It’s Not Sleazy. It’s HBO.

Craig Aaron

Lobbyists have finally arrived. Washington—or at least the Roll Call-reading classes that traffic in inside-the-Beltway inside baseball—is abuzz over K Street, the new quasi-reality series on influence-peddling produced by George Clooney and director Steven Soderbergh. All jittery cameras and quick cuts, the show glamorizes an unseemly and largely unseen side of our democracy. The lobbyists have a new motto: It’s not sleazy. It’s HBO.

For those without premium cable, the show’s premise is that James Carville and Mary Matalin—playing the barely fictionalized, odd-couple version of “themselves” they’ve trotted out for years on Meet the Press—are launching a bipartisan lobbying firm. Their staff is made up of actors, but almost everyone else on the show is a real lobbyist, strategist, journalist or politician. K Street can’t be aiming for mass appeal. If you don’t know (lobbying firm) Akin Gump from Forrest Gump, it’s hard to keep up.

The show’s most surreal moment so far is a scene from the first episode in which Carville and his Crossfire pal Paul Begala prep Howard Dean for a debate. During a “fictional” strategy session, they warn Dean to expect questions about how a governor of a lily-white state like Vermont can appeal to the black electorate. Dean starts into his bit about being “the only candidate who talks about race to white audiences.” Carville interrupts with a quip: “Look, if the percentage of black folks in your state determined your position on civil rights, then Trent Lott would be Martin Luther King.” Dean took the line and used it during the real Democratic debate on October 9.

K Street reportedly works without a script, and the show is filmed and edited just days before it airs. The second episode included references to Wesley Clark’s presidential bid and Hurricane Isabel before the power had come back on in Georgetown. The loose, slapdash style keeps things fresh. But Clooney and Soderbergh have barely chipped the surface of the real K Street.

It’s not too late for the producers to explore some more intriguing—and true—storylines. Consider the tale of Majority Whip Roy Blunt—who just happens to be dating a Phillip Morris lobbyist—trying to sneak a Big Tobacco-friendly measure into the massive bill creating the Homeland Security Department. Or how about Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio), who allegedly told the mutual fund industry he’d call off the dogs if they replaced the president of their trade association with a Republican. Maybe a “fictional” investigation could generate some real public outrage.

Clooney surely couldn’t dream up a better villain for K Street than Tom “The Hammer” Delay. Along with Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) and anti-tax maven Grover Norquist, the majority leader launched the “K Street Project,” a coordinated political effort to discourage business from even associating with Democrats. Every Tuesday, Santorum meets with a couple dozen top lobbyists and congressional staffers to discuss openings on K Street and whom the GOP would like to see get hired.

Norquist has compiled a master list of all the leading lobbyists, cataloging their political affiliations, experience and campaign contributions. He posted the dossier online, where legislators can take a look before deciding if a certain lobbyist or special interest “deserves” a meeting or consideration in drafting a piece of legislation. Perhaps if HBO parent company Time Warner dropped a few “D’s” from the payroll, the K Street crew wouldn’t have been barred from filming at the Capitol.

Delay got his wrist slapped by the House ethics committee a few years ago for pressuring the Electronics Industries Alliance to hire a Republican as its president. The EIA hired a Democrat anyway, but Delay made his point. With his reputation for vindictiveness—and his party’s total control of Congress and the executive branch—Delay doesn’t have to complain publicly about appointments anymore. This year Microsoft, Citigroup, Comcast, Shell Oil and Fluor all hired Republicans for their top lobbying positions. “Ninety percent of the new hires are going to Republicans,” Norquist recently told the Christian Science Monitor. “It should be 100 percent. It would be suicidal for them to go to a Democrat.”

In a must-read article in the July/August Washington Monthly, Nick Confessore compares the GOP effort to the old Democratic political machine, only the patronage jobs are on K Street instead of at City Hall. Here’s how it works: The lobbyists raise money for candidates from their corporate clients, helping more Republicans get elected. The Republican legislators in turn place their staffers—if not themselves—in plum lobbying jobs, where they devote a chunk of their new six- and seven-figure salaries to electing more Republicans. Before you know it, a president without an opponent is raising $200 million for the primaries and the Clean Air Act has been gutted. Now that’s a plot worthy of The Sopranos.

Of course, the producers of K Street can’t count on lobbyists—even fictional ones—to expose how the system really works. What they need is a new character, a moderately good-looking, left-of-center scribe who thought Solaris didn’t get a fair shake. All right, Mr. Soderbergh, I’m ready for my close-up.

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Craig Aaron is senior program director of the national media reform group Free Press and a former managing editor of In These Times.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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