Congress comes back officially tomorrow and soon lobbyists will be as thick as ticks on raspberry canes again. The choicest tables of the city's choicest restaurants will be reserved again for power breakfasts, lunches and dinners when the legislative branch gets going in earnest at the end of the month.
It's an old Washington story really. The history of lobbyists and their wining and dining of the powerful goes back well over 100 years.
One element lost, however, as the art of lobbying evolved, is panache. Braggadocio and publicity, as Michael Deaver learned, can be fatal in the lobbyists' line of work today. It wasn't always thus. In days of old, when lobbyists were bold, there was actually a "King of the Lobby." He was not one to hide his light under a bushel basket.
In the early 1870s, he gave a dinner for Speaker of the House James G. Blaine, after which he presented Blaine with a silver loving cup engraved from "Rex Vestiari." Neither Blaine nor the other members present was scandalized. Their host was their friend and they his, and they coveted invitations to dine at his table.
The "King of the Lobby" was Sam Ward, and his motto was that the shortest distance between a pending bill and a congressman's "aye" lay through his stomach. The story of how this son of a respected New York banking family came to dominate a questionable profession in a suspect city, how entre'es "a la Sam Ward" came to appear on the nation's finest menus, mirrors a hurly-burly era when anything could happen to a young man with limitless savior-faire.
Sam Ward was born in New York in 1814. At 14, he entered Columbia College. The curriculum was less than rigorous, but that left plenty of time for his real love -- exploring the streets of New York and sampling the fare of oyster cellars, chop houses, and the new continental cafes, like the one he discovered on William Street kept by two brothers, John and Peter Delmonico. There, Ward wrote, "I reveled in the coffee, the chocolate, the bavaroises, the orgeats and petits ga~teaux and bonbons." We "dined perfectly for half a dollar a piece, if not less."
In 1832, Ward's father agreed to let him spend a year studying in Paris. Fifty years later, Ward could still recall his first Parisian breakfast at the Cafe Veron: Ostende oysters, fried smelts, and omelette aux fines herbes, accompanied by a chablis supe'rieur , followed by grilled sausages with truffles, beefsteak Ma ~tre d'ho~tel with potatoes, and pa~te' de foie gras, washed down by an excellent Beaune.
The agreed-upon year in Paris somehow turned into three more in Germany. Ward's letters tell little about how he earned a doctorate degree in mathematics from the University of Tu bingen, but a great deal about picnics of savory game pie, fruit and champagne with young ladies on mountainsides.
In 1836, Ward came home to work in his father's bank. He married the granddaughter of John Jacob Astor and was settling into a life of conventional respectability when his father, his brother, his wife and infant son died in quick succession. In 1847, the bank he'd inherited crashed, thanks largely to his inattention. Ward tried to outrun his troubles by joining the forty-niners heading for California. On the night he arrived in San Francisco, he dined atop a barrel on pork and beans that cost $8 -- a far cry from Delmonico's!
After the quarter million dollars Ward made in real estate went up in smoke in the San Francisco fire of 1851, he disappeared into Mexico, next wrote mysteriously from France, then resurfaced in New York. In 1858, he finagled a berth with a diplomatic mission to Paraguay. When negotiations were quickly and amicably completed, Ward managed to convince the Paraguayans that he was personally responsible for the happy turn of events. He sailed home with a secret agreement, sealed with 1,000 pounds sterling, to represent Paraguay's interests in Washington, a city he had never even visited.
Ward had the good fortune to begin his new career just as Thurlow Weed, "The Wizard of the Lobby," was retiring. In him, Ward found a mentor and a fresh start. He picked up a few of Weed's richest clients, notably Baring Brothers, the British banking house, and was off and running. He rented a house at 258 F St. NW, and there he began to give the dinners that made him a legend. A Democrat himself, he permitted no party divisions at his table. In the tension-ridden capital of 1860, Ward's house was welcome neutral territory.
After the war, when Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch was desperate to get his fiscal program through Congress, he called on the best inducer of goodwill he knew: Sam Ward. Ward set out to win his goal via cookery, with the United States Treasury defraying the cost. His dinner expenses for the session were rumored to exceed $12,000.
By the early 1870s, Ward was known as the "King of the Lobby." His domestic clients included insurance firms, telegraph companies and railroads. He represented foreign interests in such matters as tariffs, shipping rights, and claims.
Ward was also earning the title of "Prometheus of the Kitchen" for bringing the fire of divine cookery to the culinary wasteland of the capital. Prior to Ward's arrival, most Washington dinners were dismal affairs. Journalist Ben Perley Poor, a survivor of these grim rituals, wrote of dinner guests who saw the same rented candlesticks and the same hired waiters, and ate the same dreary food prepared by the same dreadful cooks night after night, house after house: "a watery compound called vegetable soup was invariably served, followed by boiled fish, overdone roast beef or mutton, roast fowl or game in season, and a great variety of puddings, pies, cakes, and ice cream."
Ward's haute cuisine provided an oasis in this dietetic desert. While his dinners always seemed deliciously spontaneous, Ward gave serious thought to the selection, preparation, and service of fine food and wine. First came a consultation about the menu with the chef, who, according to Ward, "should be brought to fever heat by working on his ambition and vanity."
Such planning resulted in menus of almost a dozen courses. One dinner of which he was most proud included both turtle and artichoke soups, a fish course, roast plover, filet of beef, lamb in mint sauce, veal, vegetables (peas, potatoes, tomatoes, asparagus), salads and cheeses, an ice cream cake and fresh fruit. Plus, wine, sherry and Champagne, including Montrachet, Chateau Margaux, Amontillado and Moe t et Chandon. And, of course, madeiras, cognac and liqueurs.
Next came the marketing, which Ward believed the host should do himself. He stalked the markets of Washington in search of the freshest terrapin and canvasback ducks. Details like this were important to him. He annotated recipes, filed away menus, and wrote down rules of cookery, sometimes in verse: "To roast spring chickens is to spoil 'em/Just split 'em up the back and broil 'em."
The results of these culinary labors were dinners that one guest called "the climax of civilization." A congressman described evenings at Sam Ward's as "Noctes ambrosianae." Such praise was like fine wine to Ward. He was happy to oblige Secretary of State William Evarts, when Evarts asked him to gauge support for a project to dig a canal across Panama, and equally pleased when Evarts asked him to suggest champagnes for his daughter's wedding and scrutinize menus for state dinners. It amused him to hear bar patrons order a "Sam Ward," a drink he had concocted of cracked ice, a thin peel of lemon and yellow Chartreuse.
Conversation at Ward's diners was as good as the food and, in his eyes, just as important. He had an inexhaustible well of anecdotes. "Nothing was ever served at Sam Ward's table," claimed Emily Briggs, Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Press, "that was half as delicious as himself." He could talk with equal ease about Horace and penny dreadfuls, sea captains and society swells.
Guests knew that absolute discretion was Ward's rule, and it promoted expansiveness. He never leaked a confidence, never brought up a measure in which he was interested at his dinner table. Instead, "he treated his friends so well that they were always anxious to do something for him and usually asked how they could help," claimed the reporter "Carp" (Frank Carpenter of the Cleveland Leader). On the morning when a measure that he was shepherding along came up for a vote, a friend might receive a gay little note reading, "This is my little lamb. Be good. Sam Ward." That was all.
Throughout the revelations of political corruption during the 1870s, Sam Ward remained unsullied. In 1875, when he was called before a House committee investigating a mail subsidy scandal, Ward was disarmingly candid about his occupation and his modus operandi. He readily admitted receiving $4,000 for his services on behalf of the bill. When a member, who had obviously never enjoyed one, suspiciously asked just what transpired at his dinners, Ward explained: " ... at good dinners people do not 'talk shop.' They give people who have a taste in that way the right, perhaps, to ask a gentleman a civil question, and to get a civil answer; to get information which his clients want, and that can be properly given."
One dour member broke in to ask, "Is there not a great deal of money wasted on good dinners?" Ward indignantly replied: "I do not think money is ever wasted on a good dinner. If a man dines badly, he forgets to say his prayers when going to bed, but if he dines well he sleeps like a saint."
After his testimony, newspapers all across the country ran features on "Pickwickian Uncle Sam, the disciple of the science of gastronomy." But, while Ward was famous, he was not rich. Several fortunes had slipped through his fingers, and, at 61, he was still scratching for a living. Suddenly, his luck changed again. In 1877, San Francisco millionaire James Robert Keen, whom Ward had nursed back to health from the brink of death 20 years earlier, came East to visit his "Good SAMaritan," and to give him the profits of a block of railroad stock that he had earmarked for Ward -- nearly a million dollars.
With this dramatic alteration in his circumstances, Washington saw little more of the "King of the Lobby." New York became his headquarters, and there, like all its predecessors, Ward's last fortune quickly disappeared. Friends advised him to leave the country to escape creditors. He bobbed up in England unrepentant and was straightaway feted by his many European friends.
The spring of 1884 found Ward in Naples enjoying the pre-Lenten carnival and feasting on succulent steamed mussels. Suddenly he became violently ill, probably from tainted seafood. On the morning of May 19, Sam Ward died with his dog-eared Horace beneath his pillow and the Ruba'iya't open beside him.
The London Times eulogized Ward as "the most charming of social companions and most genial of hosts." The New York Times noted his generosity and the breadth of his knowledge. The New York Tribune praised his attainments as America's "foremost gastronomer," but concluded that his most remarkable accomplishment lay in "establishing himself in Washington at the head of a profession which, from the lowest depths of disrepute, he raised almost to the dignity of a gentlemanly business." Only Sam Ward could have "adorned a questionable life with so much amiability, so much refinement, so much good breeding!"
The "King of the Lobby" was dead. While many claimed to be his heirs, none would succeed to his throne. "Let no man attempt the same high art," warned Emily Briggs, "The solitary vase has been broken, but the odor is left and clings to it still."
Kathryn Allamong Jacob is an archivist and historian with the National Archives.