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Obama and the K Street Set

Barack Obama's Washington was not supposed to be the lobbyists' Washington, the place we learned to despise during the last administration.
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There is something uniquely depressing about the fact that the National Portrait Gallery's version of the Barack Obama "Hope" poster previously belonged to a pair of lobbyists. Depressing because Mr. Obama's Washington was not supposed to be the lobbyists' Washington, the place we learned to despise during the last administration.

But our anger diminished while K Street kept on going. Now the Washington Post, that great barometer of the capital's consensus, has taken on what can only be described as a worshipful attitude toward the lobbyist set. And as its journalistic leader ushers in a new era, the attitude of the capital changes: Let us give thanks that our lobbyists are prosperous.

"The economy may stink for some, but things are going swimmingly for Democratic insiders," a page-one story in last Sunday's paper asserted. And the stage on which those Democratic insiders flaunt their prosperity, an Italian restaurant called Tosca, is the object of the paper's admiration.

We learn, for example, about the fussy food the lobbyists like to eat; about how you can divine a lobbyist's "status" by how they are greeted by the restaurant staff; but most of all we read about where the lobbyists sit.

"Table 45, tucked discreetly behind the servers' station," the Post tells us, "always goes to Steve Elmendorf, a hot hand these days in Democratic lobbying circles." According to lobbying disclosure forms filed with the U.S. Senate, Mr. Elmendorf has lobbied for Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and Clear Channel. Nevertheless, he was not always such a well-seated power-broker: He "started out on the banquette," the Post notes, and had to earn "his upgrade." How he accomplished this is not described. Like the precise services lobbyists provide for their clients, I suppose, his promotion at Tosca must remain one of the mysteries of democracy.

Then there's former Sen. Tom Daschle, today an "adviser" at the lobby firm Alston & Bird; the Post tells us he habitually occupies Table 26. And this is a special table, a table that is a good indicator of Mr. Daschle's career trajectory, should you happen to give a damn about such things. Things were dark when the former senator abandoned his bid to become secretary of Health and Human Services in February. But then, like the swallows coming back to Capistrano, Mr. Daschle returned to his lofty perch at Tosca. In fact, says the Post, "It was Daschle's return to Table 26 that signaled to know-it-all Washingtonians that he had no intention of fading away."

Sometimes the paper's lustful speculation about Washington's sycophants-for-hire becomes a form of sycophancy on its own. In August, for example, the Post's Style section featured a much-noted story about Heather Podesta, wife of lobbyist Tony Podesta, sister-in-law of Obama transition director John Podesta, and principal of her own lobby shop, whose clients reportedly include Eli Lilly, Cigna and Home Depot.

The story opened by describing how Ms. Podesta weaves through a party crowd to drop her own, very special bit of flattery on a powerful House committee chairman. But it quickly became a catalogue of the power that she herself wields--and of the ways in which that power is acknowledged and rewarded by the world: her European vacation home, the celebrity chef who cooked at her wedding, the Teamster who once got angry at her but who "backed off" when he figured out who she was.

Concerning public distaste for the influence-for-hire industry, Ms. Podesta comes across as refreshingly flippant. According to the Post, she wore an ironic "scarlet L" to last year's Democratic convention, apparently to laugh off last year's anti-lobbyist sentiment. She once issued an invitation to a fund-raiser promising a lunch that was supposed to consist of "the Select Committee on Intelligence for the first course followed by your choice of Appropriations, Judiciary or Rules committees"; the Post finds this "too cheeky."

But it's not just prudery or populist distaste for fancy risottos that turns the public against lobbying: It's the deep venality that makes possible jokes about senators being bought like lunches. It's the debasement of politics from a matter of persuasion to one of money and connections. And it's because the capital's main journalistic watchdog seems perfectly content to see politics made into a kind of financial transaction--so content, in fact, that the paper's publisher planned dinner salons that would apparently have put the Post itself on a partial pay-to-play footing.

These are uncomfortable times in Washington. The laissez-faire shibboleths of the last 30 years are in pieces on the ground; the Republican Party is a shadow of its former self; and energy, finance, and health care are all targeted for reform by a president elected last fall with a powerful mandate. And so it falls to our lobbyists to keep reality at bay--to step forward in this awful moment, when history itself is daily giving us such stark lessons, and make sure we do nothing to upset the order that keeps them so well fed.

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