This article first appeared in Vanity Fair, March 1998
King of the Hill
Scion of a legendary political family, brother of ABC News pundit Cokie Roberts, and partner in Patton Boggs, a law firm that raked in $90 million last year representing giants such as MCI and Sony, superlobbyist Tommy Boggs is the living heart of Washington's money culture.
BY CARL BERNSTEIN
Tommy Boggs, Washington's premier agent of influence, is relaxing in the television room of his waterside farmhouse on Maryland's Eastern Shore, a few miles from his 425-acre duck-hunting preserve and its lodge, which seats 32 for dinner. He's a bit overweight, but somehow his three-toned corduroys look just right— even elegant—on him. After all, Boggs fancies himself a good old boy from the bayou, tells Boudreaux jokes (which are to Louisiana what Aggie jokes are to Texas) in a hopeless Cajun accent, begins wearing white suits shortly after Easter, smokes four or five Havana cigars a day (despite the federal ban), and will go anywhere in the word to hunt virtually anything that can be shot and eaten.
"Just write that I'm a pussycat," Boggs says with an exaggerated drawl. "It's the God's honest truth." Then he pauses, grins, and bellows, "Ho, ho, ho!" At the moment, Boggs is glued to the TV, where his sister Cokie Roberts is speaking with considerable horror about the impending meltdown of political Washington caused by various fund-raising scandals engulfing the president, vice president, First Lady, members of the administration, and Congress. Boggs turns away, rolls his piercing emerald eyes, and sighs, "She should know better."
Still, Boggs is worried. He's sure he’ll come out O.K., but it seems clearer that the president, his staff, and perhaps several powerful congressmen—Boggs's friends and, in the case of congressional Democrats, his political soul mates-are going to be pilloried by their political opponents and by the media.
On this balmy day in the pre-Lewinsky era, Boggs has no doubts about the resilience of Bill Clinton or the resistance of Congress to enacting meaningful reform of the campaign-finance system. This is a man who recognized Bill Clinton's national potential almost as early as the president himself, raised money tirelessly for his re-election, discussed fundraising with Al Gore, flew on Air Force One, and analyzed developments with Democratic Party chairman Chris Dodd. Lanny Davis, one of Boggs's former law partners, has served as the president's "counsel for spin control," and 17 other partners have held important posts in the administration (among them Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, Boggs's former partner and protege, who died in a 1996 plane crash). But here's another key to Boggs's power: over the past 15 years, he has raised money for more congressmen than any other lobbyist.
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The success of Dimas Hale Boggs Jr. owes much to pure skill, political acumen—and pedigree. He is the son of Hale Boggs, the legendary House majority leader from Louisiana, and Lindy Boggs, who occupied her husband's congressional mat after his death in 1972 and is now Clinton's ambassador to the Vatican. Experience has taught Boggs that whatever happens in the Clinton White House or in Senator Fred Thompson's fund-raising hearings, Washington life will go on, however shaken the rest of the country may be. He is an expert at the long view.
What Boggs also believes (and what he thinks his sister Cokie should know) is that Washington a not yet in disarray; it's in quite functional shape, and he—as lobbyist, lawyer, fund-raiser, and head of rmarkable political clan—is at its well-organized center.
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By eight A.M. the next day, Boggs is at his 10-foot, glass-topped desk in the post-Federal-style office building his law firm occupies on the edge of Georgetown. Shortly after nine, he clips his first Havana of the day and begins taking calls from clients.
Name an industry with a major interest in governmental policy and Patton Boggs—the 275-lawyer firm of which he is one of the two marquee partners—represents it: communications (MCI), oil (Shell), health care (Federation of American Health Systems). Then there are the others: M&M/Mars, the Newspaper Association of America, New York Life, Holiday Inn Worldwide, Sony, the American Bankers Association, ARCO Chemical, Hewlett-Packard. Patton Boggs's list, with more than 220 clients, takes up twice as much space in the directory of Washington lobbyists than that of any other firm. All of them want the same things: legislation, influence, and regulatory action that will bring them greater profits.
Money and lobbying are as familiar to Washington as scandal. From Jefferson's era to Teapot Dome, from Jackson's age to the slush funds of Nikon's Watergate, political Washington has periodically been awash in dirty money and politicians willing to take or deal in it. But until the post-Watergate era, the basic ebb and flow of political power in Washington took place in she marbled Pennsylvania Avenue corridor between the While House and Capitol Hill; money was secondary—though hardly immaterial—to policymaking.
Nothing testifies more poignantly to this antiquated system than the striking political trophy elegantly mounted and displayed on the wall directly across from Tommy Boggs's high-backed chair. It's a collection of 50 pens, each used by Lyndon Johnson to sign a separate piece of Great Society legislation—voting rights, Headstart, Medicare—shepherded through the House by Hale Boggs, a southern gentleman, ingratiating host, deft congressional deal-maker, political power broker, integrationist by conscience, and moderate New Dealer by temperament. And here, it might be said, is where his son's heart still lies. "The job of government," Boggs believes, "is to help the people"
Or so he says. If nothing else, Tommy Boggs is an unusually complex character who embodies a deeply disturbing transformation in how our national polity is organized and run.
Back in what Boggs calls "the old days"—his father's era lobbying was a kind of sideline in Washington, sometimes little more than a one-man operation. There were wheeler-dealers such as Franklin Roosevelt's political crony Tommy Corcoran, who knew how to make a buck by advancing an interest through the governmental process. There was the ubiquitous Clark Clifford and, on the Republican side, Bryce Harlow, whose office space was paid for by Colgate-Palmolive. "You had," Boggs recalls, "the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. You had trade associations, but not thousands of freelance lobbyists, and not whole public-policy shops" It was only after Watergate, he says, that "there was a total breakdown of the old political order." He adds, "That was just about the time we were taking off as a firm."
In the ensuing years, a new city has grown up along K Street north of Pennsylvania Avenue, stretching from fashionable Georgetown to political downtown. It's composed of gleaming office buildings that sit relatively low to the ground and house more than 100,000 lobbyists, regulatory lawyers, public-policy advocates—and their attendant pollsters, P.R. people, number crunchers, and "grassroots guys" (as Boggs calls them), who organize pressure groups back home to "spontaneously" support a client's positions.
This new infrastructure of corporate special interests may, in fact, wield more real power than the federal bureaucracy itself. At the very least, it dominates the decision-making process
in Washington, largely because its members are better organized and better financed than anyone else (and because they are major contributors to political campaigns). Last year, for example, Patton Boggs billed its clients $90 million, more than 920 million of that in direct-lobbying fees; it steered millions more to the campaigns of incumbent members of Congress and to the president.
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Modern Washington, says former senator Bill Bradley, a Boggs-family friend, "is dominated by money, and money creates political campaigns where the candidate does not go out to meet the voters. He just sits there and raises money. Therefore certain interests—including corporations—are able to marshal huge influence. In Congress you leave to raise money at a clip of $25,000 a week and you never define yourself politically. You are everything to everybody: You convince yourself that you are a great politician when, in fact, you are a great tactical manager because you commission polls every week or every day. And to have polls, you have to have money. And, without polls you fear that you won't have the advantage over everyone else. It becomes naïve to actually take positions on issues."
Except on behalf of contributors. This is where lobbyists such as Boggs come in, flush with campaign cash, advising clients how to cover their bets as if they're dealing with poker chips. Today the odds are stacked high in their favor, and their legislative objectives are increasingly assured.
Ralph Nader, the nemesis of Washington's corporate culture, likens picking the top lobbyists in this atmosphere to picking the hungriest shark. "It's like throwing rare meat into a pool, and 20 big-time sharks fighting over it," he says. "No one asks which shark is more powerful as long as the feeding frenzy continues and more meat—the tax dollar—gets thrown into the pool. All these guys are on the same side—against the public."
Then again, it's almost impossible to find anyone who counts who's ready to say a bad word about Tommy Boggs—on or off the record—even among those who now denounce the system he has done so much to construct. This is unheard of in a city that thrives on gossip and backhanded character assassination. Even Nader agrees that Boggs has modernized and updated the game through a combination of skill, financial leverage, and genuine mastery of the system.
Wayne Thevenot, a former congressional aide and fellow lobbyist from Louisiana , sounds almost reverential about the man at the heart of a system Thevenot chins to find disgusting. "Tom Boggs has a different personality than most lobbyists," he says. "He likes politicians and their company and the way they think." Here Boggs is truly his father's son. "He's one of them. He loves the game." Lanny Davis adds, "If you write about Tom Boggs as the prototypical lobbyist, you will be missing a big part of him. He's a paradox and contradictory. If you miss the complexity of him, you're missing an important part of the story. Darkness and light, special interests and public interests—it's not that simple."
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The tension in Tom Boggs's life can be traced back to his father, Hale Boggs—the desire to do good works (for which Tommy is famous in his private life), the persistent belief that his family's values lend an ennobling presence to his profession. In his social views, Boggs has never abandoned his father's progressive New Deal—Great Society beliefs. The pro bono causes he champions—on behalf of the homeless, against the proposed flag-burning amendment, for indigent criminal defendants and cash-starved cultural institutions—fit the Johnsonian mold.
Patton Boggs, he says, exaggerating only slightly, is "the largest black law firm in America," with about 20 African-American partners, and Boggs's charity work—for individuals he supports out of his pocket and for Washington's Catholic charities, which named him their man of the year in 1996—consumes hours of his workdays. The pride he takes in having saved thousands of jobs through his lobbying work an Congress's Chrysler bailout of 1979—representing Chrysler—falls into the same category, he reasons. So does his claim that Americans deserve congressionally mandated universal health care.
But that's only half the story—the better half. Facing those pens, sitting behind that glass-topped desk too large to reach across, phone receiver trapped between ear and shoulder, Boggs juggles calls from insurance companies determined to dismantle Bill Clinton's health-care proposals; communications businesses eager to make sure the government auctions off the most lucrative communications channels of the future with no strings attached; nuclear-energy companies poised for the coming battle of utility deregulation—expected to be one of the biggest windfalls in the history of Washington lobbying, worth hundreds of millions in fees.
In short, Boggs works for corporations hell-bent on creating a 90s-style Great Society, in which the campaign for social reform, from the New Deal to Nixon, will be only a memory. As Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity recently told The National Journal, Patton Boggs's "only criteria seems to be whoever walks through the door and has money."
Boggs's reluctant detractors view his success almost with sadness, given his mastery over a system they abhor. Many wish he were in another line of work: public service, specifically
"I always thought the turning point was when he ran in Maryland for the House in 1970 and lost," the acquaintance says of Boggs's one run for elected office. He detects in Boggs "a deep tension" that "goes back to trying to go the other way first. He tried to go into public service and it didn't work. Being in the House would have put him on a totally different-track."
In fact, nothing says more about modern Washington than the fact that Boggs, who has never been elected to anything, is perhaps the most successful politician in Washington (aside fm Bill Clinton)—and wields more influence than his father ever did. "The best thing that ever happened to me," Boggs says, "was that I got beat when I ran for Congress."
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Tommy Boggs's life, whatever its complexities, has had an almost dreamlike quality to it. Along with Cokie, he is to Washington what Carrie Fisher is to Hollywood. (There was another sister, Barbara, who died of cancer in 1990 while serving as mayor of Princeton, New Jersey.) He was born in Louisiana in 1940—eight days after his father's first successful congressional campaign—but grew up as part of Washington's brat pack. His family's home was constantly filled with the city's most powerful men. "I was interested in politics ever since I can remember," he says. "My sister Barbara used to say that some people have antiques and jewelry around the house, but we had the Kennedys, and Humphreys and Rayburns. My old man loved to entertain at home. He'd call at seven and say, 'Lindy, I just ran into four guys on the floor and I'm bringin' 'em home to dinner.'"
In high school, Tommy spent his summers as an elevator operator in the House of Representatives, opening doors for men who would someday open very different kinds of doors for him. Washington served as a cocoon, and as Boggs grew up he showed no desire to shed it. After his elementary-school years at Blessed Sacrament in Chevy Chase, he attended the elite local schools Georgetown Prep, then Georgetown University and Georgetown Law School. He stuck around even in the summers, working an intern for Paul Douglas, the famously independent (and scrupulous) Democratic senator from Illinois, who took on an almost paternal role in Tommy's life. After law school, Boggs received job offers fm more than a dozen top Washington law firms ("on the strength of my intellect—ha-ha"). But he rejected all of them and founded his own law firm with Jim Patton, the youngest partner at Covington & Burling, then Washington's top law firm. "I never forgot my father's reaction. I said, 'Dad, going to practice law with a guy named Jim Patton.' He said, 'Who? It doesn't make any sense. You practice law with a major firm in town!'"
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Boggs started quietly, doing legal work for clients such as the Boating Industry Association. But he recognized fm the beginning that, for Hale Boggs's son, lobbying was the way to go. "I had a ridiculous level of self-confidence. Interviewing with a lot of law firms, I quickly saw that they had very little knowledge of how Congress worked. And in those days there were just a handful of lobbyists, anyway—virtually none in any of those firms except for Clark Clifford—so I saw a need, and I knew that I wanted to represent companies with problems in government." In the early years, when Boggs was establishing himself, he was rocked by the death of his father, whose plane disappeared in Alaska while he was stumping for a House colleague in 1972. When he speaks about this loss, Tom Boggs's lively eyes glue over mad a look of genuine anguish appears on his usually relaxed face. "I was mad," he recalls. "We'd just really gotten to be really good friends. I was also mad he'd done it. He didn't want to take that damn trip no more than a man on the moon—and for a congressman who could have easily gotten reelected." He slows down. "I had a chip on my shoulder for about a year. I wasn't terribly pleasant to be around."
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The burden fell on his wife, Barbara, whom he had begun dating when they were 12, and married at 20. Hale and Lindy Boggs had a real partnership—political, social, and emotional. In a different era, so do Tommy and Barbara, who owns a thriving business that plans social and convention events in the capital. They discuss—and argue about—everything, just as the whole Boggs family did on Bradley Boulevard in the 1950s, in the house where Cokie and her husband, journalist Steve Roberts, live today ("A house that was full of love and conversation," says a friend. "A family with the most highly developed egos of any family I've ever met.") "Barbara a extraordinarily pragmatic," says their childhood friend Susie Hoskins, who runs a popular catering business in Washington. "With Tommy, you have the guy who dreams up the idea—the artistic person, the marketing person, the promoter. Their lives are a perfectly run operation. Tommy can come and go as he needs during the week and ntend to his day job. Come Friday afternoon, he's on his way to his haven, the Eastern Shore, where in the summertime it's water and in the wintertime it’s guns."
As in his father's day, entertaining on a grand (yet somehow homey) scale provides emotional and political sustenance-- even with 40 for dinner, which Tom usually cooks. "Gloppy food—jambalaya, red buns and rice, plus huge hunks of meat and the ducks that have been shot that day" says Hoskins. "He thrives on it." A contemplative man who teases but never offends, Boggs uses excess as part of his methodology—the white suits, the constant jokes, the gloppy meals. Just as lobbyist Bob Strauss's exaggerated Texas swagger and sagebrush persona have worked wonders for his clients, Tom Boggs wears his heritage with a flair, partly because it stands out in colorless Washington. And partly because it worked for Hale Boggs.
Yet Boggs's celebration of his Louisiana roots is more than mere pragmatism. In a state dotted with Hale Boggs buildings and bridges and Lindy Boggs education centers and gardens, the family is royalty in New Orleans—something akin to what the Kennedys are in Massachusetts. Lindy's house sits behind an exquisite courtyard on Bourbon Street, the honky-tonkiest neighborhood in America. Her son, who sometimes throws major fund-raising bashes at her house, works hard to maintain New Orleans as an identifying locale in his life even though he didn't really grow up in Louisiana,
"He wants to be an authority on New Orleans restaurants, just like he's the authority on everything else—so he can expound," Hoskins says. "He's interested in doing business in Louisiana— any business down here that doesn't get him put in jail."
Lindy Boggs's neighbors include pimps, strippers, druggies, down-and-out musicians, and the lines of tourists waiting for a meal Galatoire's. "You have to wade through them all to get to the front door of one of the finest houses in the city," says a frequent guest.
Tommy Boggs glories in this human gumbo. On Super Bowl Sunday, awaiting the guests for one of his parties, he is dressed in a white suit and flanked by 300-pound Jefferson Parish sheriff Harry Lee, who was once Hale and Lindy Boggs's campaign chauffeur. Boggs steps outside his mother's house, a Bloody Mary in hand, a smile on his face, offering toasts to the characters on Bourbon Street. He follows their ragged parade wills boyish enthusiasm.
"Tommy is Big-Time Charlie," says a close friend. "Everything he does is too much. Too much food, too much expensive wine, too much of a belly. Everything is bursting out, bursting forth."
No other lobbyist entertains with his sense of theater and extravaganza effortlessly mixing the personal and the political. An invitation to one of his shoots is a Washington rite of passage. Congressmen and captains of industry crouch together in the duck blinds on Boggs's irrigated, state-of-the-art marshland preserve off the Chesapeake, side by side with gun-toting locals, in-laws, and law-firm acolytes. Usually the guy having the best time is Boggs himself.
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There was, in the years after his father's death, another event that altered Boggs's life—this time in his all-encompassing congressional family. In the post-Watergate 1970s, as Patton Boggs steadily grew, the rules of the Washington game changed. In a wave of reform, Congress passed new "sunshine" regulations that eliminated closed committee hearings and the automatic seniority system for House- and Senate-committee chairmanships. This helped curtail Congress's "buddy system" (as Boggs calls it) of secret favors exchanged by powerful leaders, ("You know, 'You vote for my dairy program in Vermont and I'll vote for your sugar program in Louisiana.'")
Now much more of the legislative process was out in the open, and special interests—from organized labor to the steel industry—couldn't count on a few powerful old men to organize votes on their behalf, At the same time, in 1974, Congress adopted strict new campaign‑reform laws; instead of going to the Speaker or the minority leader for campaign funds channeled from large corporate or labor coffers, Boggs says, "members of Congress had to go out and raise money from lots and lots of people." No longer would "the Speaker of the House simply say, 'Take care of this young congressman from Texas—he's very good on your issues, Gulf Oil Company.' Now the guy has to call 15,000 people to raise 11.5 million, which is the cost of most contested House races."
Enter the political-action committees, used by lobbyists largely to bundle campaign contributions. Suddenly politicians were depending on lobbyists to raise their campaign money. The Watergate reforms, as Wall Street Journal reporter Brooks Jackson has written, "turned what had once been a subterranean trickle of special interest money into a roaring cascade." And the new shadow government of lobbyists soon engorged K Street.
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That was when Tommy Boggs came into his own as a lobbyist. In the 1980s, following his crucial work on the Chrysler bailout, his mastery over the Democratic Congress because one of the basic legislative realities of Washington. He accomplished this, in part, by pioneering some of the agressive fund-raising techniques that would, on a far larger scale, lead to the current White House scandals, "You have got to make the contributions if you are going to compete in the congressional and regulatory marketplace," says Boggs, acknowledging that those who can't afford to pay seven-figure lobbying fees are increasingly shut out of the political process.
Meanwhile, lost in the headlines about the president's fund-raising, is an essential truth: the real culprits—who regularly deliver voles and favors for major campaign contributors—are the members of Congress. "Unless an issue will defeat it congressman, he'll vote for a contributor every time unless it will be embarrassing to folks back home," says Charles Lewis. "Usually the folks back home don't know about it. It will be on some issue that a corporate entity wants that's on page 823 of some elaborate bill."
The campaigns of more than half the Democrats in Congress have been bolstered by the fund-raisers Boggs hosts. Still, he professes a certain distaste for the fund-raising that has been so important to him. "Too much time is spent raising money, and lobbyists play too important a function in that regard," he wrote in a 1993 New York Times op-ed piece. Today, he adds, "It would be a relief, frankly, to take some of the pressure off having to raise as much money as campaigning now requires."
Each election year, partners at Patton Boggs discreetly contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money to congressional candidates, most of them incumbents. Conveniently, half the firm's partners are Republicans, among them the former counsels to Bob Dole, the Republican National Committee, and the Christian Coalition. (After the 1994 election, the firm entered into a client-sharing agreement with the powerful G.O.P. consulting firm of Hecht, Spencer & Associates.)
Not surprisingly, Patton Boggs has figured in Bill Clinton's campaign fund raising. Its partners personally contributed at least $100,000 in 1996, exponentially more if you count the contributions raised through clients and their PACs. (Tom and Barbara Boggs have regularly opened their own pocketbooks, donating at least $500,000 to Democratic congressional and presidential campaigns in the past decade. For the record, Boggs estimates his net worth at "under $10 million.")
All of this fund-raising and contributing has been accomplished in complicated ways devised by Boggs and other lobbyists to circumvent the intent of the 1974 campaign laws which were meant to limit the opportunities for big corporations, unions, and other lobbying entities to influence congressional votes and White House policies with their money. Still, Boggs insists that "the perception that money buys a lot in D.C. is way overblown." By his own estimate, Boggs raised at least $600,000 in so-called "soft money" for the D.N.C. during the last presidential campaign through personal solicitations or by hosting fund-raising events. That doesn't include another $100,000 he persuaded his client MCI to add 10 its total contributions in late 1995.
This solicitation was especially well timed, for it came just as the Clinton/D.N.C. campaign was in dire need of money for television advertising. MCI was then in the midst of a battle with other telecommunications giants over who would get what share of future business under the Telecommunications Act that President Clinton finally signed into law in 1996. (MCI has paid Patton Boggs an estimated $1.5 million for its work.)
Such strategic contributions to both political parties are not exceptional under the campaign-finance system that has evolved over the past 20 years. It's a system in which money is often given by corporations, unions, and trade associations not necessarily in expectation of any immediate quid pro quo, but as a kind of protection money—the prevailing sensibility in Washington being (in the words of one insider): "We may not necessarily help you if you contribute, but we certainly won't be out to hurt you." Boggs says he personally donates to and raises money for as many as 125 politicians during a campaign cycle—usually by hosting small $1,000- to $5,000-a-head dinners and cocktail parties—and his partners help perhaps another 30 candidates financially. "I've never been known as a big fund-raiser," Boggs adds, somewhat overmodestly, considering the contributions he helps steer from his clients toward congressmen and the president. Indeed, members of his firm sent some contributors to those infamous $50,000-a-cup White House coffees. "If you give me credit for the Trial Lawyers Association, that's 14 million right there," Boggs says, noting that—unlike Patton Boggs—other firms have their own PACs, through which they contribute a percentage of partners' fees. "In fact, I don't think any firm does as many fund-raisers as we do."'
Few lobbyists make as much money as Boggs. He charges about $550 an hour and has clients begging him for more time. Even at these prices, his fingerprints are all over town. A partial list of clients he handles personally—the Dole Food Company, G.E. Capital Services, the Major League Baseball Players Association, MCI, American Express—is impressive by any standard, and he holds on to these clients in an increasingly competitive lobbying atmosphere.
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Despite his professed interest in progressive legislation, Boggs has spent much of his career working for clients eager to exploit the deregulative atmosphere of the 80s and 90s. His representation of MCI on the telecommunications bill of 1996 ultimately helped earn tens of millions of windfall dollars for the company (while its customers were the last to realize any cost benefits). Last year Boggs was paid $200,000 by the Smokeless Tobacco Council to help chewing-tobacco and snuff manufacturers fight anti-tobacco legislation. In the kind of gesture he considers conciliatory, Boggs recently persuaded Congress and regulators to hand over a federal building and government land in California to his client, Pacific Lumber. In return, Pacific agreed not to hack down stands of ancient redwood trees.
That's just for starters. Boggs's firm has represented former Haitian dictator Baby Doc Duvalier, the Zairean and Guatemalan goveraments, and the sheikh of Abu Dhabi in Iris internecine dispute with the fraudulent B.C.C.I. banking empire, which was partially funded by his kingdom. The Abu Dhabi government has paid Patton Boggs more than $5 million in legal and lobbying fees, and other Middle Eastern governments—Jordan, Oman, Qatar, the Emirates—are among the firm's biggest accounts.
"Baby Doc was strictly Ron Brown's client," Boggs says, passing the blame to his dead partner. "If we had it to do over again and had known the complications of Haiti, we would have rejected it.” Clearly, this subject makes Boggs uncharacteristically jumpy.
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The world has changed a lot—nobody around is representing New Deal/Great Society type programs," says Cokie Roberts, defending her brother, to whom she is very close. “The buzzwords today are 'private-public partnership,' and actually my father was involved in that concept."
Boggs knows how to play the system for his clients as well as anyone. Lanny Davis says, "You can give a million dollars to a member of Congress, [but] if you ask him to vote on something that is going to cause him to be defeated in the next election, he won't do it. Boggs never asks you to do anything that is going to hurt you." Several members of Congress, as ideologically different as liberal Democratic representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana and conservative-Republican senator John McCain of Arizona, agree that Boggs's political finesse is unparalleled on Capitol Hill. And at the White House, the genuine affection for Boggs is as palpable as it on the Hill.
Like many of the new generation of lobbyists, Boggs traffics in information. He is an expert at gathering it from and for clients—information about how individual bills will affect a congressman's constituents, about who will be the next session's key chairmen and ranking members of committees. "His dad gave him that aura," Davis says. "But if you followed him around when he was lobbying an issue and compared him to other lobbyists of his station and rank, you'd be amazed at how substantive he is when he's talking to stuff." This is an increasingly valuable quality in the Newt Gingrich Congress, where lobbyists sometimes literally dictate the content of bills to congressional aides.
Boggs is convinced that, for a lobbyist, controlling information is more crucial than twisting arms, salving egos, or simply handing over campaign contributions—that it is, in fact, the most important part of modern lobbying technique. "Tommy gets information by allowing you to assume that he already knows what he wants to find out," says someone who has watched it happen numerous times. "He convinces you he knows something and then you get to talking about it and you end up telling him what he wants to know."
In today's environment in which faith in government—and hence the information government provides—is collapsing, the lobbyist with seemingly trustworthy information is in an enviable position. "Now," Boggs says, "I can provide from industry sources quicker, more accurate, computerized information on a given issue than an administration agency."
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When Boggs set up shop, there were fewer than 100 registered lobbyists in Washington. Today there are 10,000. Anyone's list of the most powerful would include Vernon Jordan, President Clinton's good friend and chairman of his transition team; Bob Strauss of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld (also Jordan's firm); Bud Bernhard and Harry McPherson (L.B.J.'s former White House counsel) of Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson, and Hand; Lloyd Cutler, who served briefly as President Clinton’s counsel; Jack Valenti, who has represented Hollywood in Washington since he left the Johnson administration; and Republicans Charls Walker, Tom Korologos, and William Timmons. Then there are the congressional leaders turned lobbyists, including former senators Howard Baker, Paul Laxalt, and Warren Rudman, and even the disgraced Bob Packwood, who seems to have landed on his feet on K Street. All are part of the bipartisan revolving door through which paper and money flow in Washington.
Still, even the most jaded Washington observers seem shocked that the tobacco industry, which last year paid lobbyists $311 million, was able to hire Baker, whose first wife died of lung cancer; former Texas governor Ann Richards, a recovering alcoholic; and former Senate majority leader George Mitchell, a onetime icon of good government. All are paid huge fees to persuade Congress and the White House to accept the $368.5 billion settlement negotiated by the tobacco industry and state attorneys general in order to limit future liability claims by smokers.
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In addition to its congressional contacts, Patton Boggs has an unusually close relationship with the executive branch: former partners hold mid- to high-level posts in almost every corner of the Clinton administration. "I regret I have but one law firm to give to my country," Boggs says. (In fact, the firm's conflict-of-interest rules prohibit it from directly lobbying former partners.) Most of all, Boggs seems to have inherited the most persuasive qualities of his father—the good-old-boy charm, the intellect, the restraint, the aura of power. "Vernon Jordan is extremely powerful because of his relationship with the president," says Charles Lewis, one of Boggs's chief adversaries. "But Boggs is Boggs, and he stays at the top no matter who is president. Boggs transcends presidents because of who his family is."
In organizing his lobbying campaigns, particularly those aimed at stopping legislation and regulations unpalatable to his clients, Boggs understands one thing above all else and makes powerful use of it. "For every issue," he says, "there are 10 constituency groups that are well funded, and in that environment it's mighty hard to get 218 votes in the House for passage or 60 in the Senate"—the number needed to defeat a filibuster. He has honed the lobbyist's tool of coalition-building among constituencies, corporations, and industries—ones with often wildly different agendas that happen to coincide only on the matter in question.
In the lobbying struggle over the president's health-care package, for example, between $100 million and $300 million was spent by special interests in favor of or opposed to the legislation. As it often does when working with a coalition, Patton Boggs took on a number of clients with stakes in the health-care industry, all of which were opposed to the plan. (Boggs says his firm's fees related to health care totaled between $2 million and $3 million.) On behalf of the trial lawyers, Boggs persuaded the Judiciary Committee to insert an amending line that would kill the Clinton administration's plan to cap the cost of malpractice lawsuits and thus bring down the cost of health care.
"I think what killed the health program in Congress was just the size of if"—not lobbying, Boggs argues. Perhaps the most telling of Boggs's actions on health care was the simple fact that he did not offer his services to Bill Clinton a president he helped elect —on the most important initiative of his administration.
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Boggs does not disagree with those who criticize the appalling lack of legislative achievement in the post-Watergate era, but he chooses his words carefully, "There is no question that there has been a lack of effective leadership at both the presidential and congressional levels. But the quality of the individual members of the House and Senate is not nearly so bad as a lot of people think. Most of them do a pretty good job."
Perhaps for business reasons as much as personal inclination, Boggs portrays them almost as victims of the system, pressed for time because of fund-raising demands and subjected to savage intrusions into their personal and professional lives by a hostile press. He says they are tending effectively to their constituents' home-based interests at the expense, unfortunately, of maintaining a national vision, and have been constrained since the Reagan years by budgetary limitations—as if those limitations had nothing to do with their own fiscal irresponsibility.
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In fact, the questions that Congress and the federal bureaucracy have been addressing relate to various kinds of relief, favors, profit incentives, subsidies, set-asides, and giveaways—usually to corporations and contributors with the most convincing lobbying efforts behind their causes. The cumulative effect has boon to redirect congressional and federal purpose away from the more difficult problems of the country—infrastructure, education, housing, crime—and toward transforming Washington into a kind of business clearinghouse.
Regardless of which constituent groups or special interests win on specific legislative and regulatory matters, the players who always make out are the ones who permanently reside in Washington: the growing army of lobbyists, lawyers, pollsters, telemarketers, and other influence peddlers who are roughly in the same position as Wall Street brokers dating a boom market: they collect on every transaction, and Tommy Boggs collects more than most.
If you were to attend his garden parties, where the mighty of Washington hug and kiss, you would recognize the representatives of the old Washington as well as the new: senators and pollsters, journalists and P.R. types, Cabinet members and telemarketers, congressmen and lobbyists, sill mixing as easily as the Rayburn, Humphreys, and Kennedys once did in Hale and Lindy Bogg's dining room.
You might also recognize Tommy Boggs's children, whose occupations am telling. In the Great Society tradition, daughter Elizabeth works for a United Nations agency aiding the poor of Latin America. Meanwhile, over at the K Street offices of Swidler & Berlin is Douglas Boggs, Tommy's younger son, a lawyer in his own right. Not surprisingly, Tommy's older
son, Thomas Hale Boggs III, is also a lawyer, but has taken what might at first seem an uncharacteristic step for the Boggs clan. He has migrated to
Los Angeles, where he works for Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, which caters to political, banking, and entertainment clients.
It makes a peculiar kind of sense. In the last 20 years—Tommy Boggs's heyday—political Washington has increasingly resembled Hollywood. The two cities now seem almost caricatures of each other, each dominated by an elite of a hundred or so men and precious few women. Both are one-industry towns consumed with deal-making and "the gems." Four Zip Codes in the D.C. area—one of the country's richest regions, fueled by the K Street boom—now have a higher median income than Beverly Hills 90210. Tommy Boggs, to stretch the analogy not unreasonably, is now to Washington what Michael Ovitz was to Hollywood (before his recent troubles at Disney). He has re-fashioned the town, helped build a hugely successful new industry, is renowned for his integrity, and he's a terrific guy. And that's the good news.