Corruptions, A Novel of Washington

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Chapter 19

“Weenies,” I said again. “Goobers. Doinks. Losers.”

Alexis laughed, that light, airy, honest laugh that I was starting to think of as her signature. It wasn’t a common laugh in Washington; most of us spent so many years in the business, laughing because we were supposed to, laughing at every lame-o attempt at humor by our targets of opportunity, that we’d forgotten what it was to laugh, to relax with people such that we’d hear what they were actually saying rather than filter it through the various things we hoped they would or wouldn’t say while silently considering our options for how to react.

“They don’t seem to be weenies to me,” she said. “They seem to be entirely honest and focused. They have a goal, and they’re pursuing it.”

“But they’re pursuing it like losers,” I replied. “Look, I don’t have anything against the human rights types, and I’m a big fan of democracy. But they’re stupid the way they go about it.”

“Why, because they don’t take staffers and Members to fancy restaurants?” She was laughing at me again, this time a little more determinedly.

“No, it’s not the money, it’s what they ask people to do.” I smiled at her, but I was serious. “Sure, nobody wants their wheatgrass sandwiches, but they can live with that because you’ve got us to feed you.”

“Ouch.” She laughed again. She’d insisted that she pay for this lunch, claiming it was more to thank me for helping her find the job than because of her ethics concerns, but I’d hit a nerve: maybe she’d had a few of those sandwiches I was talking about.

“Look,” I laughed, “I’m not talking about their operating style, I’m talking about the substance of what they do. They do the job badly; they’re all one-trick ponies.”

“They’re committed,” Alexis responded. She leaned in, waving a forkful of chicken cordon bleu at me. She’d obviously been talked to a lot, which made sense – she was recognizable from her HFAC days, so most of them could act like they knew her; she was approachable, which many Foreign Ops staffers just plain aren’t; and she wanted to learn the business. But she was also playing this pretty passionately, arguing their side with some vigor. It seemed to be a test, to see if I was just making fun of them for the hell of it, or if I was serious.

“Listen,” I said, “it’s comes down to something that’s very simple: they live in a world of black and white, while the real world is almost all grays. They act as if human rights exist outside of balances of power, of power politics, of the uncertain political and geographic struggles in the world we all live in. Except for the Human Rights First, there’s none of them that’s worth a shit.”

Human Rights First, née the Lawyers’ Committee on Human Rights, traditionally focused first and foremost on the rule of law – freedom of the courts from government interference.

“What, you want them to lobby for police states every once in a while?”

“No, I’m not stupid either. But I want them to recognize reality.” I glanced around us, but didn’t see anyone I knew. I leaned in this time and, speaking more quietly, said, “Take Koliba.”

She looked up from her lunch, and responded before I could continue. “No, you take Koliba. I thought we weren’t going to talk about him.”

“We’re not; but that’s what I mean. All my Democratic Hill friends, or at least the liberal ones, want me to pretend I don’t work for the guy, because it makes them feel better about being seen with me.” I paused while I took a sip of wine, and considered. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go down this road, the fact that there were more and more people who insisted on ignoring the Koliba part of my life. As someone who’d always been the good guy, it just wasn’t a role that I was comfortable with.

I took a breath before continuing. “Look, what’s the sensible thing to do with Koliba? What should the U.S. Government do?”

“Cut him off. Prohibit all aid, and impose economic sanctions. The man is a killer.”

“Thank you for your support,” I said, laughing lightly. I raised my glass in a mock toast, and smiled again. It was the answer I’d expected. “But what about the listening post?”

“What listening post?”

I glanced at my wine glass, and then at the bottle, which was a little lower than I’d thought but not terribly so. How much wine had I had? “The U.S. has a secret listening post there; probably covers most of Central Africa. Why do you think we even argue about this guy? It’s classified, but it’s pretty widely known.” Not that widely known, not Washington Post widely known at least. But several of the more senior Foreign Ops Subcommittee staffers that I’d talked to knew, which meant it was definitely out there. “That’s why the U.S. cares, and why – at DOD’s urging – Koliba got himself a lobbyist when he became President.”

“Jesus, why the hell would they put a listening post there? The guy’s a loon.”

“Could you keep it down just a little?” I looked around again, reconfirming that there was no one nearby who I knew or who appeared to be listening. My voice still low, I said, “I’m not supposed to know this, and neither are you. Like I said, it’s classified.”

She pursed her lips, and looked into her wine glass. Watching her nervously, I took another gulp from mine. No wonder I’m so far ahead of her, I thought.

“It’s a hazard of living and working in Washington,” I continued. “Everybody knows a little something classified. Mostly it’s the unimportant stuff, but even the unimportant stuff can upset State and DOD if they know you know it. So I try to balance between the ‘need to know,’ and the need to be truthful.”

“Why did you tell me?”

“Because I think you need to know,” I said with a smile. “Look, I’m sorry; maybe I shouldn’t have told you, and, yes, secret listening posts are a very big deal so you really don’t ever want to talk about it. But you need to be able to trust me, and if you were to find this out two years from now you’d be incredibly pissed. You’d feel used, even if I never asked you to do anything on Koliba.”

She snorted lightly, and with a wry smile, reaching for her wine glass, asked me again. “No, seriously. Why?”

That hit me. I stopped, watching her, as she glanced at me out of the corner of her eye. Waiting, I tried to listen to myself for a second. If I was claiming to be telling her the truth, I felt like I should check to be sure it was what I actually believed. But my mind was a blank.

“I don’t know. I… I’m not sure. Maybe I just need to talk to someone who’s not going to stick a knife in my back, maybe I need to think through why this is so hard.” I looked down into my wine glass for a moment, but thought better of it. “I’ve never had a client go south on me like this. I’ve never found myself believing in someone at one moment, and then discover I was defending a monster.” Elbows on the table, I drew the tips of my middle fingers along the edge of my brow. I could feel a major headache coming on.

“More importantly, though, I’m trying to make a point. One of the firmest rules in Washington is the simple fact that you can count on your enemies to be too stupid to do the obvious. Why is the post where it is? First, DOD thinks strategically, not politically, so I’m guessing that when they looked for a site, they based it entirely on geography – where will a listening post have the farther range? For all I know, they set it up 20 years ago under what’s-his-name, the guy who ran the place before Koliba. The real question is why it’s still there. That’s the stupid part.” I paused, and took another drink. Even when I tell her, I reminded myself, she can’t do anything with the information – her boss won’t get involved in this one. “The human rights morons could get Congress to order it moved out of Golongo, and our support for Koliba would evaporate overnight. But they can’t do that – human rights nerds oppose all things military on principle, and of course oppose NSA listening in to everything we do, so they can’t even support the idea of a listening post. So they look the other way, and end up fighting a losing battle every year because DOD’s going to go ahead and pay Koliba’s government the $20 million they promised them.”

“Twenty million?”

“Twenty million.” I was totally over the line now; Tom would kill me if he knew. “You didn’t hear that either. All perfectly legal; there’s a base agreement, funded out of the black part of the DOD budget. And that’s my last Koliba secret, I swear.”

“Shit,” she said. She looked around, for the waiter perhaps, or maybe just to look away from me. “Maybe we should get out of here.”

* * *

The following morning, I was back on the Hill, this time on the Senate side and this time actually having fun. My client had come to town, and I was shepherding them around the Senate. And enjoying myself thoroughly.

When I had proposed my fall visit to Chicago to meet with the Dungan-American Friendship Society, they’d countered with a request to bring their message to D.C. It was out of the ordinary, and off-schedule: usually this kind of meet-and-greet visit occurred in the early spring, when Congress was just getting going. We’d signed this client comparatively late in the year, though, and clients always wanted their time in the sun, meeting the Senators and Members of the House, rubbing shoulders with power. So here I was, toddling around the Hill with Bao, Charlie and Hendrickson in tow. We’d already had a 20-minute lovefest with Sen. VanderMeer, our new best friend, and found ourselves – thanks to Roger’s goodwill – in a face-to-face with his boss, Sen. Frank Johnson, Democrat of Michigan.

“Michael and Ed here have been very helpful in making sure that we’re fully briefed on the importance of ensuring religious freedoms are respected in Kazakhstan.” This was Roger, leaning in meekly to interrupt during a brief pause in the discussion, most of it between Hendrickson and the Senator, that had now been going on in a rather desultory manner for about fifteen minutes. We’d lost a good five minutes of that in nodding, bowing, and pointing one another to chairs, the way that so often happens with clients from Asian countries, and the rest of the time was a simple recitation of the reasons for our visit. After my brief intro, and a wonderfully confusing series of statements from Bao about the Senator’s lovely office surroundings and his graciousness in welcoming us, Hendrickson had taken over the discussion.

With Roger’s help, we’d written the statement about ‘Michael and Ed’ into the Senator’s talking points for the meeting, but the Senator had either forgotten the point or, more likely, decided he wanted to keep all the glory to himself.

“Yes,” admitted Johnson with an inscrutable glance at Roger. “Michael’s been very helpful indeed. He speaks to me often about the mistreatment of the ethnic minorities in your country.”

Jesus, I thought, I’m right in front of you. Would it kill you to notice my existence, just once maybe?.

I was pretty sure that I kept my poker face on, but after the briefest pause, Bao leaned forward. “Yes,” he said, “Ed is very knowledge.” He looked over to me, smiled and then nodded ever so slightly.

Sen. Johnson didn’t blink, staring ahead at him for a moment before turning to Hendrickson. “Yet you know, John,” he said, leaning forward. I struggled not to roll my eyes; he’d said it like a light bulb had gone off, when we all knew the bulb had burned out years before. “I really didn’t understand the importance of keeping pressure on President Nazarbayev on these issues until you came here today, and really laid it out for me. I want to thank you for that.”

What a pile of shit. We’d written a one-page briefing for this meeting that told him more than he could have gotten from this conversation, and Roger had assured me that he’d walked the Senator through the memo the night before. So we all knew just how important pressure was and why.

‘After you, my dear Alphonse,’ ‘no, you first, my dear Gaston,’ that’s the standard ebb and flow of client meetings with a member of the House or Senate no matter how well you plan them out. The lobbyist is looking for a little credit, something to show the client that the member is aware of their existence and, even better, pretends like he works closely with them. The staffer’s there to make sure that the member follows through on any necessary agenda items, doesn’t forget who he’s talking to or what the subject of the meeting is, and doesn’t overcommit to some legislative proposal that’s impossible – unless that’s also part of the plan, commit to the impossible knowing he’ll go down in a ball of glorious flames protecting a principle. Meaning the staffer’s also there so he or she knows what mess they have to clean up when the meeting is done. And the members, well, they’re actually there for the money, trying to show the client and the lobbyist how important they are to their successes, and hinting that without them – ‘if I lose the next election’ – all those successes would go by the wayside. Even though the money doesn’t actually change hands in this meeting, it’s the giant invisible turd sitting in the middle of the room, to be paid out somewhere down the line again whenever the next fundraiser is scheduled.

From behind the Senator, Roger pointed to his watch so that both Hendrickson and I could see. “On behalf of Michael,” I responded, “I want to thank you for the time, Senator. As I mentioned earlier, he’s been unavoidably detained this morning, still in New York.” It was sort of true, although the ‘unavoidable’ was three shopping days with his wife Alice in Manhattan. “He wanted me to extend his best wishes to you and Gloria, and very much hopes to see you again soon.”

Hendrickson looked confused for a moment, since Michael wasn’t part of this conversation at all, but Michael was our main contact – and political contribution bundler – in the company’s relationship with Johnson. I wasn’t surprised by his confusion; my comment was aimed at the Senator, not Hendrickson.

“Oh, as do I,” the Senator responded, undoubtedly counting in his head the several $1,000 checks Michael would bring to that next fundraiser, his, his wife’s, his brother- and sister-in-law’s, mine, whoever else’s he could drum up. “Please be sure to tell him I’m looking forward to that.”

Hendrickson’s response was to step in front of me, as if I weren’t there, and reached out a hand to shake the Senator’s. Maybe he does recognize what I was doing, I thought, and wants the Senator to know it. “Thank you, sir,” he said. “It has been an honor for me as always to speak with you. And please do remember the peoples of Kazakhstan.” Holding tight to the hand, Johnson put his arm around Hendrickson’s shoulder, leading him to the exit.

I rolled my eyes at Roger, mouthing “thanks” to him, and turned toward Bao and Charlie. Bao’s eyes were gleaming, and he had a wide smile on his face. He probably wasn’t sure what those exchanges had meant in detail, but he could surely tell that a short set piece had played out in front of him. He reached to take my arm, as he always did leaving our meetings, and turned to follow the Senator. “Surrrrrr-prises,” he said quietly. “Always surrrrr-prises with you.”

I laughed as we walked. Two meetings down, I thought, one more to go.

* * *

Late that afternoon, after I’d put them back in their cab for a ride to the airport, I headed over to Dirksen, to Roger’s office, to follow up on the other issue I was working with him that day: our MNNA amendment for the UAE. Today was the day that Col. Fawzi had promised to report on the Government’s decision on Karen Jameson; he’d scheduled a meeting with Roger for 2:00 p.m., and by now, 3:30, he’d be long gone and I could find out what had happened.

Except that he wasn’t, as I discovered approaching Roger’s door to find a large cloud of putrid cigarette smoke – not Roger’s Marlboros, something infinitely worse – preceding Fawzi out the door. I would never figure out from Roger whether he’d been extremely late, or whether the two of them had just spent an hour-and-a-half bullshitting, but there was Fawzi, and there I was, caught checking up on him.

It’s always difficult to convince people that you haven’t set them up when they catch you in the act. In this case, though, Fawzi had apparently figured it out beforehand.

“Ah, my friend,” he coughed in that raspy voice, “there you are. I was sure that you would show up eventually.” He laughed, harder than seemed wise given the precarious condition of his lungs, and put an arm on my shoulder affectionately. Or maybe so that I could keep him from falling over.

“Col. Fawzi,” I said, glancing in at Roger before proceeding. He didn’t give me any kind of sign, so I kept going in a non-committal vein. “So good to see you, sir.”

That only made Fawzi laugh harder.

“So can I guess you know it was me?” I asked.

Coughing still, but at least able to stand up straight again and using his free hand to cover his mouth, Fawzi eyed me with a smile and nodded.

Roger called out then, seemingly tiring of the show going on in his doorway. “She’s on an airplane right now – she was spirited out of prison this morning and released into the custody of the United States. She’ll be in New York sometime late tonight.”

“She’s free?”

Fawzi, after one final hack, shook his head. “She’s been released into the custody of the United States Government. She is to be investigated as an international terrorist, and after that investigation the U.S. is free to decide her fate.” He paused for a moment, sucking at his teeth before spitting a bit of tobacco to the floor. “Quietly, and without fanfare.” He clapped his hand on my shoulder.

From the office, I head Roger’s voice. “The family has agreed to this process. They’ll see her at JFK, and it’ll take a couple of months, but it will all be over.”

“I did not hear that,” Fawzi said, looking at me intently.

“Neither did I,” I replied, smiling. I didn’t need to; all I needed to know was the fact that the last obstacle to my MNNA amendment was out of the way. I turned to back to my client. “Fawzi, my friend, you need to cut back on those cigarettes.”

* * *

Ten days later, it was finally time for that dinner I’d promised Peter to talk about Koliba. I’d been able to dragoon Roger into joining us in the hopes of having some cover, but once we started getting into the topic at hand, I found that Roger was just as much intent on attacking me over Koliba as Peter was.

Dinners like this were pretty standard fare for me, in those years when Congressional lobbying rules allowed me to pay for them. Like I mentioned earlier, the latest Ethics reform bill had passed, but the Senate-side restrictions wouldn’t take effect until January, so I was still free to feed these two Senate staffers. The problem was, they knew me, all my tricks and all my ways of talking around an issue without addressing the core complaint they were pursuing. I was defenseless, and they were out for bear.

“Look, I’m not trying to defend Koliba. And I know that the recent shit with Gangaran is probably less problematic than what he did with the courts earlier this year…”

Good God, I thought, listening to myself, I don’t even believe what I’m saying. Lobbying for true dictators just sucked.

Roger snorted. “How much have you been drinking? Turning Gangaran into chopped salad is ‘less problematic’?” He looked at me as if I were strangling his first-born. Perhaps I was; his Senator was a Democrat, after all, from a fairly liberal state.

“All right, all right, that didn’t come out right.” I was talking way too fast, struggling much too early in this dinner. We had just finished our salads, and suffered our first visitation from Takis, the outgoing brother of the pair who ran the Pinnacle. Usually I could hold off the hard-core lobbying until the steaks arrived, but not tonight.

My conundrum was simple: Ernest Koliba a particularly egregious example of the paradoxes of this business. Delivered to us by the CIA, the new Golongo seemed at first to be a client made in heaven: a freshly minted, democratically-elected President who promised change. Koliba, though, had turned that to shit faster than any despot in history, even in Africa.

Africa’s problem was the lack of viable governments or, as Weller always put it, “Africa doesn’t have political systems, it has political leaders.” From Mubarak in Egypt, down through Museveni in Uganda, Moi in Kenya and Mugabe in Zimbabwe, up through Mobutu in Zaire, Bongo in Gabon, the Eyadema family in Togo, up even to Ben Ali in Tunisia, Africa was a series of ‘Big Man’ countries where the President was the country, and the country served the President. The few exceptions were glaring and most – like Nelson Mandela in South Africa – didn’t last, falling back into the ‘Big Man’ mode once their Mandela retired. Much of the blame lay with the colonial powers, who left Africa in a shambles; someday, though, Africans will need to focus on the solutions, not on who was to blame for their political misery.

“I’m thinking the Committee report should state something like, ‘The Committee sits in stunned disbelief,’” Roger continued, his left eye twitching at a rapid rate, “‘at the shocking disregard of His Excellency President Ernest Koliba to pay the slightest attention to democratic norms.’ How’s that work for you?” Roger had the ability to be a complete dick when he wanted to be – ‘refreshingly direct,’ he called it – and tonight was one of those nights. “’The crushing of the judiciary demonstrates the government’s complete indifference…”

“Oh, fuck you.”

“The Committee sits in sheer amazement,” Peter chimed in, exchanging a hard, thin smile with Roger, “that you could think for a moment that the Committee would do anything other than fuck your client for his inexcusable…”

“No, really, fuck you, you know why I’m here.” I was getting upset, mostly because I had to be there, but also that they were being so hard on me. I knew they weren’t going to be too easy on me, but I’d been hoping to walk away with some shred of dignity despite the fact that our client had been, well, pulling a Koliba. “Give me half a break here. Help me figure out what I have to do to survive.”

“You don’t get it, do you?” It was Roger again, ponging to Peter’s ping, the two of them playing me the way they usually played the rookies. His entire face was ablaze with blinking and twitching. “Killing the Vice President was just the icing on the cake. It’s the courts that matter in the long term, and they’ve completely trashed the judiciary. Political opponents come and go, get tossed in jail and occasionally get assassinated like Gangaran. But without a free judiciary to challenge a head of state, you’ve got nothing. What about this don’t you get?”

“So where are we?”

“You are screwed, my friend,” Roger said evenly. “You are totally screwed.”

And here, to my eternal gratitude, Takis returned, with our waiter and our steaks, smiling, breaking us up. “Here you go guys, here you go,” he laughed, paying way too much attention to us. I looked around the room, thinking that some Senator must be complaining that we were too loud and too crude, ruining his efforts to get some poor bimbo staffer into the sack. Takis was the perfect owner for this restaurant, the Pinnacle, on this slice of turf – an old roughhouse a couple of blocks from the Senate office buildings on Massachusetts Avenue. Host to every member of the U.S. Senate and the wealthy lobbying class that wined and dined them, Takis never forgot a face and knew every name that mattered, although he never had any idea who I was until we started working for one of the fourteen or fifteen different Greek-American groups that lobby the Congress every year. After that, he at least recognized me when I came through the door.

I took his arrival as a way out. “Takis, they’re telling me how great Turkey is.”

“Turkey, whaddaya mean Turkey?” He held back for a second, just a second, on Peter’s steak. “Turkey’s no good, you know that.” Takis was Greek, not just Greek Greek but by-god-Goddammit-I’m-talking-out-of-his-mind Greek, the whole family was, totally wild about Greece and everything Greek and the whole cradle of civilization thing. It was a lot like my Dad with the Irish, you know, saving civilization and all that, if it hadn’t been for the monks we wouldn’t still have any copies of all those timeless Roman texts about all Gaul being divided into three parts. Having spent years working Dad into a lather, it was pretty easy to do the same with Takis. It was a little more dangerous to get Takis started, because he could go for hours if you let him, but I figured tonight he could see I was just using him to get out of a tight spot. And he saw right through me, as always.

“Those goddamned Turks, they’re no good, I mean it.” He gave us all a good, long meaningful stare. And then we laughed, and so did he, and he left us to our steaks mumbling to himself about all them lousy Turks. And he had done it again, broken an ugly mood and let us get on with our night. We turned to other things, the overall budget situation, foreign aid getting cut once more, no funding for anything, and as we talked, my eyes wandered the room and my mind, half paying attention, wandered back in time as I asked myself, “How did I get here?”

The room was full of diners like me, supplicants appealing to a Senator, Congressman or senior staffer for that little favor, or calling in that small chit, or just sucking up for the evening. Seeing myself repeated over and over around the room, I wondered when it had all gone wrong. The job had meant something the first few years; at least, I thought it had. In those days, I could actually believe that we were accomplishing something. What was different then? Was it what we were doing? The clients we had? Or was it me, not recognizing what a sleazy mess this whole industry – Washington – had become?

Peter asked me about Charlotte, and I laughed, pulling myself back to the conversation to tell them about her latest escapade, the House committee staff director who’d tried to pick her up at a crowded party – with me about ten feet away. Then Roger told Peter the story of Fawzi’s near-death experience in the halls of Dirksen, laughing so hard at my transparent efforts that he’d almost left a lung where he stood.

It was so odd, but so very Washington, I thought, Roger, Peter and I pretending that nothing had happened, moving on to other business, and laughing about our personal lives. We were pals again. Koliba was almost forgotten, and I told another story, and we laughed, and we commented on the steaks, and then the Redskins, and then they hosed me about my old girlfriend Raymonda for a while, giving me the same shit they always did about how it was my fault what an uptight bitch she was. At least I had dated a legend, I replied, and let it go at that.

So there we were, joking about old girlfriends, laughing, the unpleasantness behind us for now. Like everyone in Washington, best buds, at least until the next time we came nose-to-nose and screwed one another. Yes, indeedy, best of buds.

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