So, who speaks for the rest of us?I watched a lobbyist last week who reminded me of why I left Washington, D.C. 16 years ago. The man appeared on Now with Bill Moyers, the hard-hitting Friday night PBS show which KOPB airs. Moyers' reporter and film crew did an effective job of isolating The image of an expensive prostitute came to mind.Don Pearlman, known as "the high priest of the carbon club." Pearlman's mission is to kill international agreements on global warming. It is unclear exactly who pays Pearlman. He represents a group called the Climate Council.
While this mega-lobbyist did not speak on camera, other lobbyists who represent the oil industry did speak. Answering questions about their mission, they offered non-speak, which is the art of stringing together words in complete sentences that reveal nothing.
Once you observe such big time lobbyists at close range, you realize they are not paid huge salaries for their intellectual acumen and certainly not for their courage. They are paid a lot because they are willing to do the work of the devil and do it with a smile.
It's disconcerting to meet someone who lacks a soul, but you see many such people walking the halls of Congress, peddling the money of their particular polluter or oligopolist. The saddest phenomenon is a man or woman in their twenties who has already sold out.
The first time I observed this curiosity was a young Oregon college graduate who worked for the iconoclast Jim Weaver, the congressman who represented Southern Oregon. Weaver was eccentric, but he attracted an array of fine young minds to his staff. While working for Weaver, the young man was very talkative. Then he went to work for Sen. Bob Packwood, and he became a different person, obedient to the pathology of enabling that coursed through Packwood's office. He couldn't talk without a note from Packwood's main thug. The young man's next step was to an airline trade association, for whom he was a lobbyist. Then to one of the nation's biggest banks.
I knew plenty of these kinds of guys in those days. Most of them came out of legislative staffs, and many had worked for senators and congressmen of great purpose.
There was more than one reason that my wife and I chose to leave Washington after 10 years. The day we edged in that direction began as I waited in the reception area of the Senators' Dining Room. Also waiting were three lobbyists, one of whom I knew. As I listened to these guys talk about their yachts and their Caribbean getaways, I paired that with the kind of work I knew they did. The image of an expensive prostitute came to mind.
The revolving door has become a cliche of our national politics, and it has worked its way down to the states. A politician or staffer spends years working for the public, then converts the contacts that were built up on the public payroll into a private business of influence peddling. Oregon's most prominent example of that phenomenon is former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt. Former House speakers Larry Campbell and Mark Simmons also have cashed in on their public connections as lobbyists. Simmons was in such a rush that he inked an agreement with the Oregon Nurserymen's Association while he was in the speaker's chair.
If you watch the revolving door long enough, you inevitably begin to wonder whether anyone is truly representing the public. In the 2003 Oregon Legislature, it was painfully apparent that the big lobbyists were pulling the strings of House Speaker Karen Minnis, under the guise of helping Minnis develop legislative strategy. Speaker Minnis was being used unabashedly.
In the spirit of our new Gilded Age, the cable channel Bravo aired The Player last Saturday night. Directed by Robert Altman and starring Tim Robbins and Whoopi Goldberg, with cameo roles by a bevy of stars, The Player (1992) is a look at Hollywood's slimy underbelly, just as Billy Wilder's 1950 Sunset Boulevard depicted the dark side of celebrity in Hollywood's golden era.
Robbins plays a studio executive who murders a failed writer and gets away with it, despite Goldberg's detective work. The Player is a movie for our time, because it is about people who sell their souls. It is also about celebrity, which is a major component of our politics. I've watched more than a few lawmakers mistake their own celebrity for wisdom. They think: "If everyone kowtows to me, I must be special, therefore I must be right."
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison captured the essence of the circular, delusional process that creates political celebrity and its offspring, the myopia of narcissism. Harrison wrote that, "Celebrities need one another - they ratify one another's myths. They are one another's truest fans."