Street Talk: Kaiser’s Book Details Decline of the Old Way

Posted March 6, 2009 at 5:45pm

Bob Kaiser’s 27-part Web-only series in the Washington Post last spring on Gerry Cassidy — a fact-laden tome on a single-minded man — was underwhelming.

[IMGCAP(1)]The book that Kaiser has crafted from that series, however, is anything but.

“So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government— is less a screed, as its title suggests, than a solid piece of reporting that gets into the interstices of what lobbyists really do.

Kaiser, who has worked at the Post since 1963, loosely uses the storyline of Cassidy & Associates to track how profoundly Washington, D.C., has changed since the 1960s — in particular the deterioration of personal relationships among Members of Congress, the outsized role of money in politics and its now permanent-standing army of lobbyists.

“In a larger sense, it’s what’s happened to my hometown in the last 35 to 40 years,— Kaiser said in an interview.

Kaiser writes from the premise — which is almost certainly true — that the increasingly fervid money chase has reduced Congress to a comic version of what had been a serious deliberative body.

And lobbyists like Cassidy have ridden that cultural shift all the way to the bank.

Washington hands will find little new in the recitation of what went wrong in the post-Watergate era, although there is a chapter on the history of lobbying — Kaiser calls it an “ancient profession— — that for starters demolishes the myth of the Willard Hotel as its birthplace.

What’s really worth the read, however, are the choice quotes and anecdotes that describe more accurately than any narrative how dramatic the changes have been, and how thoroughly our cynicism has set in.

Take the late Sen. John Stennis, the Mississippi Democrat first elected in 1946 and

who in 1982 was running for his seventh term. Stennis had never raised more than $5,000 for any race, Kaiser writes, but that year he had a formidable opponent, 34-year-old Haley Barbour (R) — the lobbyist and co-founder of BRG, and now Mississippi governor.

For the first time, Stennis needed to raise real cash, $2 million, according to his political consultant Raymond Strother.

It was an unimaginable sum for Stennis, who was born in 1901 and was then the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

“I reminded the old senator,— Kaiser quotes Strother’s memoir, “that … he had spent billions of dollars with the defense industry. What about [Ling-Temco-Vought]? What about McDonnell Douglas’?

“Would that be proper?’— Stennis asked, then answered the question in words that would be unimaginable today: “Sir, I hold life and death over those companies. I don’t think it would be proper for me to take money from them.’—

Sorry, Senator. The world had already changed. The rise of direct-mail expert Richard Viguerie, Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) election to the House in 1978, Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, the rise of political action committee money and the selection of then-Rep. Tony Coelho (Calif.) in 1981 to head the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had all conspired to create a massive political shift.

Kaiser spends half a dozen pages on Coelho; the reader learns, for example, that after college, Coelho moved in with Bob Hope and his family and that it was the comedian who persuaded him to go into politics.

Coelho turned out to be a fundraising machine. He set up the Democrats’ first Speaker’s Club, “unabashedly a replica of the Republican National Committee’s Eagles Club,— Kaiser writes, but at $5,000, only half as costly as the GOP’s version.

Kaiser quotes from a brochure of the era, which promises Speaker’s Club members that “When you come to Washington, you will be assured courteous and direct access to those you wish to meet.—

The two clubs formalized the access process and helped contribute, as Coelho noted, to politics becoming more and more like a business.

Cassidy’s role in all this is really the book’s second story, one that Kaiser explains in roughly alternating chapters. Tying the rise of Cassidy & Associates to the current state of Washington politics might be a bit of a contrivance, but the connections are close enough to work.

And the Cassidy story is not a bad tale (although a far better one if, like several hundred people in town, you’ve met the principal characters) and one that Kaiser spent four years reporting and writing. Kaiser, who is only three years younger than Cassidy, interviewed everyone of importance to the story.

“There was nobody I considered crucial I couldn’t reach,— Kaiser said. “My method here was to be exhaustive, and that was an important reason Gerry decided to talk to me.— The transcription of his Cassidy interviews totals more than 100,000 words, he said.

Still, this would seem to be the hardest type of history to write since almost every player in the firm’s history is still living, most are still lobbying and everyone involved has a stake in the story’s outcome.

“There was a lot of talk among us about who was the biggest suck-up or sycophant,— said one former Cassidy lobbyist who was interviewed by Kaiser. “Everybody was trying to spin him.—

Cassidy & Associates may have lobby revenues north of $20 million today, but the original firm, known as Schlossberg-Cassidy & Associates, started in the basement of 623 South Carolina Ave. SE in 1975.

It was founded by Kenneth Schlossberg and Cassidy, both vintage 1960s liberals and alumni of former Sen. George McGovern’s (D-S.D.) Nutrition and Human Needs Committee.

They were very different men, in temperament and drive — and, perhaps logically, they have different memories of several key events in the firm’s early years.

Their partnership lasted until Oct. 17, 1984. Schlossberg kept the company Jaguar, some artwork and office equipment, and Cassidy paid him a total of $812,600. “They never spoke to each other again,— Kaiser writes.

Before they split up, however, the two invented the modern-day earmark, and the details of how that happened — with Jean Mayer at Tufts University and Fathers William George and T. Byron Collins at Georgetown University — are where Kaiser’s book also shines. There’s great inside material as well on the Seawolf submarine and Taiwan, at one point two of the firm’s most prominent clients. And there’s plenty of material on Cassidy & Associates’ internal dynamics, which have shifted from decade to decade.

Cassidy went on to astonishing financial success for a Washington lobbyist — he sold his firm two times to his staff using an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, then a third and final time to a public relations firm.

Cassidy is not a voluble man, although Kaiser pulls a few bits of self-reflection out of him. And while this is not a psychobiography, Cassidy’s childhood poverty and intense drive to make money have created a type that Kaiser, at times delightfully, does his best to describe.

With increasing wealth, Kaiser writes, “the boss chose to cultivate his status as a big man in the tribe of Washington lobbyists. As the rich often do, he began self-consciously to develop the charisma of a big chief. … He grew a short white beard that gave him the appearance of an archbishop or cardinal in a Renaissance painting.—

As Kaiser explained later: “I do think Cassidy made a really excellent central figure for my book. He’s probably made more money than any other Washington lobbyist — it’s unprovable, but there’s a good chance.

“Here’s a guy with very little charisma or mystique, he’s really hard-working, with a lot of nerve, with the audacity of a good salesman,— Kaiser continued. “His career to me shows that it isn’t smoke and mirrors, nor is it all politics and relationships.

“It’s a work-a-daddy slogging thing, and earmarks are the best example,— Kaiser added. “You do all the paperwork, you stay on top of the process and then the money comes in.—