Lobbyists who watched the State of the Union address “dealt with…jabs at their profession,” The Hill reports, and they felt President Obama’s address reinforced “an unfair and counterproductive stereotype” about how evil they are.
Lobbyists are professional liars (or at least a lot of them are; some of my best friends are lobbyists and they are not) and so the lobbyists cited in the story were surely joking. For example, one jab from Obama was that lobbyists had “rigged” the tax code “at the behest of corporations.” Yes, that surely is a BIG LIE. (Note: Like lobbyists, Obama is a liar too; in his address he attacked lobbyists but he loves to take campaign money from them.)
The Hill story said the “influence industry [is] used to getting blamed for Washington’s dysfunction.” There is a good reason for that: it is in large part to blame for Washington’s dysfunction.
And no one is, or was, more symptomatic or responsible for this pathetic state of dysfunction than Thomas Hale Boggs Jr., who died last September. Boggs, who in DC was universally known as “Tommy,” was barely known beyond the Beltway so it’s likely that most Americans had never heard his name. But here in the capital his passing was treated as a national tragedy and triggered a period of intense public mourning. [Note to readers: I originally wrote this story last fall for Racket, which no longer exists. Boggs has been dead for a while so it would have been better to run back then, but his legacy is alive and well.]
He was “a passionate advocate for American workers and middle-class families,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said of Boggs. Her counterpart in the upper chamber, Harry Reid, called him an “institution” and then-Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, where Boggs was born, said his death “leaves emptiness in our hearts.”
The DC media was no less reverential. Politico said he was part of the “political aristocracy” and a man of “unparalleled reputation.” The Washington Post’s obituary described him as a man known for his “gregarious charisma” and “deep-rooted connections to American political life,” and a follow-up piece reported that his friends were paying their respects by stopping by The Palm, “the venerable steakhouse” where a table he customarily occupied was “draped in a black tablecloth.”
So who was this champion of the common people and man of such unimpeachable integrity? The head of a charitable organization? A philanthropist? An advocate for the poor?
No, Boggs was a richly-paid lobbyist who ran his firm like a brothel, once saying, “We pick our clients by taking the first one who comes in the door.” With that as his guiding principle, Boggs and his firm compiled a client list that included America’s biggest, most criminally minded corporations and the world’s worst dictators.
For anyone with a moral compass, merely being an associate of Boggs would constitute a dark secret, akin to being related to Charles Manson or not recycling. But he was revered in official Washington and became one of the city’s most powerful people despite having spent virtually no time in government. Boggs briefly served in the LBJ administration, helping organize President Johnson’s antipoverty tour of Appalachia in 1964, but resigned after fifteen months because he didn’t like living on a government salary. Nor did he ever hold elective office. The one time he sought public approval, in a 1970 run for a House seat, Maryland voters overwhelmingly rejected him.
But he thrived at influence peddling and for years his firm, Patton Boggs, took in more money than any lobby shop in town. Boggs’s original source of success was access he gained through bloodlines – his father was a former Democratic majority leader in the House and his mother served nine terms in Congress – and over the years he increased his influence by shoveling a generous slice of his lobbying profits to politicians who could help his clients. Between 1989 and this year he and his firm’s staff and PAC made more than $10 million in political donations. The five biggest recipients were, in order, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Kerry, Mitt Romney and George W. Bush.
All this made Boggs a fixture in DC’s top circles and he lived a life surrounded by fellow members of the country’s disconnected and unaccountable political elite. In that sense, the Palm, which Boggs co-owned at one time, was a fitting place for his unofficial wake. It caters almost exclusively to corporate executives, lobbyists and politicians because no one else can afford to eat there. (The menu includes a $72 filet mignon topped with crabmeat and Hollandaise Sauce, which may explain Boggs’s fatal heart attack.)
Boggs was a Democrat but Patton Boggs, like all big Washington lobbying firms, hired from both sides of the aisle and its past and current staff reads like an Encyclopedia of Contemporary Sociopaths and Miscreants. On the Democratic side there were Lanny Davis (a former special counsel to President Bill Clinton who later went on to represent Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, Africa’s longest reigning dictator, and coup plotters in Honduras who overthrew an elected president); former Louisiana senator John Breaux (“My vote cannot be bought but it can be rented,” he remarked while serving in Congress), and former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown (another uber-sleaze who was sanctified by the national press corps after his death, in a 1996 plane crash, and who while at Patton Boggs headed up the account for Baby Doc Duvalier of Haiti).
On the GOP side Patton Boggs lobbyists have included Ben Ginsberg (who as national counsel to the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign helped engineer the theft of the 2000 election through his central role in the Florida recount); Stephen Sharp (who with backing from the Reverend Jerry Falwell had been appointed by President Reagan to the Federal Communications Commission and who left Patton Boggs after being arrested on charges of oral sodomy and aggravated sexual battery in a case involving three young boys); and Trent Lott (the former Mississippi Senator who like Boggs is beloved in official Washington but possibly best remembered by his African-American constituents for regularly addressing the white-supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens, once telling its members they stood “for the right principles and the right philosophy.”)
Boggs’s specialty was helping clients exploit the deregulatory fervor that blossomed during the Reagan era and has flourished ever since. In 1996, he won tens of millions of dollars for MCI in a huge telecommunications bill and continued to lobby for the firm after its merger with WorldCom two years later. His contract ended in 2006, after MCI WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers was sentenced to 25 years in prison as a result of the company’s fraudulent financial reporting, which led to more than $100 million in investor losses.
Boggs also lobbied for the American Bankers Association, on whose behalf he helped repeal the Glass-Steagall Act, the Great Depression era law that separated commercial and investment banking. Killing Glass-Steagall led slowly but surely to the 2008 economic meltdown and helped swell the incredible political power of Wall Street.
Boggs was no more selective on the foreign front. His firm’s clients included General Romeo Lucas García, who held power in Guatemala for four years in the early 1980s and killed an average of about 200 people every day. “He obliterated the urban political opposition with a policy of selective assassination” and “sought to wipe out the rural base of the country’s leftist guerrilla organizations by slaughtering the mainly indigenous Mayan peasantry,” was how the Guardian once summed things up.
Boggs’s chief aim as lobbyist was to restore military aid to the Lucas government, which had been cut off by a few squeamish members of congress. A 1992 account in Spy magazine recounted a meeting between the lobbyist and a congressional staffer who wasn’t swallowing Boggs’s storyline about the Lucas regime’s noble intentions. “These guys are murderers and thugs,” the staffer told Boggs.
“What would convince you that they’re moving in the right direction?” Boggs asked.
“I’d be impressed if they undertook a land reform program,” the staffer replied.
“You want a land reform program?” Boggs asked eagerly. “I can have a land reform program on your desk this afternoon.”
Boggs’ firm’s old client Baby Doc died just a few weeks after he did, and his Washington Post obituary was quite a bit more straightforward about his personal shortcomings. He presided over “widespread killing, torture and plunder” and when tens of thousands of desperate Haitian “boat people” fled for the U.S., Duvalier’s response “was to demand kickbacks from their unscrupulous human smugglers,” the Post wrote.
The obituary noted that Baby Doc courted the United States “with promises of human-rights reforms and a business-friendly economic policy,” though it of course didn’t mention the role that Patton Boggs and the dictator’s other PR hacks played in packaging his message and helping keep him in power. As Ron Brown once wrote in a letter to “Monsieur le President,” he was aiming to “substantially increase American aid” to the regime and he blamed the international media for Baby Doc’s “unfair image.”
Any remotely honest obituary of Boggs would have prominently noted that he was the original Washington bottom-feeder, that he made the rich richer and the poor poorer, and that he did it by lobbying for the worst people in the world.
Patton Boggs recently merged with another lobbying firm and is now called Squire Patton Boggs. It still represents bad clients and is still one of the most powerful lobbying firms in town.
I was just finishing up this story and found this on the firm’s website: “Squire Patton Boggs has lost its beloved Chairman Emeritus Thomas Hale Boggs, Jr. This is a very sad time for our firm, for the Boggs family and for all who were privileged to know and to work with him.”
I am sure it is sad for his family and for the firm, but no one else should be sad.
And that is the sort of obituary you can count on from me down the road.
Photo: Jeffrey MacMillan/The Washington Post/Getty