Corruptions, A Novel of Washington

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Chapter 6


“Well, as you know, Mr. Ambassador, there are things I simply cannot discuss.”

Weller looked deep into his client’s eyes, tilting his head ever so slightly, as if to say, ‘do you understand the secret I am telling you?’ His Excellency Ahmad Al Youssri stared back over the tops of his reading glasses, equally solemn, his eyes flickering as his focus went from one spot to another on Weller’s face, looking for the truth or lie that lay hidden somewhere. I felt like I was watching a great Broadway play, two brilliant actors putting their all into the performance, from a seat on the stage.

Weller waited. Al Youssri blinked first.

“You know, of course,” he said, looking down now to shuffle the papers on his desk, “that I must report to my Minister the success or failure of your efforts. Our being declared this ‘major non-NATO ally’ of the United States is extremely important to our government as well as to the entire relationship between our two countries.” He looked up again, focusing on Weller but taking me in as well. “We are entirely depending on you to accomplish this important objective.”

The Deputy Chief of Mission – his reason for being present now evident – shifted uncomfortably in his chair, the scraping feet of the chair echoing loudly in the Ambassador’s oversized office. He coughed politely into his hand, in case we’d missed the screech of the chair, and grimaced, that peculiar mid-point between a smile and a frown that diplomats perfect for moments like this, when they aren’t supposed to take a position either way but have to show something.

I remained still, not ever having gotten that move down to the point where I was willing to use it when it counted. This was that annual strategy session at the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates, the one that Weller had mentioned at staff meeting, up amidst the hideously new and glaringly ugly embassies scattered along International Court in upper Northwest DC. These palatial buildings, seemingly designed by blind architects, were the polar opposite of the stately mansions on Washington’s original Embassy Row, Massachusetts Avenue just north of Dupont Circle. It was even a pain in the ass getting here, a long drive up Connecticut Avenue to Van Ness.

The Ambassador sighed theatrically. Al Youssri was a typical client ambassador, an Ambassador E. & P., Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary as protocol liked to call them, who found himself in a position not at all plenipotentiary because his Minister of Defense had decided to hire a lobbyist, an Ambassador who absolutely, unequivocally detested our very presence in his office, let alone the fact that we represented his government in its dealings with Congress. As a result, these meetings were always something of a chess-game-cum-death-match as both sides tried to pretend that we were working together. Wellington, who’d brought in this client thanks to some still-unknown (at least by me) feats of bravado during his CIA days, was under strict orders to treat His Excellency with all due respect and civility. The Ambassador, whose training and career choice required that same respect and civility, generally expressed his rage in the same way as most Middle East ambassadors, by smiling constantly while speaking in short, easy-to-understand words. Today he was grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

“If, of course, you were able to participate in these meetings,” he continued, “you would certainly communicate the results of any decisions to our Government’s official representatives.” ‘To me,’ he was saying.

Weller paused briefly before replying. Choosing a next step? Resisting the urge to strangle the man? No, that would have been Michael; he could never tolerate ambassadors, finding them useful for garden parties and for signing the checks, but utterly useless otherwise. From his days at the agency, Weller knew better. At least, he acted like he did.

“Surely, Mr. Ambassador, had this decision been as easy as the President, the Speaker of the House, and the Senate Majority Leader meeting in January to decide on what they would give the UAE and our other allies this year, I would not have sold my services to your Government.” Weller smiled, almost genuinely. “It would not have been right.”

This was one of those classic moments in lobbying, trying to tell your client just how stupid they were without actually saying the words. The biggest problem in working with Arab clients was the difference between the real world – well, sort of, Washington not actually being all that real, but you know what I mean – and the client’s, a world of shadows, conspiracies, rumors and lies. Nothing in the Middle East is as it appears, and the best and most trusted news source is the rumor, passing through the streets like wildfire. In government circles, the rumors are more sophisticated, and this one – the idea that the President, the leaders of Congress and a couple of aides get together at the beginning of every year to plan out who they’ll give foreign aid to and how much they’ll give, with subsequent Congressional debates on aid just a show so that countries on the losing end blamed Congress, not the White House – had always been the craziest, and about the most common, of the bunch. It was somewhat understandable coming from a region where even the democracies were simply dictatorships by another name: one could comprehend how, when everything that happened in your country only happened with approval from somewhere on high, it would be difficult to believe that the world’s only hyperpower was run by a political system as crazy as ours. It was tough enough to believe that such a system could produce a functioning government, let alone world pre-eminence. So they would assume it wasn’t a democracy at all. At least, the ones that hired us did. It was the only reason we got paid, but it made our job just that much more maddening.

Weller’s problem was particularly complicated: Ambassador Al Youssri was a Harvard alum, both undergrad and Ph.D., and had served in London and Paris for over sixteen years, having by now lived longer in the West than in his native land. So did he actually believe this crazy idea, or was it simply safer – since he’d brought in the DCM to keep watch – to play the Arab game?

I looked over at Shaikh Mohamed, the longstanding, long-suffering second-in-command, an old-school, traditionalist Bedouin in his stark white dishdasha, flowing robes reaching the floor and covering all but the tips of his Italian leather shoes. His keffiyeh was red and white in the Arabian Gulf style, and he kept his prayer beads busy, counting slowly through ninety-nine names over and over again. He was intent on our conversation, but his only contributions were those subtle shifts and coughs at the tensest moments of the meeting, movements that might have gone unnoticed had he actually said anything at all.

I couldn’t read him, especially since Wellington had told me he was the Ambassador’s uncle once or twice removed. Of course, everyone in government in these sheikdoms is somehow related, and amidst the royal families they have their own forms of democracy, families jousting for power against their cousins, uncles and nephews. It reminded me of Boston in the 1970s, how when I was growing up and my younger brother would get in trouble somewhere, my Aunt Mary would come to the rescue, finding some policeman or court clerk in that town who was distantly related – “oh, you know Patrick, dear, he’s your third cousin twice removed.” I could never get them all straight, but they were always there, the Irish Mafia scattered throughout the region making things safe for their distant relations. Of course, Aunt Mary was never sitting on 80 billion barrels of oil – but on the other hand, I thought now as I stared at Shaikh Mohamed, her housecoats almost reminded me of that dishdasha he insisted on wearing.

Weller coughed, a real cough, and as I looked over he smiled ever so slightly. He was putting down the tea he’d taken up for cover, and seemingly almost choking on it; leaning forward now, he placed the cup carefully on its saucer, and glanced ever so briefly at me before turning once again to the Ambassador. He’d thought of something.

“Of course, Your Excellency,” he began, “if there were such a meeting – which I could never admit or deny – the President, the Speaker and the Majority Leader would have to agree on the limits of what they would accept, and then require each nation to achieve those objectives in the Congressional process. Otherwise, it would be too easily discovered that they had conspired together.

“I’m sure that’s why your eminent uncle, Minister Farouk, chose to hire us.”

* * *

“Nice save.”

Weller laughed, and leaned forward to the cabdriver. “Two stops. I’ll be getting out at the Cosmos Club, and my friend is headed up to the Capitol.” He glanced at his watch before looking back at me. “Sorry you can’t join me at lunch with Col. Fawzi. He always finds you much more amusing than me.”

Fawzi was the real client here, head of the UAE’s military mission and direct line to Farouk al-Basri, the Minister of Defense who’d retained Wellington’s services two years back. As the UAE’s official representative, the Ambassador was nominally the lead contact, but Fawzi had signed Weller’s contract every year, issued the checks, and made the direct-line calls to the Minister. He’d gotten Wellington in trouble once or twice, by passing timely information on American foreign policy shifts to the Minister when the Ambassador was still in the process of digesting our analysis and deciding how much to report back to his own boss, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, another cousin or uncle subsequently shown up by Farouk knowing more than he did and knowing it sooner. But that was okay – such foolishness was Farouk’s favorite part of having Wellington in place, so it helped ensure his contract renewal.

Weller always met Fawzi for lunch after his meetings with the Ambassador, both to debrief but especially to head off any trouble Al Youssri might try to make in response to something Weller had said. And they always met far from the Embassy grounds, somewhere they were sure not to be seen by others on the Embassy staff.

In the end, the meeting had gone reasonably well. We’d explained the process we were planning for getting them declared a Major Non-NATO Ally, and the potential benefits in terms of donated military equipment. Weller had reported that he’d convinced the Defense Department’s Near East Bureau to support the move, by arguing that it would serve as a back-up to the investment they’d made in Qatar, which in turn was little more than a hedge against the possible loss of their naval facilities in Bahrain. As he’d told me earlier, “after ‘who lost Iran?’ in the 1970s, they like three or four levels of back-up.” Anyway, the Ambassador seemed marginally mollified by the report, and we made it out of the Embassy in a pretty good mood.

Staring out the window, watching northwest Washington roll slowly by, I wondered for a moment about our decision not to discuss Karen Jameson. I’d told Weller about our would-be terrorist, and he’d convinced the Ambassador would never raise the issue with us and could help us solve it if we raised it with him. It was something Weller would need to work through his Defense Ministry connections. Still, I hated leaving it out there without doing something.

I started, remembering another problem, the low point of the day’s meeting.

“Oh, Jesus, and thanks for that whole thing about getting this in the House Appropriations Bill,” I said. “That’ll never happen.”

He looked surprised. He’d completely forgotten the strategy I’d laid out in the staff meeting with Michael, as usual remembering only the result – we could get it done – and forgetting the details. My whole strategy depended on the Senate: while I was going to try with Will Richardson in the House, Emirates always go over much better in the Senate, something about status and the special kinship Senators feel with any kind of royalty. “What do you mean it won’t happen?”

“Senate, I’ve always said Senate. I said I’d try in the House and fail, setting us up for Joint Conference. I think I’ve even been able to identify a Senator who, with a little nudge from Harry, might be willing to give us a hand.” If Harry was actually able to deliver Sen. Joseph Belkin, Raymonda’s boss and the ranking Republican on the Senate subcommittee, it would go a very long way toward locking in the amendment. “Senator Belkin, from New York, lives out on Long Island amid the horse-y set, loves the sheikdoms. He’s even got a Foreign Ops staffer I’ve known for about fifteen years. Just the kind of person I’ve been targeting from the start.” Weller looked blank. “Great, well anyway, it’ll work, but not in the House, in the Senate and we nail it in Conference. And you just promised this guy a victory in the House.”

Weller smiled wanly. “I’ll tell Fawzi. But you should probably expect the Ambassador to be upset, at least until the Senate acts.”

As the cabbie approached the corner of Florida and Massachusetts Avenue, Weller directed him to pull to the right, a move that would save me about five minutes on my way to the Hill. Opening the door, he paused, with his feet on the street outside, and turned back briefly to me. “That’s why I need you, son. Keeping me honest.”

* * *

Checking my watch as I approached Rayburn, I saw I had some extra time, probably enough to catch Charlotte for coffee. I had a dinner tonight, so we’d hoped to meet up.

Entering Congressman Heaney’s office, I said a quick, polite “hi, how are you?” to Anna, the receptionist, and moved on. For all the brilliant, hard-working, and accomplished eye candy that Washington has to offer, some of those women are … well, not. Heaney was notorious for staffing his front desk with some of the dumbest, least competent women in Washington, women you wouldn’t even want taking phone messages for you. But damn, they were gorgeous, stunning young kids working as front-desk jockeys, just out of college, starting out at the front desk in the hopes of landing something better but not showing the slightest bit of promise they’d ever get it. Anna was most certainly one of those, 22 or 23, slender, oval face surrounded by waves of dark, full brown hair, and lush brown eyes I could just go swimming in for hours. But another of those Washington rules that had to be followed was that, while a five-minute chat about the weather with a gorgeous woman was a great break in any man’s day, you absolutely did not even notice the women who worked in the same office as your wife. It just caused trouble.

“Hey, babe.” I’d caught Charlotte heading toward her cubie as I came into the back office. “Still have time for coffee?”

Charlotte’s face lit up as she turned, and she gave me a warm smile. “Just give me one second.”

As she headed back toward the cubicles, I felt a glow watching her walk away. She was in a dark wool skirt and jacket, one of her more upscale outfits – she must have some group coming in from off the Hill for a meeting, constituents probably. I eyed her again, as if for the first time: tiny, five foot four, and petite – little small bones, all in proportion, a nice tight butt, and short, tight brown hair. She’d never liked her body – breasts too small, not tall enough, a fear of weight tending to gather in her butt – but she is perfectly balanced, every inch matching up to every other inch, the epitome of proportion.

This coffee was something of a ritual, scheduled whenever we could. With Charlotte out of the house so early, generally before I even dragged myself out of bed, we never got to chat about the morning paper, that day’s Washington Post front-page update on the scandal du jour, or whatever. Meeting like this was the only way to spend time together during the workday, and it was always so much better than falling all over each other first thing in the morning: we’d avoid the whole thing about me getting in her way in the bathroom and moving too slowly to do the breakfast dishes, or her having to adjust her time and energy level down a notch to keep from bowling me over. This way, we’d both be up to speed and well into our day. It was usually only a few minutes when we could fit it in, but it was, most importantly, something to carry us through for the next ten hours or so while we ran at Washington’s pace.

Elbows on the table, two hands holding the mug to glean all the warmth from it, Charlotte smiled at me over Rayburn’s dishwater coffee. “Glad you could make it.” Even on days I was all over the Hill in meetings, I couldn’t always find time for coffee.

“I needed the break,” I said, smiling. “Remember? Today’s some of the annual visits to the folks who hate us. I’m on my way to Wallingford over in Ellen Thomason’s office. That’ll be a nightmare.” I laughed a little at the thought of yet another staffer yelling at me. “How’s your day shaping up? The boss in?”

As I said earlier, Charlotte worked for one of the biggest assholes in the House. This wasn’t just my opinion, it was pretty much everybody’s. Members of Congress get elected for a whole lot of reasons, but there’s never been a single one who got elected because he or she was a good manager. Most of them are bad at it, some of them excruciatingly so: Mikulski, LaFalce, Heaney, legends even among their peers. In those offices, having the boss in the office or not generally affected the entire tenor of the day. It was a Tuesday, meaning that the first votes for the week in the House wouldn’t happen until somewhere around four o’clock this afternoon, so there was a good chance he was still on his way in from Tennessee.

“No, not yet, but you can already sense the approach of doom, and feel everybody’s mood shifting.” She shook her head. “It’s sad, they’re good people, it’s just that he’s such a toad and they’re all so scared.”

“Why do you stay with him anyway?”

“Oh, he doesn’t scare me, and besides,” she said, looking down into her coffee as she spoke, “I was hoping you might be ready to find another career for yourself.”

“Honey, I’m about to sign my first client, the first one that’s mine,” I said, a little more plaintively than I’d meant to. “You can’t want me to leave now. I can make something out of this one.”

“Jesus, Ed, they’re not even a country, for Chrissakes.”

I picked up my coffee and took a long slug – God, it is such bad coffee, I thought, but I needed time. “Well, not for now, but there have been dozens of countries that have emerged from the Soviet Union.” Maybe not dozens, I knew, and fifty thousand vegetable farmers were never actually gonna be a country, but it was the best I had. Then again, maybe … I’d have to check all those post-Soviet countries, I thought; I hadn’t followed the splintering of the Russian empire too well, and representing this client, I should know it enough to come up with a better answer than that. I searched, and said, “Besides, Ukraine wasn’t an independent country at first.”

“Ukraine has a history five thousand years old and is enormous, so don’t even try that one.” She grinned at me – she was clearly annoyed, but not so angry that she wasn’t determined to keep it light. “Your guys sound more like 50 former Communists gathered around a Citgo station somewhere in the Urals deciding to pick a fight.”

I laughed. “Look, it’s my first client, and I want to make this work.” I glanced at my watch. I wasn’t prepared to argue this; I wanted this client, wanted to play it through. “Listen, I have to go, I don’t want to be late for Wallingford – it will just give him more reasons to complain.”

“Sweetie, I’m just saying…”

“I know, babe, you’re saying it’s time for me to think about a serious career, something I can be proud of, not some bullshit lobbying gig stuck in this place with all these people.” I waved in the direction of the accumulating crowds, the dozens of staffers filing through, some stopping to sit for impromptu meetings. “I just, I don’t know, it’s different seeing it with my own client.” I paused, and then smiled at her. “Even if they do run a Citgo station.”

“To what end? Freedom for Uzbeks?”

Kazakhs, I thought to myself, Kazakhs, but it’s probably safer to let that slide. Having no serious answer for her, I choked down the rest of my coffee, gave her a kiss, and left.

* * *

Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, green binding, looking down, scribbling a note like I cared what he was saying, looking up again, finding the green binding, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, leaning a little left to see past his head from where he’s slid over a little, twenty-two, twenty-three, and, little more left, yes, twenty-four, and that was the end of the row. Look down at notes, 24, that’s added to 26 on the bottom, 22 on the second shelf, 35 on the third, so that 107 books in that bookcase. Yep, 107. Next?

Franklin Wallingford, national security staffer for California Senator Ellen Thomason, was in full attack mode. This kind of meeting usually only happened once or twice a year, but when it did, the key was to sit there, listen and take notes. At least, pretend to listen and pretend to take notes.

Meetings with Congressional staff were the lifeblood of our business, and I spent enormous amounts of time every year talking, and especially listening, to staffers. For one thing, I needed to get in to make the pitch for our clients. More importantly, though, I needed to find out what people were up to, what their interests might be, how the people who weren’t helping us out might react to our plans, whether we could trade a vote here or there for something we needed, etc., etc. Most of the meetings I usually enjoyed, because I actually was interested in the foreign aid bill, and the foreign aid business, and I was almost always learning something new. This kind of meeting, though, this was torture. After a morning meeting with a client who couldn’t stand us, going straight into a meeting with a staffer who couldn’t stand another of our clients was definitely a frying pan/fire kind of a deal.

“Now I am going to read to you from the Constitution, the Constitution that Koliba endorsed, the Constitution overwhelmingly approved by the Parliament and the people, the Constitution yutta yutta yutta blah blah blah…”

He didn’t actually say that last part, but, well, let’s face it, some of these people just weren’t worth listening to, and I’d developed some defense mechanisms to keep from going crazy. This particular skill I learned from conversations with my father, a gab artist from way back, using an approach reminiscent of the classic Far Side cartoon of a dog listening to her master and hearing only her own name: “blah blah blah Ginger, blah blah blah Ginger.” With Dad, it was more along the lines of “blah blah blah Gilbert and Sullivan, blah blah blah Rodgers and Hammerstein,” but it worked pretty much the same. It had served me well over the years, becoming almost as important as my ability to read things upside down on people’s desks.

Wallingford leaned forward in his seat, pointing his index finger at me. With a start, I dialed back in to what he was saying. “How do you sleep at night?” he said. “How do you face yourself in the mirror in the morning?”

Ah yes, the old I-so-disagree-with-you-your-life-it-must-be-unbearable thing. I sleep very well at night, I thought, probably better than you, all wound up tight as a drum the way you are. Looking closely at him, though, at the fire in his eyes, I could see that the question was rhetorical and no answer was expected or desired. Letting my mind wander again, I wondered how long I’d be stuck here.

I’d known I was in trouble when Wallingford came out to the front office and asked me if part of my job was to report back to the clients what people in Congress had to say. When I responded yes, he’d asked if I minded if Mindy, or Buffy, or Candy, or whatever the preppy little intern by his side went by, joined us to take notes. As if we were going to discuss something momentous that he’d need notes on later, a lobbyist and a staffer – what, we were supposed to be making history here? I paused before answering, to let him feel like he’d gotten one up on me, in the vain hope that might reduce the amount of horseshit I had to sit through. I should have been so lucky.

Wallingford had been going on for about twenty minutes by the time I started counting the books behind him. Counting like that while pretending to pay attention actually took more effort than you’d think, so I was heading for the end of my rope here. It had to be close to forty-five minutes by now, but I didn’t dare look at my watch.

What a job.

Twenty excruciating minutes later, I was on my way across to the House side of the Capitol, having learned what I needed. Near the end of the meeting, Franklin had gotten off his whining about Koliba and had told me what he intended to do about it: he was working with staff on the SFRC, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to prohibit all funding for Koliba’s government this year, and would push to do the same thing in both the State/Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill and the Defense Appropriations Bill. A complete cutoff of money from all sources, which would mean that not only would Koliba not get any foreign aid – the money he didn’t give a rat’s ass about – but he also wouldn’t get the $20 million in cash that the Pentagon gave him every year to pay for our ‘secret’ CIA listening post. The classified pot of money, unknown to most of Washington, including poor Muffy-Buffy-Candy-Mindy-Whoever, since she blanched when Wallingford brought it up.

Now I had something I could work with.

* * *

About a week later, I met up with Will Richardson at Voce, my favorite Italian restaurant in Washington, one of the power restaurants along Pennsylvania Avenue and a particular favorite of mine since you could actually get a decent meal without having to order steak.

This was the dinner Will and I had agreed to at his fundraiser, and another of those leaps into the Big Leagues that Uncle Harry and I had talked about. I’d known Will for years, and bought him one dinner a year ever since I signed on with Michael. This was looking like our last such dinner, what with both Houses of Congress pushing reform legislation that would prohibit lobbyists from feeding Members of Congress. More importantly, though, it was a major new step in my relationship with Will – not the dinner itself, but the fact that I was asking Will for something big. That was a change.

While Will had always been one of my ‘go-to’ people in Washington, up to now it had only been for news and advice, not for action. Like I said, our relationship began as two guys out on the town but evolved over time as I got to recognize his quick mind and his understanding of the process. So on those pre-Charlotte nights we were out catting around, we’d talk Washington, and we’d bat ideas and options off each other. I’d feed him information on countries that seemed to interest him, and he’d feed me information back on various Subcommittee mark-up plans, on people who were pushing amendments against our clients, on people who might be looking to trade their support if I could help find them other votes in Committee. It was always mutually beneficial, and neither of us ever gave up anything critical, but it was the perfect symbiotic, grease-the-wheels Washington relationship. Like other similar relationships I had, it gave me the kind of inside access that defined ‘special interests’ for most Americans and spurred the periodic cries for reform, for limits on lobbyists. These pleas have never worked, because no one has ever found a way to stop the free exchange of ideas without shutting down the entire system. If I was any indicator, though, the sentiment is well placed: I had access way beyond Joe Public Citizen, and this dinner was just another example of that.

“So what’s this one-minute?”

I looked up from my arugula salad and smiled. He was getting right down to business. “I wasn’t sure you’d remember,” I said, smiling.

He said nothing, waiting.

Reaching into my jacket pocket, I took out a single sheet of paper, unmarked, with a brief speech on it. It was titled, ‘Kazakhstan: Promoting Ethnic Freedoms.’ I slid the paper, still folder, across to Will. “Here it is. Nothing major. Nothing to get you in trouble back home. Just taking a flyer, trying to see if anyone’s listening. For our newest client, the Dungan-American Friendship Society.” That wasn’t quite true, since we hadn’t signed them yet, but close enough.

“The What?”

“Dungan-American Friendship Society, a group worrying about the Dungan, a nomadic Asiatic people living in Kazakhstan. A pillar of the economy, a small, industrious group of Chinese origin surrounded by about nine hundred thousand Kazakhs. The contract isn’t finalized yet, but they’re worried about President Nazarbayev, who’s increasingly erratic, and they just want someone – the U.S. – to notice they’re there.” I’d gotten it out pretty much just as I’d practiced, three quick sentences, simple, understandable, easy-to-grasp. Now I sat back, to see if it sold.

Will looked down at the paper for a moment, and then back at me. He was thinking, not about the text, but about what I’d said.

For those of us who weren’t swimming in huge pools of campaign cash, trust had always been the true currency of Washington. Being someone who people trusted was a critical survival skill, and the core of my success as a lobbyist. You didn’t have to agree with other people, and you didn’t have to try to make them feel good; you just had to be straight with them about whether you were going to help them out or whether you were going to try to screw them. Whichever you chose, the key was always to tell other people the truth and never ever get caught in a lie. I’d successfully cultivated that reputation, taking great care throughout my career to always tell the truth. Waiting for Will’s decision, I could sense that my long cultivation was on the verge of paying off.

“So what’s the point?”

“Credit with the client. An early chit demonstrating our effectiveness.”

“You know these are a joke?” he added, tapping the paper with one finger as he reached for his wine glass with the other hand.

“New client. You start at square one.” I smiled.

“Okay. Next week all right?” As I nodded, Will went back to his Caesar, leaving the paper where it was on the table, halfway between. By the time he would pick it up later that night, no one would remember that it was me who’d placed it on the table. Just another move in the lobbying two-step.

* * *

An hour or so later, as he finished up his Delmonico, Will asked, “So what’s this new thing? The UAE? What’s that all about?”

We’d been chitchatting about the Committee, avoiding this topic for the last. The one-minute was an easy ‘yes’ for Will, so it wasn’t a risk to start out the meal with it. This, though, he might say ‘no’ to – in fact I was counting on him saying ‘no’ at first, and then agreeing to my second option. But Members hated saying ‘no,’ and it was uniformly a serious conversation killer. There was nowhere to go with a conversation after a ‘no’: what did you say next? So it was always safest to hold the big topic until the end of the meeting, or dinner, so you could clear on out of there without anyone feeling uncomfortable.

“It’s something Congress hasn’t done for a few years, designating a country a Major Non-NATO Ally of the United States. Israel, Egypt, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, Morocco, Pakistan; there’s a batch of them. Our client wants the designation, but DOD hasn’t allowed one to be named for a while. So we need it in Foreign Ops.” I cut a sliver of swordfish off of the small scrap on my plate, stretching out the explanation with a little bit of silence. “Nothing too serious.”

“That’s it? It’s pretty lame.”

I laughed lightly, coughing as I did on the swordfish. “Will, I’m not talking to a rookie here, I’m talking to you. You know the UAE, you know how we work with them, and I’m betting that since I mentioned MNNA status at the fundraiser, you had someone in your office brief you on the issue.” I paused, looking at him. He held his poker face, so I reached for my wine and took a long sip. A Barolo, rich and fruity; a wonderful wine, I thought for a moment, realizing that I might just miss meals like this. “So if you want the whole spiel, I can give it to you, but let’s be serious, you don’t need it and you probably don’t want it.” I smiled.

In point of fact, I wasn’t ready to lay the whole story out on the table. Wellington had been pushing me hard not to talk to anyone about the ARCHON, the air defense system for which our MNNA amendment was developed, because it was so secret. I’d convinced him that whoever sponsored the amendment would have to know what it was really about, and that meant that Uncle Harry would as well. But he’d insisted I tell no one else at this point, which made my strategy for this dinner even easier. If I couldn’t tell Will the whole truth, I wasn’t going to push him very hard just yet.

Will glanced around for a moment, reaching without looking for his own wine glass, and grinning ever so slightly as he brought the glass to his lips. He emptied the glass, and as I reached for the bottle, leaned back against the banquette.

“Yes, I did. The amendment doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.” He looked around again. No one was close enough for him to be worried about being overheard, so I knew he must be playing for time. Doesn’t want to say no to me, I thought; that’s just what I was hoping for. “I just don’t see a real need for it, and your client wanting it isn’t enough for me right now.”

“Well,” I said, exhaling slowly for effect, “we need to find somebody to carry this one, and you were our only bet in the House.” Picking up my knife and fork, I carefully speared the last piece of swordfish. Pausing before putting it in my mouth, I asked, “Your guy didn’t talk to the Subcommittee staff, did he?”

He shook his head. “You said you weren’t ready to go public.”

“Thanks.” I chewed thoughtfully. “What about Conference?”

His turn to look up from his plate. “What?”

“Conference, you know, that thing at the end of the year?” He smirked, and quickly flashed me the finger as he reached for his newly filled glass. “I think we can get it in the Senate, but I’ll need someone to ask the Chairman to accept it in Conference.”

He paused, looking up and off to the right, his ‘tell’ that he was actually considering something. “That might work,” still looking away. “But it’s too easy, too quick an alternative.”

I looked around for the waiter. Will had said he had a party to go to, so we’d agreed to skip dessert. “I knew you’d never agree to offer it in the House. Too much exposure.” As our waiter surfaced from the table he was looming over, I signaled him for the check, and looked back to Will. “I wouldn’t have agreed to it on the basis of what I told you, and that’s pretty much all we’ve got for an argument.” At least, it was all I could tell you right now. “I’ve known you a long time, Will. You weren’t going to do it.”

* * *

On the street outside Voce, I stood with Will until he could flag down a cab. One pulled sharply to the curb, and, stepping off, he opened the curb-side door. He turned before getting in.

“Interested in a small party?”

I smiled inside; from my experiences with Will, a ‘small party’ could mean almost anything, from three girls he met in a bar somewhere to forty people drinking Margaritas all night until they ended up in the streets of Capitol Hill in a mammoth conga line. Well, that last one only happened once, and back when Will was a staffer, but still, it could be almost anything.

Charlotte was waiting for me at home, and I was tired. I’d had a good night, getting something for the Dungan and getting a commitment to support our UAE amendment in Conference. “Thanks, but I’m going to pass.”

“You sure?” he asked. “Someone dropped out at the last minute, and I’m short one guy.”

Hmm. While I didn’t know what kind of party he was throwing, I could guess from the context that the ‘someone’ who’d dropped out was probably a fellow Member, meaning the woman he’d been paired with would have been a serious looker. Not like the old wingman days, I thought.

Tempting.

Except for my being all married and shit.

“Yeah, thanks, but I promised Charlotte I’d be home right after dinner.”

“Your loss,” he said, and climbed into the back of the cab. Watching them drive slowly off, I shook my head, wondering what I’d be missing out on, wondering how long Will could keep this up.

Standing there, I ran the dinner through my head. I’d gotten pretty much all that I needed from him, but was struggling with the one new idea he’d given me: in between our discussions of the Kazakhstan one-minute and the UAE amendment, he told me I should look to the religious right for support for my Dungan. It was the one place that Kazakhstan’s government was vulnerable.

For years, evangelicals in the Republican Party had been more and more aggressive on freedom of religion overseas – or more precisely, freedom for proselytizing Christianity overseas. They’d pressed for a special office in the State Department pushing religious freedom, had inserted requirements into human rights reports about the issue, had ranted and railed about it for a long time. Will thought I should hop on that bandwagon.

For me, and certainly for my client, such a tack would mean a dance with the devil, a partnership with people we didn’t agree with to get at a mutual opponent. Not that I had anything against Jesus; I liked him as much as the next guy. I just thought the U.S. Government had no place helping spread anyone’s religion around the world, just as I thought other countries had no right to shove their religion – or, let’s say, their crazyass Wahhabist version of a religion – down the throats of the Moslem world just because they were swimming in petrodollars.

Will pointed me toward the Christian wackos’ most effective champion, Henry Little, a rabid little Idaho Republican whose very existence I could barely tolerate – not just pro-gun, but pro-assault rifle; not just anti-abortion, but supportive of snipers who shoot at abortion doctors; not just anti-gay, but all purple-in-the-face, hissing and spitting whenever gays are mentioned.

Little symbolized everything I hated in American politics, not because he believed all that stuff, but because of the way he used it. People’s beliefs never bothered me either way. It was the way they used them their beliefs for political gain, pulling Jesus out of a hat at some opportune moment like he was just another piece on the chessboard of Washington political gamesmanship. Same thing liberal Democrats always did with ‘the children,’ you know, the nameless thousands or millions of children whose lives will be saved or something by just about every amendment liberals put forth. “Let’s do it for the children.”

For me, using Jesus that way was always worse.

And here Will thinks I should ally myself with Little, I thought as I walked slowly up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. It was way too early in the year to think about pursuing such an option, but it gave me a new and urgent assignment: to find some other way, some other agenda to push for the Dungan. What a miserable business this can be, I thought, dodging a cabbie as I crossed against the light at 13th Street; what a miserable business.

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