Awash with insider stock tips, crates of booze, lavish dinners and expensive gifts, the over-the-top tactics of 19th-century lobbyists would make contemporary K Street bad guy Jack Abramoff blush.
“Conditions were ripe to spawn a ruthless era in which special interests, spoilsmen and corruption seemed to ooze out the doors of every government office,— Kathryn Allamong Jacob writes in her new book, “King of the Lobby: The Life and Times of Sam Ward, Man-About-Washington in the Gilded Age.—
Jacob details how a swashbuckling scion of a wealthy New York family settled into his lobbying career in Washington, D.C., after failed attempts at love, banking and California gold prospecting. Jacob touches on Ward’s privileged upbringing, years gallivanting around the royal courts of Europe and his ill-fated relationships before delving deep into his stints in Washington, then a sparsely inhabited swamp barely resembling today’s cosmopolitan and stately city.
With scant ethics rules and vast fortunes to be made in railroads and other burgeoning industries, Jacob’s most salacious accounts describe the local exploits of her lobbyist protagonist and his contemporaries as they ply their trade during a less savory era controlled by a few wealthy interests and the plump politicians who fed at their well-provisioned tables.
In one encounter with a lawmaker, Ward recalled in a letter that “I met with him yesterday at the Capitol and had a long intelligent talk. I then perceived that he has a tantalizing way of unbuttoning and buttoning up again the right side pocket of his trousers. Several times I fancied that, like other pilgrims in peril, he hoped open sesame would produce a check or a pungent greenback.—
Jacob also produces page-turning tales of ethically challenged reporters — “so scantily paid by the journals,— an observer stated, “that they are forced to prostitute their pens.— Another observer cited by Jacob chronicles a new breed of lobbyist in Reconstruction-era Washington: the “lobbyess.—
“New in the Gilded Age were the women who came to Washington with the intent to lobby, pure and simple, and not for lofty goals like justice, civil rights, equal rights or any of the other abstract principles like those that had brought women abolitionists and would continue to bring advocates for women’s suffrage to Washington,— Jacob writes.
“These new women were after pensions, contracts, compensation, land, subsidies and patents. Some were advocating for their own claims, but some push the claims of others for money — a commission, a salary, living expenses.—
Jacob’s book also offers interesting details involving the then-unrivaled expansion of the federal government — and its inevitable lobbying opportunities — following the Civil War.
“In the early part of the nineteenth century, many Americans felt the presence of the federal government in their lives only when their mail was delivered, but in the years just after the war, they could not help but feel it nearly ever day, though pensions, railroad policy, patronage, patents, claims, schools, even free seeds from the new Department of Agriculture,— Jacob writes.
By the author’s count, the federal government in 1802 had “fewer than 300 government employees— working in Washington. Within 80 years, that number had increased to more than 14,000.
Despite the obvious lure of the quid pro quo, Jacob maintains that her hero, Ward, was above temptation, a prototype of an ethically sound lobbyist who would make current White House ethics czar Norm Eisen proud.
“Nowhere — not in contemporary newspaper accounts, obituaries, congressional testimony, Sam’s own letters, or those of his clients and contacts — was there any hint that Sam took a bribe, offered a bribe, engaged in blackmail or used any other such methods to win his ends,— Jacob writes.