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The Stench of the Potomac

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It was during the Clinton–Rubin–Greenspan–Lawrence Summers deregulatory spree of the nineties that the innovation of bipartisan lobbying shops also took off in earnest, obliterating any remaining distinctions between the financial interests and imperatives of the two parties. Before then, most Washington lobbying firms were affiliated with either one camp or the other—and suffered at the bottom line when their teams cycled out of power. So why not diversify the partnership pool as a hedge against defeat? What you’ll never hear on Morning Joe, with its incessant “Why can’t we all just get along?” bromides, is what Leibovich says in his opening pages—“that the city, far from being hopelessly divided, is in fact hopelessly interconnected.” It’s the friendly interconnectedness of special interests at the top more than the combative ideological divisions in the trenches below that makes the situation so hopeless. Two of the top three political-action-committee donors to Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell are the same: Comcast and AT&T, one of our government’s esteemed partners in domestic surveillance. The former Republican Senate leader Trent Lott and the former Democratic House leader Dick Gephardt are similarly united in lobbying for GE, best known of late for its remarkable record of ducking U.S. corporate taxes.

Though there were earlier examples, the concept of a bipartisan lobbying and public-relations behemoth ramped up big-time with the formation of Quinn Gillespie & Associates in January 2000, at the start of the final year of the Clinton presidency. Quinn is Jack Quinn, who had been Clinton’s White House counsel, chief of staff to Al Gore, and before that a Eugene McCarthy–George McGovern Democrat. The Gillespie is Ed Gillespie, a principal drafter of Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America and a former aide to Dick Armey, the House majority leader famous most recently for walking away with $8 million in severance from the ostensibly populist tea-party organization he ran, FreedomWorks. Fittingly enough, Quinn and Gillespie first met in a greenroom at Fox. The theory of their new firm was simple: Governments may come and go, but we’ll score no matter what. As Quinn said in 2004: “We never lost a wink of sleep hypothesizing what the effect of the election outcome might be on the firm. We have a great group of Republicans and a fantastic group of Democrats.”

The third founder of Quinn Gillespie was Jeff Connaughton, who had discovered, as he says, that “the rest of the country may be divided into red and blue, but D.C. is green.” As an undergraduate at the University of Alabama, he was first inspired to enter politics when he heard Joe Biden deliver a rousing speech on campus in 1979. He would later work on Biden’s ill-fated first presidential campaign, in 1988, and serve as a special assistant to Biden when he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee. After a stint as a lawyer in the Clinton White House, Connaughton went into private practice. When the Lewinsky scandal hit and Quinn, a tireless on-camera Clinton defender in the impeachment year, couldn’t field all his television invitations, he sometimes sent Connaughton in his stead. Both quickly realized that impeachment was a boon to business. “My higher profile was enhancing my value,” Connaughton writes in The Payoff. Quinn’s role in a later Clinton scandal was another bonus. He secured a last-minute presidential pardon for his client Marc Rich, a fugitive whose ex-wife, Denise, had donated $400,000 to the Clinton Presidential Library. There was a firestorm, and Quinn ended up in the Club’s doghouse for a while. But not that long a while. As Leibovich writes, Gillespie correctly predicted that the stigma would fade rapidly and that “after a few months all anyone would remember about Jack Quinn’s little scandal was that he ‘got something big done.’ And it would be good for business.”

The publication of This Town set off a lot of hyperventilating in Washington about the blowback sure to follow. A reviewer at the Times predicted that Leibovich “will never be able to have lunch in This Town again.” A writer at Politico claimed that “not since Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers” had “a book so riled a city’s upper echelons.” George Stephanopoulos promoted This Town on his Sunday show as “the tell-all that has official Washington scrambling.” In reality, not so much. The Club has embraced the book and its author, and both the Post and Politico gave it more in-depth coverage in the weeks surrounding its publication than, say, the civil war in Syria. In his publicity rounds, Leibovich has named only one person who has complained about the book: Lanny Davis, the impeachment-era Clinton counselor turned flack for human-rights-abusing West African dictators; Davis’s beef is that Leibovich didn’t mention him at all. It just goes to prove Gillespie’s point that as long as your name is out there in a Washington tsunami, you can monetize it in the end. The sleazebags populating This Town, however much lampooned in its pages, will ultimately be rewarded because they “got something big done,” whatever it was and however unsavory.


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