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McCain Swims With The Sharks

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At a time when the public is sick of Washington insiders - just look at the 2006 election results - it's difficult to decide who poked a sharper stick in the eye of the electorate, Hillary Clinton hiring Mark Penn as her chief strategist, or John McCain signing up Charlie Black as his senior adviser.

On the surface, it's a tie. Both Penn and Black have become millionaires by exploiting their political connections; each headed a company - Burson-Marsteller and BKSH, respectively -- specializing the promotion of corporate interests over public interests; and each, interestingly, ran a subsidiary of WPP, a massive lobbying and public relations conglomerate.

On close examination, however, Black beats out Penn as the top campaign operative most out of sync with today's reform mood.

First, Black has not only been in the business for 28 years, far longer than Penn, but he was a pioneer in crashing through traditional ethical boundaries.

After working in the 1980 campaign of Ronald Reagan, Black joined forces with Roger Stone and Paul Manafort (and later, Lee Atwater) to form Black, Manafort and Stone. It became the first consulting firm to go "double breasted".

Before 1980, there had been a firewall between political consulting, on the one hand, and lobbying on the other. Political consultants viewed themselves as specialized professionals whose skills would be sullied by lobbying.

That was not the case for Black and his colleagues. What better service could a lobbying firm offer than the fact that its partners had helped guide a coterie of senators, congressmen and governors to victory? Would, for example, Jesse Helms or Strom Thurmond, two of Black's political clients, ever fail to return his phone calls?

"I think I've got -- if you just want to call it access -- I guess I've got access to just about anybody in the government," Black said in an August, 1989 interview, when the first President Bush was in office. "I think I know most of the [people in the Cabinet] through the experience of campaigns and around town. I guess I know most of the people in sensitive positions in the administration."

Asked about the ethics of lobbying public officials he had helped elect, Black argued: "I think there is a great advantage in dealing with people who you personally know and trust . . . most importantly, can they [elected officials] trust you [the lobbyist] to tell the truth . . . there is an advantage to the client and to the person in position of authority to deal with someone they know and trust," Black said.

Going "double-breasted" turned out to be a goldmine -- never mind the continued blurring of lines between campaign staffs and special interest pleaders.

Second, the more important reason why Black edges out Penn is that Hillary, in contrast to McCain, never claimed to be an anti-lobbying crusader. For her to hire Penn, chief honcho at Burson-Marsteller -- with clients ranging from Colombia to Coke -- may have run counter to prevailing public sentiment, but it did not shatter a reformist image Clinton had built her public persona on.

Not so for McCain. The Arizona Senator won the hearts and minds of journalists, editorial writers and self-styled public interest activists as Mr. Straight Arrow, the Republican who took on the corporate interests, sponsored the McCain-Feingold campaign finance act, and broke GOP ranks to denounce earmarks and tax cuts.

McCain's maverick form of integrity appealed to independents, who flocked to his 2000 campaign in every open primary he entered. Reporters clamored for a seat on the Straight Talk express where each would, for the first time in memory, get a chance to engage in give and take with a politician who appeared to say what he was actually thinking -- seemingly without talking points -- as McCain denounced sleaze, and with just the right kind of humility, defined himself as the political offspring of trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt.

But when McCain pieced together his 2008 campaign organization, it turned out that of all the candidates seeking the presidency, Democrat or Republican, McCain had filled the most top staff slots with registered lobbyists.

And who was a prime target of these lobbyists - lobbyists whose clients including such telecom companies as AT&T, Verizon and SBC Telecommunications; tobacco companies like Phillip Morris, UST Public Affairs and Lorillard; drug interests such as Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, GlaxoSmithKline and Bristol, Myers Squibb; and defense contractors Lockheed Martin and United Technologies?

None other than John McCain, the number one ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and the number two Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee.

Equally problematic for McCain are the controversial current and former clients of his top campaign aides. These clients include former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos; Iraq wheeler-dealer and proponent of the US invasion Ahmed Chalabi; and the government of Myanmar (aka Burma).

As disclosures of such connections have trickled out, the McCain campaign has let at least five top aides go, and has established its own new in-house code of ethics barring staffers from serving as registered lobbyists. It is not clear whether these rules will be easily understood by the public: the policy exempts both campaign manager Rick Davis and senior adviser Charles Black, who have left their private firms for the duration of the campaign.

Black, speaking on behalf of the McCain campaign, on May 20 told reporters that all the fuss over lobbyists is merely political hype.

"This is complete inside-the-Beltway nonsense," Black said. "I do not believe that average voters out there care."