Jonathan Yardley

Book review: "King of the Lobby: The Life and Times of Sam Ward, Man-About-Washington in the Gilded Age" by Kathryn Allamong Jacob

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, February 7, 2010


The Life and Times of Sam Ward, Man-About-Washington in the Gilded Age

By Kathryn Allamong Jacob

Johns Hopkins Univ. 212 pp. $40

Washington in the second half of the 19th century may not have been a cesspool, but it certainly came close. It was "barely bigger than a village," Kathryn Allamong Jacobs writes. "Livestock still roamed the unpaved streets. Residents emptied their slops right into the gutters. One reporter described the capital as 'a mud-puddle in winter, a dust-heap in summer, a cow-pen and pig-sty all year round.' " That was the city itself. As for those who inhabited it, a young journalist named Walt Whitman rose to heights of inspired indignation as he catalogued them in 1856:

"Office-holders, office-seekers, robbers, pimps . . . fancy-men, post-masters, custom-house clerks, contractors, kept-editors, spaniels well-trained to carry and fetch, jobbers, infidels, disunionists, terrorists, mail-riflers, slave-catchers, pushers of slavery, creatures of the President, creatures of would-be Presidents, spies, blowers, electioneerers, body-snatchers, bawlers, bribers, compromisers, runaways, lobbyers, sponges, ruined sports, expelled gamblers, policy backers, monte-dealers, duelists, carriers of concealed weapons, blind men, deaf men, pimpled men, scarred inside with the vile disorder, gaudy outside with gold chains made from the people's money and harlot's money twisted together, crawling, serpentine men, the lousy combings and born freedom sellers of the earth."

If after reading that you're inclined to say that the more things change the more they remain the same, well, so am I. But honesty compels me to acknowledge that these days there are honest people here as well, some of whom are to be found among the 31,193 who as of 2007 were registered as lobbyists. Thanks to various acts of Congress and some degree of self-policing among the lobbyists, that business is better now than it was in 1892, when one dictionary defined "the lobby" as "a term applied collectively to men that make a business of corruptly influencing legislators. . . . Their object is usually accomplished by means of money paid to the members, but any other means that is considered feasible is employed."

As "the lobby" struggled in the second half of the 19th century to rise from borderline criminality toward something approximating respectability, an important figure in the process was Samuel Ward, known universally as Sam, who came to Washington in 1859 in his mid-40s and eventually came to be known, equally universally, as "King of the Lobby." Now virtually forgotten, he was an immensely able, influential and engaging character who has been rescued from obscurity by Kathryn Allamong Jacob.

Curator of manuscripts for the Schlesinger Library at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute, Jacob is the author of two previous books on 19th-century Washington; she also has served on the staffs of the U.S. Senate and the National Archives. Her latest book is something of a labor of love, for she has fallen under the spell of Ward's charm and has written an affectionate portrait of a remarkable man whose life contained enough incident to shame the more conventional among us. Born into Manhattan wealth, he was better at losing money than at making it, and lost it in grand amounts; fluent in several languages, a skilled storyteller, gourmet and oenologist, he presided over the most brilliant dinners in Washington; "a Northern Democrat who leaned toward the South but put his life on the line to reconnoiter for the Union and his Republican friends" -- he had, as Jacob writes, "a deep well of experiences from which to draw." It must have been very difficult to resist him:

"Sam craved praise and affection, and he also gave both effusively and sincerely. He always believed the best of the people he met. He was a spendthrift, whose promises to reform always came to grief. He cherished lofty aspirations, but he had an aversion to hard work. Sam was also a romantic, deeply moved by art, music, poetry, prose, drama, beautiful women, and lovely vistas. He was charming, handsome, well-dressed, well-read, well-mannered, and well-spoken. He graced every drawing room he entered and beguiled everyone within earshot."

In that passage Jacob is describing the young Ward as he made his rounds in the best salons of Europe while still a teenager. The only things that changed as he grew older were that his well of experiences grew ever deeper and his waistline grew ever larger. He still cut an elegant figure. In 1875, appearing before the House Ways and Means Committee, he was "five feet eight inches tall, stocky, with a perfectly cut suit, [an] eye-popping sapphire ring, a shiny bald head wreathed with a fringe of graying hair, and a flowing mustache and precisely trimmed Van Dyke beard."

The Washington to which Ward came in 1859 and in which he remained until returning to New York two decades later was a corrupt mess, but after the Civil War a concerted effort was made to turn it into a beautiful "New Washington," and with impressive results; "the broad, paved, tree-lined avenues, handsome new buildings, and landscaped public parks of the New Washington symbolized the Great Republic reborn by fire and the new power concentrated in its capital." Predictably, at the same time that the influence of the government was expanding rapidly, opportunities to slop at the federal trough increased concomitantly. "Conditions were ripe to spawn a ruthless era in which special interests, spoilsmen, and corruption seemed to ooze out the doors of every government office," Jacob writes. "The coals were hot and ready for an unprecedented feeding frenzy in Washington -- what came to be called 'the Great Barbecue.' "

Ward came into this place with "his friends in high places, his savoir faire, his trove of anecdotes and recipes, and his talents for diplomacy and friendship." He "would also add a new dimension to what it meant to lobby in Washington," a social dimension. Unlike the crass lobbyists who passed large bills under the table into the hands of grasping congressmen, "Sam used dinners and diplomacy as his preferred means to his ends." Whether at his residence on E Street NW or at one of the city's few good restaurants -- notably Welcher's, "on 15th Street near the Treasury Building" -- Ward presided over dinners where those at the table were eminent, the conversation was lively and the sales pitch decidedly low-key. He "claimed that he never talked directly about a 'project' over dinner," but one reporter wrote that "he treated his friends so well that they were always anxious to do something for him and usually asked how they could help."

Ward was friendly with James A. Garfield as he rose through Congress to the presidency; he lobbied to save Andrew Johnson from conviction in his impeachment trial; he was remembered fondly by "Uncle Joe" Cannon, the legendary speaker of the House. His best friend, though, was not a Washington politician but the New England poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who is no longer fashionable but at the time enjoyed rock-star fame. That this friendship meant more to Ward than any other suggests the romantic aesthete inside the hail fellow well met.

Some will argue that for all Ward's good manners, discretion and honesty -- he was proud of "his reputation as a lobbyist who did not lie, cheat, steal, or resort to vices to seduce other men" -- he still was in the business of using access to the powerful in order to advance the narrow interests of his clients, the people who picked up the tabs for all those fine dinners and always gave him a piece of the action. True, but that, like it or not, is how Washington's wheels are greased. To this occasionally ignoble task Sam Ward brought good manners, loyalty to his friends and excellent taste in food and drink. Far worse can be imagined, and far worse too often has occurred.

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