Gary Ruskin’s Christmas Present


WASHINGTON—There is nothing mirthful, festive, or jolly about Office 3A at 1611 Connecticut Avenue NW. Except, perhaps, the man who has occupied the corner desk there for the past six and a half years. ¶ Not that one should conclude, based on his grin this December afternoon, that he’s always happy. Quite the contrary. In his capacity as director of the Congressional Accountability Project and, more recently, Commercial Alert—one-man operations under the aegis of Ralph Nader—Gary Ruskin generally exits the office each evening on the grim side, fully ready to exorcise the demons of the day at the local Y. But he usually enters the office feeling good, since he is undeniably on the side of the angels. As CAP director, he attempts to force those who sit on the Senate and House ethics committees to hold their more egregious colleagues accountable for corruption, graft, influence peddling, and abuse of power. As Commercial Alert’s director, he is rather like an everyman Don Quixote charging at thegiant windmills of mendacious rapacity that are corporate marketing and advertising.

Not a popular man on the Hill because of his quaint notion that the public has a right to hold its servants accountable even when they’re not up for reelection, he goes through the average day enduring setback after setback with wry grace. Even though most of his efforts to see formal charges brought against members of Congress fail (in part because Newt Gingrich—with an eye toward Ruskin—made it virtually impossible for the average citizen to file a complaint against a House member), he is beloved by reporters, for whom he does a great deal of heavy lifting and who make sure that the fruits of his dogged research are not wasted by making them the basis for their stories. (The reporters, at least, will act on what Ruskin has done, and their calls will be returned.)

But for a legislator to take either swift or proactive action based on something that has emanated from Ruskin’s office is virtually unheard of. While Ruskin can claim credit for successfully nailing now-deposed Speaker/adulterer Gingrich on House Rules violations, that his punishment amounted to a slap on the wrist gave it the feel of a Pyrrhic victory. And while an influence-peddling investigation of Representative Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania is under way thanks to Ruskin, that “it’s been over three years since I filed the complaint and there’s still not even an interim report” is hardly inspiring.

But as Ruskin sits in his gray swivel chair surrounded by a wonky Manhattan of books and papers (the whole office isn’t even his—half of it is occupied by author Jonathan Rowe), he is practically beaming. “For the first time in six years,” he exclaims, “someone has actually committed to doing something just weeks after I wrote them!”

That this would come based on his actions as director of Commercial Alert, not CAP, hardly disappoints him. Nor does it disappoint right-wing luminaries such as James Dobson and Donald Wildmon—allies of the definitely nonpartisan but assuredly left-wing Ruskin, now a linchpin in a coalition of progressives and Christian conservatives who agree on at least one thing: that laissez-faire corporate America needs to be reined in as its denizens find, by turns, ever more insidious ways to peddle their wares, especially by targeting the young. (Example: the inspirational-to-the-Fortune 500-set works of Texas A&M professor James U. McNeal, who encourages Madison Avenue to look at children merely as what Ruskin calls “economic resources to be mined.”) That the coalition’s target in this case is a segment of the powerful gambling industry isn’t startling. That their apparent congressional ally is a wily presidential candidate who’s taken quite a bit of money from the gambling industry, however, has come as a pleasant surprise.

On December 14, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee—who just happens to be GOP presidential contender John McCain—fired a shot across the bow of International Game Technology honcho Charles Mathewson over what have come to be known as “slots for tots”—machines that feature familiar childhood icons like characters from Spiderman, The Pink Panther, Candy Land, The Addams Family, and South Park, among others. Having just received a letter from “a wide range of educators, religious leaders, and consumers groups” expressing concern about the potential of such machines to hook kids on gambling, McCain urged Mathewson to “reconsider your company’s decision to produce electronic gaming devices such as slot machines, video poker games, and video keno games with child-based themes.” Reminding the gambling magnate that the National Gambling Impact Study Commission recently concluded that “[A]dolescent gamblers are more likely than adults to become problem or pathological gamblers,” and that the National Research Council estimates over one million teenagers already have gambling problems, McCain added that “the problem of child-themed electronic gambling devices is exacerbated by their prevalence throughout communities that allow their use.”

Though pleased that Nevada gaming authorities seem inclined to keep the machines off that state’s casino floors, McCain added that “I remain very concerned about children in other states,” since almost 100,000 machines of this ilk can be found beyond Nevada’s borders. “Considering the risk that these machines might entice young children to develop gambling habits,” McCain wrote, “I seriously question the benefit of using themes obviously attractive to children.” His proposed solution: Drop the kid-oriented themes immediately.

Predictably, the American Gaming Association isn’t happy with this turn of events. Last week, AGA chief (and longtime Republican power broker) Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. depicted the “slots for tots” situation as much ado about nothing. At a tourism conference on December 14, however, he sounded positively besieged, saying it was an example of how “the enemies of gaming have been firing missiles at us.” Indeed, last week he characterized the coalition’s letter as “a Scud” launched by the preachy religious right.

“That letter to Congress was clearly written by Ron Reno, who works for James Dobson—this is just another case of Dobson and those guys taking shots,” Fahrenkopf said. (While Reno contributed a thought or two, it was, in fact, Ruskin who wrote the letter.) “The industry does not design slots to appeal to children. The South Park machine has only been displayed at a trade show. And casino owners suffer such severe consequences if underage kids are gambling.” And, he adds, “I have a hard time believing that a child who looks up at a slot machine and sees The Addams Family is suddenly going to be addicted to gambling. One of the machines is I Dream of Jeannie—ask kids today and they have no idea what that was.” Clearly, says Fahrenkopf, the intent is to appeal to baby-boomer nostalgia.

While this may be true, say critics, the fact remains that the hallmark of popular culture is recyclability; venerable characters (like The Addams Family) are resurrected on the big screen and marketed to a new generation. And the issue isn’t so much the presence of the machines in casinos but in public places. Intriguingly (or perhaps not) the supreme court of South Carolina—a state which has a key primary that John McCain fervently hopes to win—recently issued a decision purging video poker machines from the state’s public places. (The ruling nixed the need for a public referendum, which advance polls indicated would be overwhelmingly anti-gambling.) “It may be that he thinks this will play well in South Carolina, given the justifiable uproar about video poker there, and obviously, Senator McCain is trying to make inroads with Christian conservatives, and a number of powerful ones signed this letter,” says Ruskin. “But I think that what’s most compelling to him is that this is not just Christian conservatives but is a broad coalition. That McCain has taken a fair amount of money from the gambling industry [including from IGT] and has turned around and done this is really to his credit, and to me, it shows a remarkable amount of backbone.”

Whether hearings will be held next year is unclear, but that McCain has asked the Federal Trade Commission for investigative assistance indicates he’s serious about examining the issue in detail. “For me,” says Ruskin, “his letters to IGT and the FTC were a nice Christmas present.”