Hollywood meets 'K Street'

No script. Hand-held cameras. Real senators. Howard Dean. Is this reality TV, or reckless TV?

"K Street" - Hollywood's big-buzz shot at showing Washington politics "from the inside out" - debuted this week with a hand-rubbed shoeshine.

By the time lobbyist Francisco Duprey (not his real name, he's an actor) gets around to asking Washington power couple Mary Matalin and James Carville (real names, almost playing themselves) for a job at their fictitious political consulting firm, he has also recoiffed his hair, buffed his nails, and puzzled over whether the stripe in a new shirt makes the right statement.

Welcome to HBO's new riff on reality TV, where real D.C. players mix it up with actors, hand-held cameras, documentary footage, and the week's headlines to often puzzling effect.

Did Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a key figure in K Street's first episode, really ask Mr. Carville, a top political consultant, to help him prep for last week's Democratic debate in Baltimore? That's what Carville, neo-actor, says on camera. Turns out, that's not true. "The show requested for him to make an appearance," says a spokesperson for the Dean campaign.

But that didn't stop Dean from using Carville's one-liner from the fake prep session in the real debate. (The line: If the percentage of black people in your state determined your stand on civil rights, "Trent Lott would be Martin Luther King.")

Questioned about this at a Monitor breakfast this week, Carville quipped sarcastically: "Everybody at this table should be aghast that somebody gave a line to a politician to use, [and] be totally aghast that they have speechwriters and debate prep." He adds: "It is [just] a stupid television show."

Is it just a stupid show? The judgment here is that "K Street" got at least part of it right - the looks, the styles. But there are doubts that even the small, unobtrusive cameras of "K Street" can capture the behind-the-scenes deal-making that fuels the capital's lobby industry. Who is going to strike a high-stakes political bargain in full view of a TV camera?

Yet the concept clearly intrigues. The first show attracted GOP Sens. Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania who played themselves. But it's not clear how many other real-life politicians or lobbyists will join them.

"Life imitates art," says another Washington insider, a GOP aide on Capitol Hill. "Politicians were probably flattered to be asked on the show. The only people Washington is impressed by are people from Hollywood and vice versa."

The doubts arise where show biz meets reality. One lobbyist who didn't get in front of a camera compares the process here to the Wizard of Oz, where real action is behind curtains.

In that light, it was hardly a surprise last week when filming was barred from the Capitol complex and Senate offices, as a matter of Senate policy.

Further, televising the real work of lobbyists could make dreadful entertainment. Often the big fights are about changing a single word, sentence, or paragraph in the draft of a law. That single change can save a company, or an industry, millions of dollars. But who wants to watch the process?

"I didn't see anybody [on the show] shagging for one of the discreet little lines in an appropriations bill, or trying to get some arcane definition changed in the Medicare bill.... That would be real," says Bonnie Whyte, a lobbyist and chief operating officer for the Employers Council on Flexible Compensation in Washington.

She adds: "I can't imagine that anybody would permit that to be on camera, for a variety of reasons. If I accomplish my goal for my association, I certainly want my members to know about it, but if I don't, I sure don't want to broadcast it across America."

"There is no way they could ever show the American public how Washington really works, so much is just whispers, smoke and mirrors," says a second-generation D.C. lobbyist, who loved meeting K Street's executive producer George Clooney and doesn't want to be quoted criticizing. "What fool would participate in real time?"

Even if the Washington elite did clamor to get in front of a hand-held camera, the "reckless" mixing of fact and fiction could confuse the public, critics say. "I don't want to add a single micro-Nielson point to their ratings, and I hope people will boycott this show and all others like it that deliberately confuse fact and fiction," says Alan Tonelson, a lobbyist and trade policy analyst at the US Business and Industries Council.

But insiders agree that Episode 1 got the aesthetics of official Washington right: To play high-stakes Washington politics, it helps to look the part. Ask Washington's top tailor, Georges de Paris (his real name). The signed pictures along the wall of his discreet 14th Street shop are mainly presidents, but his big customers are lobbyists.

"Lobbyist, lobbyist, lobbyist, lobbyist, Texas lobbyist (a solid tan amid all the blue pinstripes and herringbone tweeds), lobbyist, lobbyist," says Georges de Paris, rifling through the hand-basted, cashmere suits-in-process on his fitting rack. "If you dress well, people respect you.... You get more customers," he says.

One of his fabrics, a tight-weave Saville Row vicuna, runs $1,300 a yard. He just delivered such a suit to a New York-based lobbyist. "Politicians don't want to spend the money."

"A very successful lobbyist gets paid very well, and ... perception is reality. People need to look the part," says Jim Albertine, former president of the American League of Lobbyists and head of Albertine Enterprises, Inc., a Washington lobby shop.

He didn't catch Episode 1, but says he would be open to an audition call.

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