By Michael Kinsley
Monday, August 10, 2009
Anne Wexler, who died Friday of cancer at age 79, had a life of romance, high drama, great causes and historical importance. For four decades she was at the center of American politics, meeting all the big players and playing a role herself in many of the big decisions. In 1966 she was a Connecticut housewife, married to a doctor and raising two children, when opposition to the Vietnam War got her into politics at the envelope-licking level. Like so many others, she swooned and worked for Eugene McCarthy in 1968. She swooned in a different way for a minister and 1970 Senate candidate named Joe Duffey, and he for her. He lost the election but won the girl. They left their respective spouses, married, moved to Washington and -- from all appearances -- lived happily ever after. He survives her.
Wexler probably would have liked her obituary headline to be something like, "Anne Wexler: Devoted Life to Progressive Politics." Or "Anne Wexler: Key Adviser to Democratic Presidents." Or "Anne Wexler: From Vietnam to Obama, She Chose Her Side and Fought for It." But those are not the headlines she got. The Post called her "Anne Wexler, Political Adviser and Lobbyist." The term "political adviser" is at least neutral. The New York Times went with "Influential Political Operative and Lobbyist." Even the PR Newswire, which announced her death, identified Wexler as "Presidential Adviser and Pioneer of the Washington Lobbying Profession."
That she was, and that unfortunately will be her historical legacy. She founded her firm the day after Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter as president. If ever there was a moment when the Democratic Party needed her help, that was it. But she had a new cause: the astonishing legitimization of the lobbying "profession" that has taken place over the past generation. The mere fact that Wexler, a woman, should be one of Washington's top influence peddlers for hire was widely considered a triumph of feminism to rival only, perhaps, the moment still to come when women become a majority of bank robbers or inside traders.
Wexler was a pioneer of bipartisan lobbying -- the ultimate in cutting-edge moral neutrality -- in which one firm supplies both well-connected Democrats and well-connected Republicans. Her first Republican was Nancy Reynolds, a close pal of Nancy Reagan. Today her firm (which was purchased by the PR giant Hill and Knowlton, in 1990) is called Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates. That's Bob Walker, a former congressman and sidekick of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Apparently Walker no longer shares Newt's views, or his former views, about the urgent need to drain the filthy cesspools of Washington and/or get out of town.
Wexler & Walker has an awesome list of present and former clients. A few plucked just from the A's include the state of Alaska, American Airlines, AARP, Anheuser-Busch, AT&T . . . . And what do they do for these clients? Wexler had one of the more imaginative answers to this embarrassing question. She told Time in 1986 that her role in a controversy was to guide the government toward the correct decision, because "government officials are not comfortable making these complicated decisions themselves." The frankness of the firm's Web site is evidence of how legitimate lobbying has become.
"Since 1981, Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates has helped Fortune 500 companies, trade associations and other clients impact public policy as Washington's top full-service government affairs firm. We are bipartisan consultants who bring years of hands-on experience as former Members of Congress, senior White House and agency officials, and senior Congressional staff. The services we provide include direct lobbying, coalition building, strategic planning, and government marketing and procurement."
And what is wrong with this? After all, the Constitution guarantees each of us the right to petition our government for the redress of our grievances. Plenty is wrong. First, there is nothing in this list of services about determining which side of a legislative dispute happens to be correct before jumping in on the side that has hired you. Second, if the lobbyists' claims about being able to affect the outcome of political disputes are even close to being true, this tilts democracy in favor of those who can afford to hire them. And third, what a waste of a lot of smart people's time! What might Anne Wexler have accomplished for causes that she really believed in if she hadn't spent the last three decades of her life taking on any cause that walked in the door with a checkbook in hand?