AUSTIN, Texas -- I laughed until tears ran down my cheeks Sunday morning. There was Karl Rove (a.k.a. "Bush's Brain") on television, chatting with the Sabbath gasbags about how the real champion of campaign finance reform is ... George W. Bush.

This was funny enough, but Rove went on to say solemnly that John McCain has taken money from lobbyists and special-interest groups! Of course, by then I was on the floor.

And then Rove said: "He (McCain) is the only candidate to accept a $2 million contribution. He took $2 million raised for a Senate campaign and transferred it over to his presidential campaign. He benefits from the current sort of insider way that we handle campaign finance laws in America, and he sees nothing wrong with that." By then I was in hysterics. Let's take a look at the record.

George W. Bush has raised the unheard-of sum of $70 million for his presidential campaign. He has collected so much money that he can afford to ignore the caps on campaign spending that accompany federal matching funds.

Those caps are part of the system of public campaign financing for presidential races that was instituted after the Watergate scandals. The system has been undermined since the 1988 campaign by the growth of soft money given in unlimited amounts to political parties, rather than directly to candidates. In a presidential year, most soft money goes into the presidential campaign.

Bush started collecting money a year before he announced, flying big Republican donors into Austin in smallish groups to have lunch at the Governor's Mansion. He has 150 "Pioneers," who are each committed to raising $100,000 for his campaign. That's $15 million right there. Each of these 150 Pioneers has to go out and find 99 other people willing to donate $1,000 each. Where do they find them? Mostly from among their employees, and those contributions are, of course, entirely voluntary.

The Pioneers are CEOs or other top executives of large corporations, name partners in law firms, lobbyists, lobbyists disguised as law firms, and corporate lobbyists usually with some title like "vice president for government relations." And on behalf of the women's movement, you will be proud to learn that a huge number of these entirely voluntary contributions solicited from employees by their bosses are combined with equally voluntary contributions from the wives of said employees. And sometimes from their children and grandchildren, who are all voluntary troopers, too.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in the third quarter of last year (latest figures available), "bundling" increased sharply: The presidential candidates received 38 bundles of contributions of $50,000 or more from executives and families connected with 33 different organizations. All but two came from business groups.

Bush got 25 of those bundles, or 75 percent of the total for the quarter. Al Gore got eight, and Bill Bradley got seven. McCain: zip. Seventy-seven percent of Bush's campaign dollars come from $1,000 donors, 48 percent of McCain's.

The center notes: "Many of the campaigns have played up the notion that most of their donors give small contributions. What they have not emphasized is that, in raw dollar terms, the big donations are vastly more important to the campaigns' bottom lines."

(The center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization; you can follow the money for yourself at According to a recent issue of Newsweek: "Many Washington lobbying groups, whose clients will have large stakes in any Bush administration, have jumped on the bandwagon. The heads of two dozen powerful trade associations -- representing steel, chemical, electric power, oil and other industries -- have been holding regular conference calls about how to help Bush and have been pushing their members to contribute. The campaign has assigned 'tracking code' numbers to these trade-association heads. Staffers call that a bookkeeping device, but the Bush campaign and the lobbyists use the numbers as a kind of scorecard."

Newsweek got an internal memo in which Edison Electric chief Tom Kuhn, a Bush classmate at Yale, reminded power company executives to include the industry's tracking code at the bottom of their checks for a Bush fund-raiser.

"It does insure that our industry is credited, and that your progress is listed among the other business/industry sectors." The magazine went on to report that "various groups have been competing for the biggest war chest."

As for the claim that Bush is actually a campaign-finance reformer, Rove, incredibly, based that whopper on the following contention: "Gov. Bush favors campaign-finance reform of a more extensive nature than Sen. McCain does. Sen. McCain, Al Gore, Bill Clinton and Bill Bradley would limit contributions from corporations and contributions from labor unions to political parties. Gov. Bush supports those two steps, but he would go further. He would require unions to get the permission of their members before spending mandatory union dues on political activity."

In other words, he hates the whole idea and is out to kill any legislation. Requiring permission from union members is the biggest deal-breaker since death. It is completely impossible to pass campaign finance reform with that addendum because that is unilateral disarmament for the unions.

Bush's initial position on campaign finance reform was, characteristically, to say nothing at all. But when he was cornered by reporters last April, he announced that he favors raising the limits on individual contributions -- no indication how high. In Texas, where there are no limits, 50 contributors to Bush's 1998 gubernatorial campaign gave more than $50,000 each.

Bush does favor banning corporate and union soft-money contributions, but he does not favor any limit on individual soft money contributions. Since the bulk of individual soft money contributions come from very rich individuals, this measure would actually aggravate the inequality of influence now corrupting our entire system.

The Bush campaign is also raising money through a "victory fund" with state Republican parties. The average donation was $13,000, and some wealthy families gave between $50,000 and $100,000.

According to The Boston Globe, "The fund takes advantage of an obscure feature of federal law that allows presidential campaigns to raise money in conjunction with state parties. It permits Bush's contributors to make a $25,000 yearly donation for 1999 after they have hit the $1,000 limit on direct gifts to Bush." No other candidate has such a fund.

As for Rove's hilarious accusation that McCain takes rides on corporate jets, try Bush's record. More than three dozens lifts so far, many on jets belonging to companies regulated by the state of Texas. "Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother's eye."

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.