Hard lessons in hardball politics

"Politics is a dirty business." My boss was leaning back on the sofa in his office, one hand playing with the chain hanging from the lamp next to him. "You can't afford to be too high-minded."

My first permanent job in Washington, D.C., was a shock. I had always associated the city with noble ideals, but I wasn't prepared for the "realism" that drives much of the city's culture.

I had just started working for a lobbying firm, and I was getting ready for my first assignment. At the annual convention of a major trade association, I was supposed to ask for the association members' help in passing a bill in Congress.

I would explain the issue in terms that would seem compelling to them, then encourage them to contact the member of Congress who represented their area of the country and ask him or her to support the bill. It's called "grass-roots lobbying," and it has a basis in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which gives citizens the right "peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Our client was a large American company that wanted to defend an important revenue stream. But I was questioning my boss about our tactics. I could see trying to persuade people to support our client's position. The company had good arguments on its side. But my boss wanted to hide the fact that this company was the force behind the effort. Why? Shouldn't we just be honest? Isn't that what people want when it comes to government?

He looked at me over his glasses as if he couldn't believe I was asking such a question. If it were to become known that the whole effort was financed by a single megacorporation, he explained, people wouldn't listen. Their cynicism would kick in. They wouldn't call their members of Congress, and Congress, not feeling any pressure from constituents, would let the bill die. Our client would lose, and our firm would be fired. It was that simple.

The 19th-century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said: "Laws are like sausages. You sleep far better the less you know about how they are made." I didn't sleep well that night, and as I flew to the convention city the next day I thought about the fact that the people who would be enlisted to lobby for this law would become mere tools, their public spiritedness hardly spontaneous. In many cases we would actually write their letters to Congress for them. Somehow, that didn't sound like democracy. On the other hand, who was I to change the rules?

I was initially apprehensive, but as I went through the day with the trade association, I found the words "the American people are behind this" coming out of my mouth with more and more fluency. To my surprise, my audience bought it. Apparently they were ready to believe that someone from Washington, saying noble things, was telling the truth. I signed up dozens of association members in the effort to get this law passed. Eventually, Congress voted the way our client wanted it to. Our firm got a nice check.

Over the next four years I found myself in the middle of several other grass-roots lobbying campaigns, all of them built in one way or another on deception. America didn't collapse, and because of our efforts, some laws passed that were actually useful. I came to accept that if you want to get something done in government, you have to play the game.

And yet... My boss and his partners became more and more brazen as they saw their tactics succeeding, and their behavior in the firm became odder and odder. A workplace of laughing and hard work became one of closed doors and whispering.

One day I came across a memo on a copy machine that laid out a plan to help an American company with extensive international operations. It wanted to get public support for a foreign dictator who was widely known to be cruel and corrupt. We would attempt to change his image, portraying him as a heroic defender of the poor - someone who at heart was a lover of freedom and democracy. The goal was a change in White House policy toward the dictator, to turn him into a friend of the US. The company had business in the country, and from all appearances, the dictator would reward it handsomely for success.

Now I began to see the road I had been traveling: from small deceptions "because that's the way the game is played," to big lies that not only steered voters in directions they wouldn't go if they knew what was happening, but also steered a whole country toward a cliff. I could see the map before me, and it was scary. I walked into my boss's office and told him his tactics were going to get us into trouble. I was fired on the spot.

I saw a moonbeam of hope in all this: The campaign to change US foreign policy never happened. A few years later, the firm fell apart. I went through a painful period of unemployment and realized I had lessons to learn about the value of principles and whom to trust. But my boss's attitude toward achieving a goal in government - that integrity is a nice thing to have, as long as it doesn't keep you from winning - seems only to have spread, until today's approach to politics in certain American power centers makes Richard Nixon's "dirty tricks" look like mere Halloween pranks to me.

Is it possible to have government based on truth? Or do people just hear what they want to hear?

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