Special K Street.

Special K Street.

Special K Street.

Policy made plain.
Sept. 17 2003 11:42 AM

Special K Street

The fantasy world of Washington meets the reality-based culture of Hollywood.

Microsoft, the company I work for, had almost no "Washington presence" (as it is euphemistically called) until just a few years ago. Like most other high-tech firms, Microsoft felt that it needed nothing from the government. Then lawsuits started raining down, and people started telling Microsoft it was naive. Rival companies were working hard to get the government on their side. Why should Microsoft refrain?

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This made some sense. You live in the world as you find it, not as you wish it to be. It might be nice if the largest corporation in America (by some measures) could mind its own business and expect the government to do the same. But in reality, refusing to wallow like a reptile in the influence-trading swamp is almost a violation of a big company's fiduciary duty to its shareholders. Nice little software company you have here. Sure would be a pity if something legislative happened to it.

Naiveté was just the beginning of the indictment, though. The company was called arrogant: Who the hell do you think you are? Why should you be exempt from the tax that Washington's influence-peddling culture imposes on every other big corporation? Ultimately, there was even an implication that refusing to play the influence game was downright unpatriotic. Real American corporations hire lobbyists. They maintain big District of Columbia offices and throw lavish parties where Washington big shots can socialize with one another at the stockholders' expense. It's the American way! You got a problem with that, buddy?

Shortly after I arrived in Redmond (after two decades in D.C.), I got a phone call from a well-known Washington figure who had just left the White House for a K Street law firm. Hey, it was great to talk to me. He missed me in D.C. He was really sorry we'd been out of touch, he said. Very eager to hear how I was doing out here. Happy to have grabbed this chance to catch up. And, by the way, he felt awful, for my sake and for the country's, about the beating a great company like Microsoft was taking, and he would love to be able to help. Could I put him in touch with someone?

I couldn't, but here's the kicker: I had never met this man in my life.

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Half a dozen years later, Microsoft has a Washington presence with all the bells and whistles and a payroll of political consultants and ex-politicians with someone to impress and offend every political taste. (My "friend" is not among them.) And whaddayah know, the company's standing in the country and the capital does seem to have improved (as, of course, it should). Welcome to the club, and God bless America.

The question is whether Washington influence-peddling could get any worse—more brazen, more effective, more seductive as a career choice for people who arrived in the capital as idealists of various sorts. And the answer is always: Yes, indeed. Just wait. With the premiere last Sunday of K Street, an HBO comedy/drama series about Washington lobbyists, the industry has plunged to new depths of respectability. Real-life Washington figures, such as Sen. Rick Santorum, have bit parts in the show. Washington's leading fictional self-creations, James Carville and Mary Matalin, actually star in it, playing "themselves."

There was a time—until, say, 25 years ago—when lobbyists used to deny being lobbyists. They hid behind a lawyer's license or some other professional veneer. They were sharing their wisdom and experience, not their connections and influence. There also used to be a convention that lobbyists of different political persuasions did not mix in the same firm. This helped practitioners to sustain the illusion that they were working for their beliefs, not—or not only—for the privilege of submitting a bill. There used to be a pretty clear split between political consultants, who helped politicians to get elected, and lobbyists, who importuned them on behalf of private clients. Today there are full-service influence-peddling empires that deploy connections in both parties, that plant clients in public office and influence them on behalf of other clients at the same time, that brag almost frankly about their "access."

Politicians now importune lobbyists, rather than the other way around. The Republican House leadership openly pushes lobbying firms to hire more Republicans. You want us? You buy us. Why should we give it away?

Influence-peddling, in short, has grown from something acceptable to something positively respectable or even admirable. And now, as Slate's Tim Noah points out, it is even glamorous. Glamorizing the influence trade may not be the intention of K Street, but it's unavoidable, just as The Sopranos glamorizes murderers and thugs, and Meet the Press glamorizes Tim Russert.

K Street uses the wobbly hand-held camera and the quick cuts and other items in the visual vocabulary long familiar from shows like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. This look is intended to convey a sense of realism and honesty. The mere visual association with shows about dedicated public servants lends an unearned sense of gritty integrity to less admirable subjects, such as big-time legal practice (L.A. Law). And now, hand-held-camera populist nobility has been conferred upon a group of people who charge a lot of money to give disproportionate influence in our democracy to people with even more money. And somewhere in America, there is a child who watched K Street and is thinking this week, "I want to be a lobbyist when I grow up."