Corruptions, A Novel of Washington

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Chapter 3

“So you’ve all been sitting on your asses while I was gone? Or have you just been out charging off high-priced meals to the company accounts?”

Michael was back from his latest vacation, three weeks in Jackson Hole over Christmas and well into the New Year. He and Alice had headed out of town on their annual Christmas ski trip, kids in tow, other family members flown in to give a distant hotel that homey Christmas feel. Michael wasn’t among the city’s super-rich, but rich enough to be bored by a life and lifestyle responsive always to the Congressional calendar: the budget prep throughout the late fall and early winter, budget submission in January or early February, foreign aid policy debates considerations in March and April, the lengthy Easter Recess with its vacations and CODELs, foreign aid funding in June and July, the August Recess for visits to the beach and perhaps more CODELs, and then the sprint to the finish – sometime early in October in election years, and just before Christmas in the off-years. It’s a schedule with many breaks, but always at the same time – so spur-of-the-moment trips, romantic getaways, and pretty much anything spontaneous in life was out of the question. The richer they got, the more Washingtonians compensated by chasing the ever-more-lavish; the rest of us just lived with it.

Michael had rescheduled our weekly Monday morning staff meeting to Wednesday to accommodate his return, all of us squeezed into our ‘conference room’ – a larger-than-usual office held for the firm’s hoped-for expansion and meanwhile reconfigured for such meetings. Everyone was there, a strange little group so typical of the smaller Washington lobbying outfits: Michael, the company president, at the head of table; our two Senior Vice Presidents, D. Wellington Richards, the old CIA hand, and Tom Lebont, our right-winger contact into the odder fringes of the Republican party, on either side of him; our new intern, Michelle Edgerton, just out of grad school and cursed with the worst title in all of Washington; and me, the company’s Vice President for Legislation. In Washington, titles are everything, so you almost have to have at least a vice president title on your card to get in the door, even with staffers. As a result, the city is plagued with inflationary titles masking very thin companies, legions of vice presidents yet virtually no one serving under them. McPherson & Associates was typical, four senior officials and one lowly intern, gathered in our weekly staff meeting.

“Come on, Michael, it’s January,” I said. I didn’t want the meeting to go this way, Michael all high and mighty on us. He’s a great guy down deep, but the longer and longer he owned the company, the deeper and deeper that ‘down deep’ kept getting.

I needed to find a way to tell him about the Dungan, about my bringing in a client that Uncle Harry insisted be mine, not his. Knowing there was no way he was going to do anything other than flip out over it, I had to bring it up at just the right moment – but things weren’t getting off to a good start. “January’s a time for wining and dining, figuring out what people are planning, and starting to set out strategies for the year. It’s not like there’s anything else going on.”

“That’s the time you have to be telling them what to do, to be selling our clients’ needs.” Michael barely even glanced up from the legal pad he was scribbling on, franticly copying notes of that morning’s cell phone calls into an intelligible form. Few things were scarier than being a passenger in Michael’s car when he was taking notes, and even fewer things more illegible than the notes he took. “That’s the time to make things happen.”

On the one hand, he had a point. The only achievement I could point to since the November elections – not counting the ten pounds of seasonal weight gain I’d be spending the next six months trying to get rid of – was getting Kevin, a relatively junior staffer, to have his boss ask some meaningless question about religious tolerance on behalf of a client we hadn’t even signed yet. On the other, it was bullshit, and Michael knew it: nobody pays attention to much of anything until they know what’s in that year’s budget, especially in the middle of a war like Iraq, sucking up so much money per week that every other account in the budget was bound to suffer.

But it looked like Michael, coming back from vacation, had decided to play at being the boss. Just what I didn’t need.

Michael was our Big Cheese, an Assistant Secretary of State many years ago, a political appointee who slipped from one State Department bureau to the next, somehow serving as Assistant Secretary of State for three utterly different regions of the world under two Presidents and three Secretaries of State. He was lucky – named Assistant Secretary the first time at the tail end of an Administration when his sponsor was Vice President, then sliding into the others as the sponsor moved up. He had been a lobbyist before heading into State, so it was only natural when he headed out that he would rejoin the ranks, this time representing foreign governments and their interests before Congress. He had some connections and some name recognition, he had the balls to promise anyone just about anything, and he had just enough chutzpah to put his name on the door – Michael McPherson & Associates. He liked the control that came with running a small company, but it had its downsides: the serious targets – big-money clients like Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan – could tell we were razor-thin, making it impossible for Michael to reel them in. But he had clients, and some of them he did pretty well by. Others, well, at least we always gave it our best shot.

“Ed and I have a meeting with the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates scheduled for two weeks from today,” Wellington said, pointing down the table at me and nodding. “It’s our annual review meeting; it’s the soonest he’s available. I’ve asked Ed” – pointing again – “to join me to explain our Congressional strategy.”

Wellington, or Weller as I’d nicknamed him several years back, was the senior statesman at the table – at least in terms of age and that certain air New England Yankees bring to government service. I liked Weller, despite his incorrigible stuffiness and a bad tendency to panic when Michael was in one of his moods. A delightful old guy trapped by tradition in terribly ill-fitting Brooks Brothers suits, his real name was Douglas, a normal first name, but back when he started out in the State Department you needed a name like W. Averell Harriman, or P. Fotherington Weatherington, or some equally East-Coast-Harvard-Yale-Princeton-my-forebears-arrived-on-the-Mayflower kind of name to be taken seriously. So, as he finally admitted one drunken evening in the Hawk and Dove, he’d started going with Wellington, his paternal grandmother’s maiden name. He’d forgotten, though, that he was named Douglas after his mother’s own father. Pissed her off, he told me that night, pissed her off for years.

Today, as usual, Wellington had set himself down immediately to Michael’s right, his preferred seat, where he could lean in conspiratorially as he spoke, an old agency habit he apparently saw no reason to break: it reminded us all where he came from. He glanced down the table to where I sat, the far end opposite Michael, and raised an eyebrow with a look that said, “I’m sending you a message.” Swell, I thought; he’s telling me something, probably about how helpful he’s being and how he’s tossed me a softball or some such. I had no idea what he was doing, but that was normal: you should meet a former CIA agent some time and see if you have the slightest clue half the time what the hell he’s talking about.

“We have a strategy?” Michael looked up, glaring at me.

I smiled. “Yeah, we do. And this time, Wellington, could you let me explain it from the start so you don’t confuse the Ambassador?” Wellington glanced down, seemingly smiling at the memory.

To Weller’s right, his prepped-out protégé Michelle, daughter of ‘an old family friend’ undoubtedly also descended from Yankee Brahmins, looked slightly shocked that I would mock her protector. Nice kid, but too pampered growing up to work very hard. Daughter of a Democratic powerhouse lobbyist, she had only joined us six months before, just back from her post-graduation jaunt across Europe, and was still learning the ropes. It took a full legislative year, from January through December, to truly understand the lobbying process and how to work the Hill. For her that year was just starting, and I didn’t feel good about her ability – or desire – to understand how it all worked. Her adoration for ‘Welly,’ her nickname for him, didn’t help.

“So you want to tell me this plan?” It was Michael, still grimacing.

“We’re going to try – and I do mean try – to do something in the House bill, working with Will Richardson. He’s likely to say no, but at a minimum I’ll get a promise to support us in Conference out of him. Then we’ll get the amendment into the Senate Appropriations bill, Will backs us in Conference, and we’re done.”

“What Senator?”

I paused. “I’m still working on that.”

Michael snorted. “Helluva plan. So far you’ve found someone to refuse to help.”

He had a point. This was definitely our most difficult assignment this year, getting the UAE, the United Arab Emirates, be added to the list of Major Non-NATO Allies – what we called the MNNA list. It was something that would be hard to do in the best of times, but appeared damned near impossible in the middle of the war on terrorism, when every Arab government, including our allies, was deemed suspect by Washington. It wasn’t so much that Congress was afraid of the governments going rogue on us, but instead that the political risk of supporting Arabs at this time was infinitely higher than the risks associated with ignoring them.

The trick was, this wasn’t about status at all, but rather about getting them an expensive air defense system, the ARCHON, one of the Air Force’s most advanced systems, for one of their military facilities or other. It was too new a system to sell them, but for some exceedingly ‘black’ reason that Wellington wouldn’t talk about, its transfer to the UAE was considered essential by the U.S. As long as no one knew about it. Hence the MNNA status, where it could more easily be snuck through.

“Besides,” Michael continued, “it’s Wellington’s client. What do you think we should do, Wellington?”

I cringed inside. While a terrific guy, Wellington didn’t have a strategic-planning bone in his body, at least not for the peculiar strategies needed for success with Congress.

“Oh, well, Michael,” Wellington intoned in his best State Department bass, “Ed and I have strategized extensively on this meeting, and we’re in total agreement.” Turning to face me, he smiled benignly.

Michael just grinned his Cheshire-Cat grin. “Oh, I see. That explains why Ed can’t name a Senate sponsor and has to warn you about not getting ahead of him in the meeting with the Ambassador.”

Wellington looked stricken. Nice try, Weller, I thought, but it looks like nothing is going to work right today.

“How about Koliba?” I asked, since only a change in subject would get Michael off my back. “That’s where we have serious problems to worry about.”

Going into this year, we had four clients, with the Dungan a possible fifth. Two of the clients weren’t my problem, a Caribbean apparel association that was a pure trade client; and the Greece-America Association, a ridiculous little group out of Michigan looking for report language. At least until we signed the Dungan, the other two clients were where I’d be earning my keep: the United Arab Emirates, with their Major Non-NATO Ally amendment; and Ernest Koliba, President of Golongo.

Koliba was our most contentious client, the one that paid the most and listened the least. Golongo was another of those thin slivers of a country you find in West Africa; on a map, you’d want to take a left at Nigeria and you’d find it squeezed in there somewhere around Ghana. Like so many countries in the region, it had a long history of military dictatorships, broken only by the occasional failed spurt of democracy. Koliba had been elected president in the latest of those, about eighteen months earlier, and seemed very much the people’s president at first. We’d been hired right after the elections. He’d taken our advice once or twice, shifting a crazed internal security chief to position where he could do less harm, watering down a bill or two in Parliament that would have gutted free speech. The past six months or so, though, while his presidency was getting more secure, the people around him were getting more and more corrupt and less willing to suffer the risks inherent in a democracy – so things like listening to Parliament or the courts was starting to lose its appeal.

An outbreak of anti-democratic tricks started in the late fall, as the foreign aid cycle was nearing its end. Koliba’s people had engineered a mayoral election in the capital for a Koliba clone who’d gotten 96 percent of the vote. We’d only gotten away with that because the opposition candidate was an equally corrupt thug, not someone U.S. democracy advocates wanted to see in office. But just after Christmas, while Michael was skiing, Koliba had sacked four of the seven Supreme Court justices – surprisingly enough, the four who had just voted to uphold the bribery conviction of one of his sub-cabinet ministers. To the extent that there are ‘moderates’ on human rights – people like Human Rights First, as opposed to the more rabid Human Rights Watch – they worry most about freedom of the courts. When you lose them, you pretty much lose the battle. So I’d been emailing Michael during his vacation all the stories off Google News, and telling him that unless we could come up with a serious plan, we were screwed in terms of keeping Koliba’s aid pipeline open.

Michael, as usual, didn’t agree. “Koliba’ll be fine,” he replied, barely looking up from some memo he’d started editing. “You got all hot and bothered last year, and we came out fine.”

“Jesus, Michael, you know it can’t be any worse,” I responded. Dammit, I thought, I hate it when he dismisses me, especially when I’m right. “The way Koliba’s screwing around with the courts, even our friends think he’s off the deep end. Our enemies hate him even more than before, and they’re out for blood.”

Michael kept writing, a skeptical grimace sliding across his face.

“I been talking to the House Republican leadership on Koliba,” Tom said, raising his left hand and pointing theatrically at some distant point across the street. Tom couldn’t talk without waving his hands at something; must have been all that time he spent praying to Jesus. He’d started out on the Hill right out of two tours of Army duty in Vietnam, and always claimed to have worked for some clandestine group or other running a ‘secret war’ killing Cambodians and Laotians instead of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Or maybe they were Viet Cong, just in Laos and Cambodia. I could never tell – Tom was another one from the ‘I can’t tell you that’ school of life history. For all I knew he had worked in a bar in Da Nang serving Mai Tais while pretending to be an intelligence officer. Anyway, he ended up working for Republicans in the House, moving from office to office, and as the Members he worked for got more and more conservative, so did he. Hell, if you read his resume, the first two Republicans he worked for were pro-abortion New England Republicans, but as the party newcomers slid westward and southward, so did Tom. Ended up ‘born ag’in,’ and a fixture on the Washington religious circuit. Eventually, it became his ticket into the private sector: he ended up sitting next to a very devout Caribbean Prime Minister at Washington’s annual Prayer Breakfast, and within a month he’d left his Hill job and hung up a shingle, the PM as his first client.

“They tell me they understand his critical importance to U.S. policy in the region,” he continued. “They say they’ll keep an eye out for us.”

“And I can get to Hollinger,” Wellington said. “I’m sure I can make him see the importance of Koliba as an island of stability in that part of the world.”

“Oh, Jesus, Hollinger,” I said, almost without meaning to. Tom always invoked the House Republicans, and I always ignored him. But Wellington, well, he should have known better. Hollinger, the Intelligence Committee Chairman on the Senate side. That Committee didn’t consider the foreign aid bill, didn’t oversee any foreign aid funding, didn’t have anything to do with it. Sure, they were responsible for the ‘top secret’ secure listening post that was the only reason Koliba got any money at all, but I had a foreign aid bill to worry about. “That’s the wrong committee.”

Wellington’s nostrils flared ever so softly. Oops, I guess this time he really had been trying to help.

“We all know what committee has jurisdiction, Edward.” It was Michael, and he was smiling that pencil-thin smile that meant he was getting angry, with his face just beginning to redden. Dammit, I thought, I’ve set him off again; that was pretty stupid since I only brought up Koliba to get his mind off the UAE and set up a conversation about the Dungan.

“Okay, okay, look,” I said, “how’s about we at least find some way to let some air out of the tires? Give the Members a chance to blow off some steam, to yell at somebody?” I looked around the table, trying to find someone who’d back me up. “There’s a lot that’s happened since the last bill, all of it bad, and we have to give people an opportunity to vent. Otherwise we’ll be at the end of the year and they’ll still be pissed off.”

“You’re just worried because the House staffers jump whenever the human rights weenies tell them to. Well, fuck ’em, they’re just staff.” He was glaring now, the redness deepening. That vacation doesn’t seem to have done him much good, I thought, if he’s stressing out this fast. “The rest of us will work the Senators, and they’ll come around.”

“Well, I just don’t think it’ll work this time.” I was on the defensive. “We used that ‘island of stability’ bullshit all last year, reminding them up to the actual vote that the country had just been through free and fair elections, and that at least they had an independent judiciary. Now that he screwed those up, it’s hard to go back and tell them the opposite.”

“It’ll work fine.” Michael was almost smiling now, something very scary to see, especially since he was also beet red with anger. “You just keep working those staffers of yours. This’ll be the first time Hollinger even hears about the place. He and the other Senators will realize how badly we need Koliba.” He smiled encouragingly at Wellington, and went back to his memo.

* * *

This was pretty much the way it had always been at Michael McPherson & Associates, and I’d made a nice career out of it so far. Michael made the decisions, Wellington and Tom got to play eminences grises in their own little realms, and I got all the, not to put too fine a point on it, shit assignments. At least, that’s how it seemed. Charlotte’s voice echoed in my head: “It will always be that way, it’s his company and he’s got all the clients.” The thing was, I was on the verge of bringing in a client, so what would happen next?

That was a tough question to answer, partially because of the structure of the place, partially just the history between Michael and me. Wellington and Tom weren’t technically even part of the firm; they had incorporated individually and had their own consulting clients. Their work with Michael was a peculiarly Washington kind of back-scratching: they helped out on Michael’s clients if he helped out on theirs. Some money probably changed hands every once in a while depending on who called in more chits or whose calls and visits went higher up the Congressional food chain, but I had never been privy to Michael’s books so I actually had no idea how that worked.

Michael worked the foreign aid lifers, the ones who joined the foreign affairs committees right after arriving in Congress and actually wanted to be on them. Wellington, who had only left the agency a few years earlier, worked senior House and Senate leadership, mostly on the Democratic side, as well as the defense and intelligence crowd, the people he used to brief when he was in the Agency. Tom worked the Republicans we politely referred to as “issue-oriented,” the ones who saw foreign affairs as a place to do what they couldn’t get done at home: they couldn’t mandate sexual abstinence in the U.S., but they could prevent the U.S. from funding family planning programs in desperate Third World countries; they couldn’t do anything about the moral decline in America, but they could make the world safe for Jesus by mandating that foreign aid recipients enact ‘freedom of religion’ – in effect, freedom for evangelicals – in countries quite happy to be 99% Moslem or 99% Buddhist. I always found it the basest form of cynicism, imposing on our friends and allies things we wouldn’t impose at home, but as Tom never failed to assure me that it filled the campaign coffers come election season. And it made the members who followed that track tremendously responsive to fellow true-believers, something Tom was making a career out of.

As for Michael and me, I’d been hired right out of a brief stint on the Hill. I studied international affairs in college, followed by grad school at the Johns Hopkins program in D.C. The year I graduated, I’d taken a State Department internship in Africa, ending up in Mauritania, one of those Texas-sized countries that has more sheep than people and more camels than sheep. From Africa, I’d switched over to law school – six months in Mauritania told me the last thing I wanted was to be a Foreign Service officer – and from there into a one-year clerkship. I’d started out on the Hill in a House Judiciary Committee job, not realizing what a dead-end committee that was in years they weren’t trying to impeach a President. I had started looking around for something else after about six months, and found Michael through a friend of a friend of an ex-girlfriend.

We hit it off right from the start. I was a rookie to lobbying, unaware how entirely different it was from being on the Hill, but was someone who knew a little about foreign policy, could write well, and could summarize the insane drivelings-on of a three-hour Congressional hearing on U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa into the two-page memo a foreign client might even read. I’d been with him eight years now, for a long time just him and me – well, and a long parade of secretaries who could only put up with him for six to nine months before moving on in disgust. Over time we’d picked up the Wellster and Tom, first to share some space when we moved into new offices and later in this odd partnership. More recently, Michael had started hiring the interns, young kids mostly just out of some Master’s program in government, Georgetown’s Foreign Service School or American University or wherever, all brainy and eager, just beginning their careers.

He was quite a guy, Michael, hell-on-wheels to work for, but he taught me the game and made me good at it – something I will never forget. And since the people Michael lobbied, the senior members of the House and Senate, ran the place – at least in name – he always held it over me that he was the one who made a difference for our clients. For several years running, I had been the one who wrote all of the Company’s bill and report language, passing it directly to the staffs and making sure that they inserted it in legislation precisely where and when we needed it. But that didn’t make me the big dog: never mind that the members just went along with what their staffs told them; or that 90 percent of the time the members didn’t even know what the bills contained; or that most of them scarcely knew Michael and didn’t give a rat’s ass about our country clients. Michael worked the members and I didn’t, so he was the big dog.

Thing was, even though I was always the junior guy, the staff guy, no matter how long I stayed or how good I got, up to now I hadn’t cared. As Charlotte never failed to point out to me, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up, so sticking around as Michael’s number two seemed to be a job made in heaven.

Up to now.

* * *

I shifted fruitlessly in my seat, buried in the springless black naugahyde directly behind the driver, and drew my heavy coat around me to ward off the damp, miserable cold. I’d headed for the Hill right after the staff meeting, just to get out of the office, and took the first cab I saw. Another Nigerian, I thought, but this one must be new – it looked like he was heading for the tempting but always slow ‘shortcut’ through Washington’s pitiful excuse for a Chinatown. I didn’t care – I was just looking to get out of the office. Even if I didn’t accomplish anything, at least I’d be able to clear my head a little.

I stayed on the Hill much of the day, not learning anything and losing a nice chunk of time at some defense industry exhibit for staffers and Members in a Rayburn caucus room. I headed back to the office in the late afternoon, arriving around 4:00 p.m., in the hopes of getting to Michael before the day ended.

Checking in with his latest secretary, Laura, I learned that Michael was free until a 5:30 meeting at a bar nearby. In between times, he was just catching up on paperwork and email. I decided to wait for the last minute before going to see him: the farther away from that disastrous staff meeting he was, the better.

I kept focusing on how I’d screwed up the meeting that morning, and what it might mean for this next conversation. We’d gone through every single client – the UAE, Koliba, the Greece-America Alliance, the Caribbean trade association – and somehow I managed to put myself in the hot seat on every single one, even the ones I didn’t work on. Either I had a strategy that Michael hated, or I had no strategy at all, something he hated even more. And every time he asked a question, I shot back some flip-ass answer that just made it worse. Eventually I just sat there and let Sherman run through Georgia. He was back, he was cranky, he was loaded for bear. So of course I didn’t bring up the Dungan, but I knew that if I didn’t get to him before the end of the day the inevitable discussion would go much worse.

At 5:15, I tapped lightly on his open door and walked in. Michael was behind his desk, fluorescents turned off, reading by the light of the tall brass desk lamp. There was a certain formal, dark atmosphere to his office, an air of semi-elegance that was only undercut when you actually sat in the furniture, or leaned against his desk. It was all show, like the deep mahogany veneer of the desk. Like lobbying itself, I thought.

Without looking up, he started back into our earlier discussion. “There doesn’t seem to be anything worth a shit going on around here.”

“Michael, give me a break. That was all pretty unnecessary this morning.”

“Yeah. Maybe.” He paused momentarily in his scribbling as he said it, which I took for something of an apology. Not much of one, except that Michael never apologized. So maybe waiting had been a good thing.

“We have a line on a new client.” It was a snap decision, going with the direct approach, and it seemed to work. Michael looked up at me. “Uncle Harry introduced me to a trade association a couple of weeks ago. The Dungan-American Friendship Society. They’re interested in hiring us.”

“The what?”

“Dungan-American Friendship Society. Asiatic ethnic group out of Kazakhstan. Just looking for some advice and report language, and willing to pay.”

“Pay what? And why?”

“I told them our standard fee for such representation is $375,000, and they didn’t balk,” I responded. “I know it’s the rate for a country client, but I threw it out there figuring they’d talk me down. Their lawyers didn’t seem to balk at the price.”

Michael looked out the window for a moment, and then back at me. “That’s a whole shitload of friendship.” His eyes narrowed, and he waited. “Again, why?”

“Well, Harry’s never steered us wrong.”

“No, not Harry, for Chrissakes. Them. Why would some bullshit group from the middle of nowhere spend that kind of money for report language?”

He had a point: report language – quite literally, language, anywhere from a sentence to a paragraph or two, in the reports that were always issued when a Committee approved a bill – didn’t have the force of law. But if you wrote it right, using the right tone, had the right Committee members sneak it into the report, and then had them follow up as needed with nasty phone calls to the appropriate Administration official, in that case report language was not something easily ignored. We always used the right Committee members, and always had them make those follow-up phone calls.

“Why do any of our clients spend that kind of money?” I responded to him. “For the prestige, the knowing they’re on the inside. The knowing that Senator Harrison Fuller personally recommended their advisor.”

“It’s not Harrison Fuller’s company. It’s mine.”

“Well, he does want it to be my client.”

“Fuck him. Not up for discussion.” Reddening, he started up from behind his desk, sliding his papers together.

“Michael, look…”

“I said, it’s not up for discussion.” He closed his briefcase, and moved quickly out from behind the desk. “We’re done here; I have a meeting. Tell Charlotte I said hello.”

“Yeah. I will.” I watched his back as he headed out the door.

That had gone about as I expected. At least it wasn’t public, not for the entire office to see as it would have been this morning. Maybe that meant I could talk him back from this first offer.

Sure, I thought, shaking my head, and maybe pigs can fly.

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