In the end, it doesn’t really matter if it was a bribe, a strong-arm or a good old-fashioned threat. What happened recently to a Michigan congressman was enough to make you give up on politics — if you haven’t already.

Nick Smith, from south-central Michigan, is not a majordomo in Congress. He isn’t a media lightning rod like Tom DeLay or Nancy Pelosi. But he counts. One district, one vote.

And recently, the 69-year-old Smith — who plans to retire next year, and presumably knows something about seniors’ health benefits — wanted to vote against the Medicare bill. He thought it was too expensive.

But Smith is a Republican, and most Republicans wanted this bill to pass, for several reasons — including the boost it would give President George W. Bush for his re-election campaign. The bill also was a boon to the health care industry and U.S business, which have been smiling since Bush took the White House.

On the night of the vote, Nick Smith sat on the floor of the House, deliberating. And there, apparently, something happened. The way Smith first put it was “bribes and special deals were offered to convince members to vote yes.”

Later he softened that to say no member of Congress actually offered money, but some said “they would work against Brad if I voted no.” Brad Smith, a 42-year-old attorney, plans on running for his father’s seat.

Why he wants it, I don’t know.

Victory at any price

“My understanding is that it was industry groups who said there would be substantial support for my campaign if my Dad would change his vote,” Brad Smith told me last week.

“Money,” I said.

“Right.”

“And the threats to ‘bury’ you if your dad voted no?”

“I did hear some members said they wouldn’t support anybody who opposed this bill. . . . There’s nothing illegal about that. But it was too heavy-handed. It was the most intense pressure my father had experienced in 40 years of public service.”

It’s called hardball. It’s not pretty.

But it is the way it works. In the last few days, with the story spreading like a virus, the Smiths have denied initial reports that a $100,000 bribe was offered. They claim no actual member of Congress offered, you know, any actual, greenbacks.

It doesn’t matter. What you read between the lines is this: These officials we elect to represent our interests are so much more concerned with their own power and their own pockets that they will cannibalize a member of their own party if it means they get their way.

And you wonder why Americans are cynical about their government.

The hidden details

Ask yourselves the following: Do you know how campaign financing works? Do you know how the parties distribute money? Do you know how a lobbyist gets to a Congressman? Have you ever read a congressional bill from beginning to end?

Chances are you said no to everything. And that, sadly, is what our politicians are counting on. Most Americans are too busy picking up the kids and getting off to work to spend time looking over the shoulders of their elected officials. What gets buried in the details and the backdoor deals remains just that, buried.

But believe me, the lobbyists know the details. Big Business knows the details. And yes, our Congresspeople know the details. They just keep them quiet and bank on your ignorance.

What made Nick Smith notable was that his story found its way to the public. Here was a rare brave guy who not only voted his conscience, but was willing to say he was politically bullied — out loud, where we can hear it — and of course, the minute he said it, the pressure doubled on him to backtrack.

He should name names. They all should. They won’t. The saddest part of this coercion story isn’t that it came out — it’s that there are so many others that never will.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. He will sign “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” at 7 p.m. Friday at Borders in Birmingham, noon Saturday at Barnes & Noble in Kentwood, and 5 p.m. Saturday at Borders in Brighton.

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