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The Capital’s Oldest Profession

In 1951, journalists Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer wrote Washington Confidential, a dishy guide to D.C. and its denizens. the book sold 2 million copies. Here, a condensed excerpt.

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Illustration by Tony Millionaire  

Lobbying is as old as Magna Charta, which first granted people the right to petition their sovereign. Ever since, those who wanted something have hired someone to speak up for them. Washington is full of these hucksters. They are about the brightest spot on the glum scene. They spend, entertain, throw wild parties with pretty gals as souvenirs, tip lavishly and keep the hotel and liquor industries going. They are the only cream here in a welter of skimmed milk.

Lobbying can be a delightful and well-paid occupation. The mouthpieces of the industrial petitioners are usually charming gentlemen who know how to entertain. Buying an uninstructed Congressman C.O.D. is obsolete. Giving him a high time will do it, and the lobbyist can pocket the money earmarked for bribing and tell his client he passed on the boodle.

Most solons are lonely uprooted rustics. Usually their wives are away, holy frights they are glad to leave back home. These men want to talk and drink with someone. You don’t even have to get them girls, just invite them to a hotel and spend an evening with them. They’ll be so thankful, they’ll do anything you want.

The average lobbyist doesn’t bother with run-of-the-mill Senators and Representatives, who are in the bag without much trouble. He sets his sights on the key characters like committee chairmen and floor leaders, and even they can be snared at little cost, though naturally to corral a chairman means an even heftier bill to the employer. The procedure used in the case of VIPs is simple and cheap. Each lobbyist is on friendly terms with some local hostess, for whom he does favors or to whom he gives gifts. When he has an especially important deal on, he asks her to invite his prospect to a party. During most of the evening he keeps away from the man he wants to meet, until by a fortuitous accident he is placed next to him at the table. Even then the conversation is kept chatty and frothy. A couple of days later, the lobbyist phones his erstwhile table companion and invites him to a rubber of bridge or a game of golf, and from then on he’s on his own.

We would like to introduce you to some of the boys in Washington who can get things done:

First comes to mind an attorney, Charles Patrick Clark. Mr. Clark is a wonder-­worker. When others can’t score, Clark is called in. Even Max Truitt, the Vice President’s son-in-law, had trouble getting [Spanish dictator] Franco’s loan, so Clark hit in the pinch and Congress voted it. It may be a coincidence, but Clark was a counsel for the Senatorial Committee Investigating War Frauds when Harry Truman was its chancellor.

The business is intensively departmentalized. Different lawyers have ins in different branches of the government. Persuasion on the Department of Justice is handled by Lauchlin Currie, a former Truman appointee, through Tommy “The Cork” Corcoran, a Roosevelt favorite.

Treasury Department matters go through Joe Nunan, former Commissioner of Internal Revenue, who does not practice personally before Treasury yet, because the law requires ex-employees to wait two years before they may represent clients in bureaus to which they were attached. But his associates are not so hobbled.

Former Senator Burton K. Wheeler is the man to see if you have any trouble with the Interstate Commerce Commission. Wheeler can have anything he wants in Washington. President Truman passed the word along. It was Wheeler who advised Truman not to resign from the Senate at the time of the Pendergast scandal. Harry has been eternally grateful ever since.

The law firm of Thurman Arnold, Abe Fortas and Paul A. Porter has practically everything for its field. All three are prominent ex–New Dealers. Porter’s contact is with the Federal Communications Commission. Arnold, once a trust-buster, now defends trusts. Fortas, onetime stooge of Harold Ickes, is the boy to see for anything in the Department of the Interior.

Leon Henderson, the social planner who admits he won World War II single-handed, deserves an important place in this chapter. As one of the brain-trust of the “progressive” Americans for Democratic Action, brother Henderson throws the weight of that organization’s supposed voting strength around Washington for the benefit of his private clients. That is, when he is not too busy making a fool of himself with some young blonde on a New York dance floor.


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