The media like a simple story line -- and Joe Lieberman's defeat in the Connecticut Senate primary fits the bill: Pro-war senator goes down. Anti-war progressives ascendant, Republicans gleeful, and so forth. But Lieberman is more than an ally in the Bush administration's dissembling on Iraq. He is yet another example of someone who came to Washington as a purported idealist and turned into a creature of the capital's big-money culture. Lieberman's loss is a loss for Cheney and Rumsfeld to be sure, but it's also a loss for an army of sleazy political operatives and consultants.
While Lieberman is best known outside of Washington for his neocon views, he's famous in the capital for his undying support for corporate causes. There are countless examples: Remember Lieberman's role in blocking the reforms of stock option accounting that former SEC chair Arthur Levitt was trying to enact? This was a question of honest accounting that became part and parcel of the corporate corruption scandals of recent years, and Lieberman was a champion of the wrong side.
Beyond that, Lieberman happily has done the bidding of the pharmaceutical companies, the insurance companies and many others, thus establishing an unsavory underside to his more admirable record on environmental and other issues. And of course, his support of and continued rationalization of the Iraq invasion, like many of Lieberman's other stances, has served chiefly to benefit large corporations, in this case the "national security/homeland defense" industry that got a huge boost from Bush's reckless military adventurism. It's no great surprise to learn that Karl Rove called Lieberman the other day after his loss, and described him as a "friend."
Lieberman and his defenders have tried to portray his brand of politics as "centrism." But it has little to do with mainstream voters and much to do with the money culture of Washington of which many Democrats have become a part. And yet, Ralph Nader is wrong in his blanket condemnations of Democrats: You still are more likely to find someone willing to stand up to the big money boys among Democrats than Republicans. But the gap is narrowing. Voters sense it.
How big a problem is the growing influence of the bipartisan Beltway Party? Details on this can be found in a report from the Real News Project, a new nonprofit noncommercial investigative reporting outfit I founded. RealNews examined the track records of prominent Washington Democrats, consultants, advertising and public relations executives, lobbyists, attorneys and the like who have close connections to the top circles of their party. Many of them served in the Clinton-Gore White House, and many of them will likely be tapped should a Democrat be elected in 2008 and have considerable influence in a future Democratic-controlled Congress.
We scrutinized scores of Washington Dems and found many ensconced in firms working to advance corporate agendas that don't look that different from policy we see emanating from the Bush administration. To be sure, many of these people have redeeming qualities, represent some admirable causes as well, and may personally harbor inclinations for the greater good. Yet, in trying to earn a handsome living in Washington, they apparently do what a person's gotta do. Can political success and influence be attained without working for The Man? Let's defer that debate for another time and start with a few facts.
First, let's check in with Mike McCurry, President Clinton's former press secretary. He's a partner at the firm Public Strategies Washington, Inc., and serves as chairman of Hands Off the Internet -- an outfit created by telecom companies such as AT&T and BellSouth which, paradoxically, want to put their hands ON the internet by creating what amounts to internal tariffs on internet traffic for large downloads and such. The hands that are supposed to stay off are those of regulators or legislators who want to keep the internet free.
Want Clinton? Over at a "strategic communications" company founded in 2001, you've got enough Friends of Bubba to fill a VW bug. There's McCurry's successor as Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart, and Al Gore's top strategists Carter Eskew and Michael Feldman. There's Howard Wolfson, former spokesman for Hillary Clinton and executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And Joel Johnson, senior adviser for policy and communications to President Clinton.
When an election pops up, nearly the entire top brass rush to work on it. Lockhart and Wolfson, for example, took leaves in 2004 to work on the Kerry campaign and at the DNC. Johnson went from another firm to the Kerry campaign, then joined Glover Park.This mixture of politics and business seems to be working, because in 2005, the firm was ranked the fastest-growing private company in the District of Columbia.
What business, you ask? Even before Glover Park, Eskew, who has done media work for Sens. Chris Dodd, Joe Lieberman, and Tom Harkin, and is close to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, was criticized for his work providing media advice to the tobacco industry. This time around, Eskew has been working again for Lieberman.
Among Glover Park's clients: Rupert Murdoch, who paid Glover Park about $200,000 for work to block TV ratings changes that could harm ad revenues at his Fox Broadcasting (the attempt was unsuccessful). Glover also got a large retainer for PR work and organizing groups against the plan (including the Don't Count Us Out coalition, which initially gave the impression it was an independent group representing the interests of people of color but turns out to represent mostly one Australian media buccaneer by the initials R.M.) Is it a coincidence that Murdoch's New York Post went from gleefully pillorying Hillary to praising her and attacking her critics and opponents?
Other firm clients have included the government of Turkey; Think About It (another faux-grassroots outfit waging an unsuccessful campaign to allow casino gambling in Maine); Microsoft (handled media inquiries about Microsoft's ties to Jack Abramoff's lobbying team); the Pentagon; Asbestos Study Group (an industry coalition formed to fight for limits on asbestos-related lawsuits); the Coalition to Preserve DSHEA (wants to continue making health claims for food supplements without scientific backing; multilevel marketing firms love this, most health and consumer groups don't); and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), undoubtedly big fans of making prescription drugs more affordable.
How small a world is this cozy micro-universe? Lets take a Quinntessential example:
Jack Quinn served as Vice President Gore's chief of staff and later as counsel to President Clinton. In January 2000, he left what was still a Democratic White House and formed Quinn Gillespie with Ed Gillespie, a Republican and close friend of Tom DeLay. This firm was among the pioneers of the one-stop-shopping approach that has since swept Washington. Want to influence the legislative process? Now you can get right to the top of both parties by hiring a single firm.
Quinn Gillespie has represented clients who want to drill in fragile areas of Alaska, put the screws to already beleaguered American creditors, and prevent the introduction of more healthy dairy substitutes in school lunches. Quinn helped secure a controversial pardon for the fugitive financier Marc Rich as Clinton was leaving office.
Firm clients have included: Enron; the American Petroleum Institute (supported lifting federal ban on offshore drilling on the outer continental shelf, including Alaska; opposed raising taxes on oil companies); the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care (which of course is actually the notorious nursing home industry -- the Alliance was indicted in late 2004 for a $100,000 illegal contribution to DeLay's PAC); the Partnership to Protect Consumer Credit (which wants to preempt tougher state and local laws designed to protect consumers); the International Dairy Foods Association (which opposes the introduction of more healthful dairy substitutes in school lunches); "Ax the Double Tax" coalition (which in truth prefers no taxes at all, but if they must exist, would like corporations to be able to repatriate foreign subsidiary profits at a lower tax rate); Bank of America (fighting stricter consumer data-protection legislation proposed after big data breach at BOA).
Perhaps the coziness is most poetically illustrated by the fact that there is another Jack Quinn in the same business, but, in a perfect reversal of Jack Quinn #1, he is a Republican paired with a Democrat. The increased Dem-Republican cooperation (perhaps 'cooptation' is a better term) is reflected in remarks by yet a third Quinn, Thomas Quinn (no relation to either Jack Quinn). Here's what he says about the work of his firm, Venable LLC, applies to the whole politically neutral K Street scene today: "Here we work very collegially, and I've gotten more collegial as there are more Republicans. We work closely with Republicans. All of us are in this together."
Thomas Quinn has been active in Democratic politics from Sen. Edward Kennedy's (D-Mass.) presidential run in 1980 to Sen. John Kerry's (D-Mass.) in 2004. He's a key player on financial services, taxation and homeland security issues. Venable's clients have included: Wal-Mart, Tsakopoulos Investments (Wal-Mart-connected real estate developer opposing Endangered Species Act restrictions) and McWane (Birmingham, Ala.-based cast iron pipe manufacturer whose executives were convicted in federal court of environmental crimes).
Mark Penn was a principal pollster for Bill Clinton. He continues to do work for Hillary Rodham Clinton. He is Burson-Marsteller's worldwide chief executive. Burson practically invented the concept of faux-grassroots organizations (known in the trade as "astroturf") that were no more than fronts for corporations and industries pushing embarrassing products and agendas. For example, Burson created the "National Smokers Alliance," a purportedly grassroots movement for smokers rights, on behalf of its client Altria (Philip Morris Tobacco) and later funded the Center for Individual Freedom Foundation (advocates for "smaller government and greater personal liberties," led by a former B-M exec), which has lobbied to block obesity-related lawsuits against fast-food restaurants. One of B-M's clients is McDonald's (recent ad campaigns have sought to give the fast-food chain a healthier image by promoting exercise and balanced diets), which has been the target of several such lawsuits. According to consumer advocate John Stauber, B-M employees spied on opponents and critics of genetically engineered cow growth hormones when the firm was working for the companies developing the hormones.
Other B-M clients have included major pharmaceutical companies (advised Johnson & Johnson after the Tylenol tampering crisis; launched a "corporate reputation campaign" for Merck after its blockbuster arthritis drug Vioxx was pulled off the market); Royal Dutch Shell (charged with a massive financial fraud in a U.S. class action lawsuit brought by the UNITE National Retirement Fund and the Plumbers and Pipefitters National Pension Fund); the Iraqi National Congress (of the controversial Ahmad Chalabi); Dow Chemical (Dow has refused to compensate the victims of the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, a liability it inherited when it took over Union Carbide.)
Bill Andresen is senior vice president in charge of federal lobbying at Dutko Worldwide. Part of Harry Reid's K Street Cabinet, he served as chief of staff to Sen. Joe Lieberman, and has worked with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and Third Way, an advocacy group for centrist Democrats, which is pushing for closer ties to business.
Firm clients have included: York Capital Management (an investor in distressed companies with an interest in minimizing asbestos liability); the Ephedra Committee of the American Herbal Products Association (the controversial Ephedra was blamed in the deaths of scores of people, the best known being Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler); the Personal Watercraft Industry Association (wants to assure the right to use wave runners and other motorized vehicles on lakes and rivers and in national parks); the American Chemical Council (oppose efforts to control pollution and protect public health from toxic chemicals, and push the U.S. government to oppose EU efforts to test chemicals sold in Europe for health and environmental risks), and General Dynamics (a huge defense and "homeland security" contractor).
Michael Berman has played a key role in every Democratic convention since 1968. He's president of the eminently bipartisan Duberstein Group; his boss, Kenneth Duberstein, is a former chief of staff to President Reagan. Firm clients have included Comcast (nation's largest cable operator; uses aggressive anti-union tactics, trying to block cities from providing cheap wireless internet access; censored political issue ads it didn't like); DeBeers (hired to protect the interests of the huge international diamond mining/trading company as Congress considered legislation that would strengthen bans against the sale of so-called "conflict diamonds" that fund civil wars in parts of Africa); Arthur Andersen (Enron accounting scandal), and something called "Americans for Accountability" (lobbying disclosures for this "accountability" group say it is interested in educational reform but unaccountably does not show up in article database searches or search engines); the oil companies Conoco, Amerada Hess, and USX/Marathon (firms that supported lifting economic sanctions against Libya, named as a state sponsor of terror, to gain access to Libya's vast oil reserves); the Business Roundtable (big business super-lobby; goals include social security privatization, elimination of class action suits, and opposing mandatory reductions of greenhouse emissions).
Leslie Dach, a former media consultant for Bill Clinton, former senior advisor for communication for the Democratic National Committee and the Kerry for President Campaign in 2004, and a lobbyist for the Environmental Defense Fund. He's vice president of Edelman World-Wide and heads Edelman's Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practice where his role has included defending Edelman PR's relationship with tobacco companies, despite the company's pledge not to represent tobacco companies. Clients of his CSR practice include TotalFinaElf (an oil conglomerate with interests in Sudan and investments in Burma that provide revenues to the country's oppressive military regime), and the foods giant Kraft (owned by tobacco company Altria, it is trying to improve its image and convince the public it is not aggressive in marketing junk foods to kids; the company makes, among other things, Oreos, Chips Ahoy! and Kool-Aid). Dach was architect of Wal-Mart's "rapid-response war room" designed to preempt and counterattack criticism of the company from labor, environmental and small business critics.
Say hi to Phil Goldberg of the firm of Shook, Hardy and Bacon. Goldberg served as an aide to several Democratic members of Congress. Before coming to Shook Hardy, he headed the litigation communications section of D.C. public relations firm Ketchum (run by former GOP House star Susan Molinari, it's the outfit that channeled $240,000 from the Bush administration to Armstrong Williams, the prominent African-American radio and television personality, for his support for the president's No Child Left Behind project). Promotional materials say that Goldberg "educates the public and other important audiences of client issues. Through his work, Phil has become an emerging voice in the moderate wing of the Democratic Party."
Goldberg personally represents the National Restaurant Association (objectives include making it more difficult to sue over obesity-related issues and opposition to consumer group efforts for greater truth in labeling). Firm clients have included the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers (on medical malpractice liability and opposing class actions); Animal Health Institute (on limiting pet medicine manufacturers' liability for animal health); Philip Morris/Altria (limiting liability in class-action suits); Coalition for Litigation Justice (insurance industry lobby group seeking to limit liability in asbestos and silica cases). The firm was named by the International Who's Who of Business Lawyers 2005 as "the world's leading firm for product liability defense expertise."
There's Anthony Podesta, not to be confused with his brother, John Podesta (Bill Clinton's final chief of staff and founder of the liberal Center for American Progress; John also did occasional lobbying for Podesta Mattoon until 2003)*. Another bipartisan wonder of a firm, employing the son of Republican House Speaker Denny Hastert. Firm clients have included major pharmaceutical firms; Vehicle Renting and Leasing Alliance ( opposed holding rental companies liable for injury, death or property damage arising from renter or lessee's negligence); U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (lobbying to allow Made in USA labels on garments produced at levels below U.S. minimum wages); Pacific Open Markets Coalition (ditto) , Coalition for Fair and Affordable Lending (nonprime mortgage lenders who oppose state and local laws designed to protect consumers); Altria (Philip Morris Tobacco).
Remember Jody Powell, Jimmy Carter's press secretary? He now hangs his shingle with Sheila Tate, who was Nancy Reagan's press secretary. Together, they run a crisis management and PR firm that has gone through too many ownership changes and renamings to be sure what it will be called when you read this. Try Powell Tate/Weber Shandwick.
Firm clients have included: the Saudi Economic and Development Co. (whose projects must comply with Islamic law); Crusader Industrial Alliance (lobbied Congress and the Pentagon not to terminate the Crusader self-loading cannon system, which critics called outdated); the Alliance for Better Foods (created to promote public acceptance and to oppose labeling of genetically modified foods); Hooters of America (not clear if Hooters complies with Islamic law); Food Lion (which gained notoriety when an ABC News hidden camera report revealed shocking labor and sanitary practices in its supermarkets); Americans for Safe & Efficient Transportation (opposing tough state clean air standards); the Japanese Whaling Association; the New Zealand government-owned logging company Timberlands (was involved in controversial rain forest logging on public lands).
In terms of political correctness dba making money, it's hard to top Ingrid Duran and Catherine M. Pino, political and personal partners who appear to take advantage of their identity as Latina Lesbians to play in D.C.'s power sweepstakes.
Duran held several positions on Capitol Hill, served on Clinton's Advisory Committee on HIV/AIDS and was president of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) for six years. Pino worked in the foundation world and for a Democratic senator, and served on the board of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.
Today, they are partners in D&P Creative Strategies, whose motto is "Consulting with a Social Conscience." Among other things, it gives corporations advice on fostering an improved image through philanthropy, outreach to communities of color, etc. Firm clients include: Wal-Mart; Comcast (nation's largest cable operator; uses aggressive anti-union tactics, trying to block cities from providing cheap wireless internet access, censored political issue ads it didn't like); Sodexho (huge French-owned military food contractor, facing class action suit by black employees over racial discrimination in hiring and promoting practices).
And this is merely a sampling. For those wishing to read of still more Democratic consultants who have joined the Beltway Party, check out the full report.
[*This article originally stated that John Podesta does occasional lobbying for Podesta Mattoon, which is incorrect. Podesta occasionally lobbied for Podesta Mattoon until 2003. The article has been corrected to reflect this.]
Russ Baker is a freelance journalist and essayist. He is the founder of the Real News Project.