AUSTIN, Texas -- We could be watching one of those rare etymological events ("etymology": the history of a particular word, the study of historical linguistic change), as the meaning of a word changes before our eyes. Sort of like watching a species evolve or a tectonic plate move in real time.

We now have a politics that is about money, of money, by money and for money. How long can it be before the word "politics" comes to mean money?

A perfectly charming example, reported by Tim Golden in The New York Times, involves the Clinton administration's sudden shift of policy on buying helicopters to use in the drug war in Colombia. Since 1996, the administration has taken the position that a rebuilt version of the Huey, the old Vietnam workhorse, would do nicely.

According to Golden, a group of powerful congressional Republicans have "almost an obsession" about sending the fancier Blackhawk helicopter, which costs five times as much -- $1.8 million for a Huey II, $12.8 million for a Blackhawk. So for four years they've been fighting over this, with the political implication that anyone who's against spending more money is "soft on drugs."

Now the White House has changed its position and is prepared to buy 30 of the Blackhawk choppers at a cost of almost $400 million. Knowing our politics as you do, naturally your first question is: How much have the makers of the Huey been contributing lately, and how much have the makers of the Blackhawk? Thank you for that question.

The Huey II is made by Bell Helicopter of Fort Worth, a subsidiary of Textron. The Blackhawk is made by United Technologies Corp. of Connecticut, and -- bingo -- United Technologies has been making big-time political contributions.

Golden's story says that, according to the Campaign Study Group, in the 1996 and 1998 election cycle, Textron (the loser) gave $551,816 to Republicans and $364,000 to Democrats. However, Golden reported, United Technologies and its employees (the winner), as befits a generous and public-spirited corporate citizen, gave not only $362,000 to Republicans and $347,000 to Democrats, but also twice as much as Textron to the Democrats in soft money.

So now we know which company makes the better chopper.

You will be further amazed to learn that some Republicans have now switched sides and joined liberal Democrats in urging the administration to stick with the cheaper Hueys. ("White House officials denied that politics influenced their decision," blah, blah, blah.)

Republican Rep. Cass Ballenger of North Carolina, a Huey man, said wryly to the Times that even if the United States buys a handful of Blackhawks and dozens of the rebuilt Hueys, "you'd still have $100 million or $200 million left over to buy Democrats or Republicans or whatever you still needed" to buy approval of the plan.

Many military observers are certain that the "narco-traficantes" will simply up their own firepower by buying surface-to-air missiles to shoot down the Blackhawks. Excuse me, but as the hideous unpleasantness in Mogadishu in 1993 proved, you can shoot down a Blackhawk with a rocket-propelled grenade -- and practically any group of loons can afford RPGs, much less bad guys rolling in drug money.

In further money-politics festivities, we note the Bush campaign's timely illustration of just what a "sham issue ad" is. Those of us who believe that campaign finance reform is the only way to get politics back for the people sometimes despair when it comes to explaining some of the technical terms involved -- soft money, PACS, "AstroTurf," bundling, independent expenditure, etc.

And then into our laps falls Sam Wyly, a Dallas billionaire, spending $2.5 million for a television ad full of grossly distorted claims. Of course the Bush campaign had no knowledge of Wyly's ad. Came as a complete surprise to them.

Not since the happy events of '96, when the R's and the D's both took contributions from Asian businessmen, have we seen such a splendid demonstration of what the problem is. Said George W., "That's what free speech is all about." So you just take $2.5 million out of your billions and go run your own ad.

However, just to prove that not everything in politics is about money, here's an example of imagination, dash and verve by the Bush campaign. Thirty years of covering politics, and this is first politician I ever heard accuse his opponent of being "soft on breast cancer." There's a first.

Turns out John McCain has voted 10 times to increase funding for breast cancer research (his sister had it). But he also voted against a package of pork-barrel spending (meaning that it was never debated or voted on by either house but was inserted into a spending bill by powerful legislators in conference committee) that contained money for two breast cancer research projects. Hence, "voted against breast cancer research." You have to admit, it's new.

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.