veena) and an advocate for racial justice (Rashad), we collaborated for the past two-and-a-half years in an attempt to reimagine the roles of cops, victims, [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein Trial

    Column: Documentarian Barry Avrich Ponders Whether Harvey Weinstein Will Be Convicted

    Will Harvey Weinstein go to jail? That’s perhaps the most debated topic in Hollywood. It’s a question that makes me miss my friend Dominick Dunne, the controversial Vanity Fair columnist who would have already succeeded in interview-ing the chambermaids at Harvey’s sex-addiction clinic. Dunne once prophetically told me there would be a massive reckoning in Hollywood. He [...]

  • Janet Mock Pose

    'Pose' Writer Janet Mock on Making History With Trans Storytelling (Guest Column)

    I first met Ryan Murphy on location in Hollywood in July. The set was a nightclub, filled with background actors staged as glistening go-go dancers, shirtless revelers, and twirling drag queens. They were all basking under the glow of a spinning disco ball — a fitting setting for my first Hollywood job interview. I was [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content