Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Monday, April 9, 2007 1:00 PM
The Washington Post's five-week series on the rise of the modern lobbying industry concludes on Sunday, April 8. Readers joined author Robert G. Kaiser for an online discussion Monday, April 9 at 1:00 p.m. ET about how he reported the series and what it says about the current state of governing in our nation's capital.
Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the ranking minority member, will be online Thursday, April 12 at 2:00 p.m. ET to take you behind the scenes and take your questions on the committee and the congressional session in general.
The transcript follows.
Roanoke, Va.: To throw some of the naysayers for a loop -- and they've been crawling all over this story -- I wonder what, at the end of it all, you admired most about Gerald Cassidy?
Robert G. Kaiser: Hello to all. This is a good place to start.
One of the most revealing (to me) aspects of the comments posted after these articles was the urge felt by so many readers to categorize Cassidy as a good guy or a bad guy. This seems to me to be a curse of our age--people have to be pigeonholed as heroes or villains. Why is that?
Which is an introduction to my answer to your question. I have always thought that self-made, self-invented people are among the most interesting human specimens around. Those who start literally from nowhere, with no advantages beyond their own wit and skill, and make something formidable of themselves are a special breed, I think. They have always fascinated me.
When I began work on this project nearly 3 years ago, I had no idea the degree to which Mr. Cassidy was a case in point. The more I learned about him, the more intrigued I was.
Cassidy is smart,disciplined, determined and resourceful, I think. He reads a lot, and thinks for himself--not an attribute we run in to every day in Washington.
In the spirit of my introductory comment, I am not going to answer your question literally. I don't think it's my role to "admire" or "disapprove of" someone I am writing about. My job is to try to learn as much as I can about the person, and then share what I have learned in an interesting way. Others have to decide how well I did that in this case.
Rockville, Md.: Do you have any intention of publishing the series in a book, or writing a book that incorporates your research? It's a fascinating subject, but unfortunately I find it hard to digest when I'm reading it online (I still like to have paper copies).
Robert G. Kaiser:"Digestion" is an interesting issue for us. I'm not aware of any comparable on-line project by us or anyone else. We did publish what amounted to a small book, 50,000 words worth, and asked a great deal of readers. We'd love to hear from more people their views on this issue.
I will now write a book using a lot of the Cassidy material. The book is to be a broader look at how Washington has been transformed in the last three decades. I hope to finish it this year so it can be published next.
Bournemouth, U.K.: What's the most important part of this story? Was there a segment of it that you found more interesting than the others?
Robert G. Kaiser: Nice to think we have a reader on the sea in Bournemouth!
Hard question to answer. "Important" is one of those vague, subjective categories that always gives me trouble. I guess the important point for me is the significance of the entire story, which tells, I hope, how the lobbying business became so big and so significant.
Among my personal favorites was the discovery that Cassidy and Kenneth Schlossberg, his original partner, really invented the modern earmark. They may go down in history for that. I love the story of Sen. Danforth's attempt to strip out earmarks from a defense appropriations bill in 1986. As I learned more about that episode, I realized that this was a turning point; after the Danforth amendment was passed, then defeated in the Senate, there were no longer any meaningful restraints on earmarks in appropriations bills. 17 Senators switched their votes from for to against the Danforth amendment. I love the story of the visa for President Lee of Taiwan, because it raises so intriguingly the question of how important lobbying really is--a question without an answer.
Washington, D.C.: How did the Post decide to create this series about Cassidy? Was it an independent decision, or was the idea pitched to you from someone outside of The Post? Thank you.
Robert G. Kaiser: The project was my idea. I pitched it to Jeff Leen, assistant managing editor for investigations. When he realized how rich the story was, he had the idea of doing it in this unusual format, at such unusual length.
No one outside the Post influenced our thinking on this.
Memphis, Tenn: Chapter 17 includes a broken link to a PDF of the DLJ "confidential information memorandum" that does not seem to work from the original date of Chapter 17. Please fix. Thanks!
washingtonpost.com: Here's the link: Confidential Information Memorandum (.pdf)
Sanibel, Fla.: Mr. Kaiser, not only has lobbying become Washington's biggest business, I would argue that it has become the First Branch of Government, where the peak of careers, power and riches are reached only after the "best and brightest" leave the White House, Congress, FCC, Pentagon and the State Department. This never has happened before, and only materialized in the past twenty years -- but especially under the reign of Tom DeLay. That picture with Cassidy flanked by DeLay and Blunt says it all.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the comment. I agree with you that something fundamental has changed here over the 32 years that Cassidy has been in business. It never occurred to him and Schlossberg, I'm sure, that they might hire members of Congress to work with them. Yet today two former members and the chief aide to a third are 3 or the 4 most important people in Cassidy & Associates. As I wrote in the conclusion published yesterday, we have a whole new set of job opportunities in Washington now, especially for former officials, as you note.
Malvern, Pa.: I found the articles interesting. I wonder though, why Cassidy? I can see using his firm as a way to illuminate the history of lobbying and the changes is has gone through in recent years. I don't think you can talk about lobbying in recent years and not expound on the K Street project. Cassidy seems to run a transparent operation, otherwise you wouldn't have been able to write 25 chapters.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this comment too.
As I told Mr. Cassidy the first time I talked to him, in June, 2004, I knew he wouldn't be happy about the fact that I had picked him as the exemplar in a project on lobbying. I told him then that this was his fault--he had put a wonderful road-map to his business on the public record in 1998 when he proposed to "go public" by selling shares in his firm. For a reporter that was an irresistible temptation.
I should also say that I had been intrigued with Cassidy since the late 1980s, when, as national news editor of The Post, I assigned Dan Morgan to write in detail about the appropriations process in Congress. Morgan published two detailed stories on the Cassidy firm and its method of operation that were absolutely eye-opening--and ground-breaking too. They made me realize I didn't really understand the world of Washington lobbying. Ever since then I had wanted to learn more about it.
Journalism has to be arbitrary. If we had tried to do a survey of the whole industry over 30 years, how interesting would that have been to read? And how long would it have taken to complete? Years more than this one did.
So this is meant to be a representative case study. Of course Cassidy's firm isn't "typical," none is. But I was pleased to realize,as I continued reporting, how many of the big developments of our time it was involved in--up to and including the Abramoff scandal.
Arlington, Va.: Everybody seems to be upset about this story -- do you really believe the saying that "if both sides are upset then I must be doing something right"?
Robert G. Kaiser: I do not. On the other hand, I don't like it when everyone likes a story, or when everyone hates it.
The purpose at our end is not to please or upset readers, it is to inform and entertain them. We were pleased by the intense comments posted, when they were thoughtful. I can't say the same about some of our regular critics, who misinterpreted the series from the beginning.
But the talk-back feature on washingtonpost.com is a great addition, in my opinion. I'm glad we have it, and I'm glad you all can use it.
Chevy Chase, Md.: Why has the system not allowed me to print out the segments for the past three weeks, as I did for the first ten articles online? It is much more comfortable to read the paper edition when I'm in an easy chair than scrolling on-screen. And it makes it much easier to show to my son...
washingtonpost.com: Appears to be working fine on our end -- could be a problem with your system. If you continue experiencing problems, you can e-mail them to chris (dot) hopkins (at) washingtonpost (dot) com.
Munich, Germany: Robert, could you please ensure that this great insight remains on The Washington Post's Web site for a longer time? It takes days to get all the information about persons, relations and developments, so give us more time.
Robert G. Kaiser: Jim Brady, who runs washingtonpost.com, has authorized me to state that Citizen K Street will remain available "indefinitely." That sounds like plenty of time to me.
This of course is one of the great boons of cyberspace. The other is how much of it we can exploit! The ink-on-paper Washington Post has never published and will never publish a 50,000-word series on anything.
Fredericksburg, Va.: I was wondering if you feel your credibility has taken a hit through this series. You ventured into a lot of gossipy areas where it got pretty sloppy and have had some embarrassing mistakes that you've had to correct.
Robert G. Kaiser: I'll let readers judge the appropriateness of the material we wrote about and my success in dealing with it with a sense of proportion. Obviously, I thought the subjects I wrote about were important to a full understanding of my subjects.
Happily, the small number of factual errors that came out during the series was neither embarrassing to me or, more important, significant to readers.
As I've said on the blog and in an earlier discussion, I regret my failure to ask Mr. Cassidy about the statement made by his partner, Schlossberg, quoting the Cassidys' explanation for why they had no children. Cassidy should have had a chance to respond to that earlier. Happily, he was able to respond immediately on-line the day that material appeared, which enabled us to correct the story as well.
Wilmington, N.C.: If there was a movie version of this story, who would play Cassidy? Schlossberg? Fabiani? Cloherty? Powell? Russo? Hartley? Would you pay to go see it?
washingtonpost.com: Citizen K Street -- Cast of Characters
Robert G. Kaiser: Don't hold your breath!
And yes, I would pay heavily to see it.
The Woodlands, Tex.: Should one conclude from reading your series on lobbying that the venality and usurpation of our democracy is now so complete that this system of government is an utter failure beyond any hope of recovery?
Robert G. Kaiser: You may of course conclude whatever you want to. But I would say this conclusion is a little overwrought. Today's Washington isn't what the founders dreamed of, certainly, but I don't, as a citizen, feel that their cause has been lost. Venality has been an aspect of the American experiment from the very beginning. There have been periods of corruption much greater than today's. In the late 19th century, for example, the Senate (still not directly elected by voters) was owned by the railroads. The corporations got whatever they wanted. Then Teddy Roosevelt came along and changed a great deal. Harding was our most corrupt president; FDR helped fix that up.
The greatest American strength is our capacity for self-correction. The Abramoff scandal seems to me to providing an impetus for another round of that right now. Of course it is too soon to predict what's coming next.
Washington, D.C.: I've kept up through the entire series ... great job by the way ... but it seems like you don't care too much for Marty Russo. I was a staffer on the Hill when he was a member, so I was interested in following this, but you really took a lot of cheap shots at him. One that stuck with me was your slam on him having a seal on his business card. I work at a firm with a handful of former members and they all have similar cards. I know he has the gruff personality, but it sure seems you put your objectivity aside -- he really must have gotten under your skin.
Robert G. Kaiser: You're wrong. I have no beef with Russo. I did think the calling card was striking, and worth reporting as a sort of sign of the times. My mom taught me not to use the "but Johnny's mom let's him do it" defense a long time ago.
Russo has been a very controversial figure at Cassidy & Associates. I interviewed half a dozen people who said they left the firm because they couldn't work with him. The stories certainly reflected that viewpoint.
Arlington, Va.: Mr. Kaiser -- did you notice that when you did stories that might put Gerry Cassidy in a favorable light, like his charity donations, the plug for the series on The Post's Web site front page was much tougher to find than when there was a juicier, worse story? On the "bad" days for Cassidy it was so much easier to locate on the home page. I imagine you have no control over that, but were you at least bothered?
Robert G. Kaiser: I did not notice that, nor do I think it's accurate. But I should say that we in The Post newsroom have nothing to do with how the front page of the Web site is designed. That is the realm of Jim Brady and his people at washingtonpost.com. But you should understand that the design changes constantly throughout the day. At one moment Citizen K Street was very prominently displayed; at the next, sometimes, it disappeared entirely for a while, then came back less visibly, then was prominently displayed again. This is how on-line journalism works.
Let me refer you back to an earlier answer of mine. I don't think of stories putting someone in a "favorable" light, or any other light. These stories were meant to provide a rich portrait of a complicated person and a long, complex career.
San Diego: No question, just praise: thank you for a fabulous series that illuminates the way Washington really works, even though it leaves me quite depressed and more than a little cynical. Whatever Jeffersonian instincts and inclinations we may hold dear in our national mythology are, in practice, as dead as old Tom himself. Again, many thanks -- keep up the great work.
Robert G. Kaiser: I hope this isn't my cousin in San Diego. Actually, I don't think I have a cousin in San Diego. So thanks!
Washington, D.C.: Okay, was this experiment a success or not? Did people read it? Would The Post do something like this again?
Robert G. Kaiser: Happily, many thousands of people read the series. And there are journalists here plotting already the next online series. The editors here tell me they are pleased with what we've done, and view it as a successful experiment which taught us all a great deal.
What did you think?
Yonkers, N.Y.: They saw an opportunity for earmarks for universities, institutions, etc. Where is the new emphasis for lobbyists being placed?
Robert G. Kaiser: There's never been one emphasis. A big reason why lobbying has boomed so is the vast number of issues on which paying customers decide they'd like a Washington lobbyist. I don't think I can answer your question.
Washington, D.C.: I slogged through all 27 installments of the series (this type of enterprise puts considerable demands on readers as well as reporters and editors -- something The Post should consider before attempting its like again). I emerged learning that Mr. Cassidy is quite wealthy and considers himself a "professional," just like doctors and lawyers. Legal and medical professionals -- including nearly all large law firms -- regularly do work "pro bono" to aid those who cannot afford their services. Has Mr. Cassidy or the other "professionals" at his lobbying shops ever done the same?
Robert G. Kaiser: Yes they have. I can't say how much pro bono work they have done, but I know, for example, that Cassidy helped lobby for federal grants for the George and Eleanor McGovern Library that opened last fall in South Dakota. Cassidy also gave $100,000 of his own money to that project.
Delmar, Md.: I am outside the Washington Post circulation area and I have missed much of the series. Will the entire series be reprinted all in one place -- where I could just purchase it? Thanks.
Robert G. Kaiser: If you're on the Internet, you're as close to this project as anyone could be. Only the first (on March 4) and last (yesterday) pieces were printed in the paper.
And yes, we realize that a lot of readers were not happy about this. We heard from a number complaining that we had abandoned them. This is understandable -- not everyone used the Internet, or wants to.
There won't be an ink-on-paper version of the series unless you make your own, by printing out all 27 installments. I've done that, but I don't expect a lot of others to do so!
Kenosha, Wisc.: Mr. Kaiser, one of the most fascinating factoids in your series was barely explained. I'm referring to the so-called "colloquy." As I remember it, Cassidy's firm was trying to convince a client to pay its retainer for another year despite the fact that the lobbyists had yet to get any results. So the lobbying firm somehow contrived for senators to enter a dialogue in the congressional record saying they regretted they were unable to do anything about the client's issue but intended to revisit it in the future. How exactly did the colloquy come about? Thank you for the illuminating coverage.
Robert G. Kaiser: Great question. Colloquies deserve a lot more attention than they get. In this case, involving a Philadelphia hospital, Sen. Specter of Pennsylvania supported a proposed earmark and wanted to try to get his colleagues on the appropriations committee to signal their support for it too. I suspect, but don't know, that Specter's aides persuaded other senators' aides that this was a harmless way to help Specter politically by creating the impression that the project had support. At no cost to them, they went along.
Incidentally, the hospital eventually got an earmark!
South Padre Island, Tex.:"In 1976, the cost of the average winning campaign for the House of Representatives was about $86,000; last year, it was nearly $1.3 million. In the same period, the average cost of winning a Senate seat rose from $609,000 to $8.8 million." Are these figures adjusted for inflation? If they aren't, they should be. If they are, you should say so.
Robert G. Kaiser: You must live inside my head! I worried about this, and decided not to do the inflation adjustment, because I thought it would slow down the story unnecessarily, and because the impact of making the adjustment would be modest, given the enormity of the increases over 30 years.
So here are the numbers: $86,000 in 1976 is the equivalent of $311,000 in 2006. $609,000 in '76 was the same as $2.2 million last year.
Washington, D.C.: Its about time folks had an opportunity to learn more about lobbying outside of the occasional scandal/fundraising stories. In fact, The Washington Post should also do a similar series on some of the nonprofit issue advocacy groups also. I bet you'll find stories as interesting (if not more so) as the ones about Cassidy & Associates. It's sad to me how little the public knows about how U.S. laws get made and all of the players -- big and small -- who contribute to that process.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the comment. I heartily agree that a great many of our countrymen don't understand how widespread lobbying is for causes of all kinds; nor do lots of people understand the laws governing it.
Amherst, Mass.: I was involved some time ago with the efforts by Mr. Cassidy to work with Rep. Silvio Conte to secure funding for the UMass polymer building (now named for Conte). Several of us visited President Reagan's science advisor, "Jay" Keyworth to see if there was a route other than the "pork barrel" to obtain funding. We were told there was not. To what extent might Cassidy & Associates's growth be attributed to the lack of alternatives?
Robert G. Kaiser: A great extent. The executive branch gave up all programs funding construction of facilities for universities in the late '70s, just as Schlossberg-Cassidy was getting started. It made earmarking much more attractive to lots of different kinds of players.
I found the debate over the propriety of earmarking for academic institutions intriguing. I think you can argue it either way -- at least I think I could. A lot of schools are much stronger contributors to society today because of the earmarks they have received. But is a system based on political clout and favoritism the best way to allocate the money?
Annandale, Va.: So to continue with the Citizen Kane analogy, is his faltered football career Cassidy's Rosebud?
Robert G. Kaiser: Your call.
Sanibel, Fla.: A follow-up. At least four former secretaries of state (Kissinger, Haig, Albright, Baker) and two secretaries of defense (Cohen, Laird) lobby or lobbied, although they may not (nor have to) be registered. Just about every former chairman of the FCC has made millions lobbying. Eisenhower was clairvoyant in his farewell address on the so-called "military-industrial complex."
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for another good contribution.
Washington, D.C.: What I find interesting is Cassidy's use of his crisis management team to fill the comments section or ask questions about all your mistakes/sloppiness. It seems to me your research was excellent and that Cassidy had few "facts" that needed correction.
Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. I have no way of knowing who filed various comments, of course, except when they were signed.
Dayton, Ohio: Hurrah for serialization! It worked 120 years ago, and it can work now. You may not be aware of the fact that a number of fiction authors routinely serialize their books during the first and second draft, and have online communities of readers who help critique and improve their works. This is the wave of the future. You did a good job combining chronological and thematic organization to the chapters, and I also appreciate all the cross-links and reference material. I couldn't ask for a better example of 21st century writing.
Robert G. Kaiser: You're hired!
Thanks very much. I was aware of the novel-writing phenomenon, and I do think it is a great exploitation of the new technological possibilities.
Boston: Did you go to Boston to interview John Silber, president of Boston University, for chapter 23?
Robert G. Kaiser: I had a long, entertaining and informative interview with Mr. Silber in January, 2006, in his office in Boston.
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Kaiser, what role do you believe The Washington's Post own lobbying efforts and political contributions play in the larger story of money and influence in Washington?
Robert G. Kaiser: an exceedingly marginal role, if any at all. These efforts are very modest.
Brooklyn, N.Y.: Does the Washington Post have another series like this planned, and if so can you confirm whether it will run 1,384,207 words over 93 installments?
Robert G. Kaiser: Where'd you get that number? Do you have inside information?
Just kidding! As I said earlier, there is an intriguing idea for the next serial feature, a crime story. Mum's the word. How long it will be I cannot say. Personally I thought we might have asked too much of readers in this project--27 chapters and 50,000 words is a lot. I am very pleased that so many people did stick with it.
Washington, D.C.: You're going to write a book about this, right? Will it be an expansion of this series, or what?
Robert G. Kaiser: As I said earlier, I do have a book in the works. It is more than an expansion of the series, it's a look at how Washington has changed in the years since the first lobbying firms were formed--in the mid '70s.
Washington, D.C.: Reading through all the comments to the stories every day, I couldn't help but be struck by how hateful and vitriolic they could be. "Evil" this, "enemy of the Constitution" that. You have any remorse for the hatred and viciousness you spawned?
Robert G. Kaiser: I "spawned"? I plead not guilty. We can't tell people how to react to our work, and as you note, a lot of people reacted in ugly ways. This is not novel to this series, alas, as regular readers of the comment section on washingtonpost.com know well.
We decided that on balance, giving people a chance to comment on our work is better than banning all comments. Post policy is to remove from the comment pages libelous and violent comments, but where to draw the line is obviously not easy. You won't be surprised to learn that as a newspaper, we are prone to err on the side of more expression, not less.
A lot of vitriol was directed at us, too. No one enjoys that.
Robert G. Kaiser: Time's up. Today's were the best questions yet on this project, I thank you all for them. And I thank those hearty souls who stuck with Citizen K Street to the end.
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