Street Talk: Bye-Bye, Back Rooms? K Street Goes on Camera

Posted September 10, 2010 at 5:12pm

It’s 6:30 p.m., just a few minutes before Ron Christie will appear live on MSNBC’s “The Ed Show.”

Christie, a former aide to President George W. Bush who runs his own lobbying and consulting boutique, sits quietly in a windowless room with bookshelves for a backdrop. He looks seriously into a camera, legs crossed, his back in perfect TV posture, hands folded on one leg.

It’s a sharp contrast to the persona that breezed into the network’s Capitol Hill studio, casually ribbing his on-air opponent, liberal Bill Press, and bantering with makeup artists and NBC personalities.

Even though Christie’s talking-head gig is not his real job, he clearly means business.

K Street may have a reputation for back-room deals and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, but it’s an image-driven business.

Senator-turned-lobbyist Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has popped up on political and news shows, as has Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), a senior policy adviser at DLA Piper, is also no stranger to TV.

Kelly Bingel, a partner at Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti and a former top aide to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), appears regularly on cable networks, including Fox News, where she lays out the talking points of moderate Democrats. Lobbyist John Feehery, who worked for then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), makes the rounds on MSNBC, Fox and CNN. Jack Quinn, who runs Quinn Gillespie & Associates, has been a regular on the airwaves for the past decade.

Lobbyists who do a lot of TV say it can be time-consuming, but most agree that it has its benefits, too — promoting their business or, at least, their own name recognition. Christie’s seven-minute hit on “The Ed Show” on Aug. 25 was a two-hour commitment with drive time and makeup.

Christie said he makes the appearances to counter the liberals who promote President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats.

“It comes at a certain personal sacrifice,” said Christie, who has received threatening messages from angry viewers. “But it is far more important to offer a conservative point of view.”

Feehery, who like Christie doesn’t get paid for his TV spots, said he finds a way to fit in the appearances without interfering with his client work. And he sees an upside. “I think it helps with getting to be better-known,” said Feehery, who heads up the firm the Feehery Group.

But TV-savvy K Streeters say they also try to keep the conversation away from their clients’ interests.

Quinn said he doesn’t do TV appearances to promote his lobbying business. And, he said, if a topic involving a client ever came up, he would immediately disclose his stake in the debate.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been on a show the subject of which was a legislative issue; it’s always politics with a legal bent,” Quinn said.

Feehery also prefers to talk politics — not issues that concern his clients. He said his appearances on CNN have been less frequent recently because he represents BP and the oil spill has been a major news topic.

When Quinn, a former Clinton White House counsel, set up his lobbying firm, cable shows tapped him to discuss the contested 2000 presidential election. Though he does less TV now, Quinn made the rounds this year talking about Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Kagan worked for Quinn during her tenure in the Clinton administration.

“You kind of get into a groove with the producers and the bookers,” Quinn said.

But it’s not clear that it does much for a firm’s bottom line. Lobbyists on TV are usually identified by their former government positions, not by their K Street firm affiliation.

“I don’t think anyone has ever hired us because they saw us on TV,” Quinn said. “It probably had some upside, but it’s hard to measure. And I’m skeptical that it’s terribly significant. I can’t recall a time when the chyron ever said Quinn Gillespie. The amount of exposure one gets is really minimal, but it can be disruptive of your day.”

And Quinn said one of the reasons that he does fewer cable appearances is because of the shout factor.

“Frankly, I got tired of the increasing tendency for some of these folks to want a food fight,” he said.

Because Quinn has worked alongside many Republican colleagues since leaving government more than a decade ago, his partisan vitriol has simmered. “I’d much rather come on and give a sincere analysis rather than go on as a partisan.”

Feehery, who makes appearances on a variety of shows such as MSNBC’s “Hardball” once or twice a week, said he likes to keep the calm.

“I try to provide some insight into how the legislative process works,” Feehery said. “I don’t want to be one of those screamers. For someone like me, who’s actually worked inside the Capitol and the Speaker’s office, I can give some insights into what people are thinking when they make their votes.”

And for all the noisy brawling when the cameras are live, the green room tends to be a collegial environment. “Everyone has such a great esprit de corps,” Christie said. “As soon as it’s over, you’re right back to where you started. I’ve really developed a friendship with Bill over the years.”

Indeed, even though Christie sparred with Press over the proposed mosque near ground zero during “The Ed Show” appearance, the two were shaking hands by 6:45 p.m. as they made their way for the elevator.

“You’re so full of shit,” Press said to Christie with a smile.