Samuel Cutler Ward, like Paul Manafort, had expensive tastes.
His suits were so well cut, one biographer wrote, that “no mud seemed to stick.”
Ward needed expertly tailored suits for a couple of reasons. For one, he was a gourmand in the days well before “Top Chef.” The fine French food, the fine wine and the blissfully fine desserts he consumed almost nightly had a pernicious effect on his waistline. (This was also before spin classes.)
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And like Manafort, Ward needed to dress to impress — not the dictators and oligarchs that the former Trump campaign official built a fortune courting and lobbying for around the world but the emerging titans of the Gilded Age who needed favors in Congress.
More than 150 years before Manafort — now facing trial on bank fraud and other charges — transformed lobbying by taking the business beyond K Street, Ward shaped the craft of lobbying at his home on E Street in downtown Washington, hosting long, gluttonous dinners with politicos and what we know call interest groups.
While Ward was not America’s first lobbyist, he was proclaimed then and now as the “King of the Lobby,” which is also the title of a 2001 biography by historian Kathryn Allamong Jacob that chronicles how Ward plied his trade in the chaotic, ascendant days of Washington following the Civil War.
As described by Jacob, those days sound somewhat familiar:
The capital was a tinder box, growing more volatile each day. A deepening fissure was splitting the nation open, and the capital sat squarely on the fault line.
Enter Ward, the son of a New York banker who, before arriving in the swamp, traveled through Europe, acquiring an expensive taste in food and clothing, as well as a PhD in mathematics. His best friend: the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His wife’s name: Emily Astor. (Yes, those Astors.) Three years after their wedding, she and their son died during childbirth.
“The Astors turned against him,” wrote former Washington Post managing editor Robert G. Kaiser in his book about lobbying, titled “So Damn Much Money,” and that forced Ward “to rely on his own considerable wits to make his way in the world.”
Ward was a bon vivant. “Sociability was precisely Sam Ward’s forte,” Jacob wrote. “No one was more social than he.” It was how he plied this sociability that, as Kaiser put it, “contributed to the image of Washington lobbyists as scoundrels, albeit sometimes charming scoundrels.”
While guys like Samuel Colt, the gunmaker, showed up in Washington to lobby Congress with actual bags of money and guns, Ward took a softer, though no less successful, approach.
At his dinners, he would carefully position members of Congress next to his clients, gently steering the conversation in their favor — and then collecting a check when it all worked out. Government officials loved these dinners, particularly the food. Thanks to plentiful and rare ingredients brought to town by the country’s new rail system, fine cuisine was as new and exciting as a Cronut.
Did he provide gifts, as well? Yes. Yes, he did. Jacob wrote:
Sam gave gifts to government officials, although his were more likely to be thoughtful tokens, based on his knowledge of the individual’s tastes, rather than expensive but more generic ones: a bushel of Chesapeake oysters for someone who loved them; a choice Burgundy to a wine aficionado; a rare book for a collector.
And he nudged.
“On the day a measure came up for a vote,” Jacobs wrote, “a witty note in Sam’s unmistakable handwriting would be delivered to a congressman’s desk: ‘This is my little lamb. Be good. Sam Ward.’”
There was nobody in Washington he couldn’t charm, including a congressional committee investigating the practices of lobbyists in 1875. Jacob wrote:
The hearing was supposed to be a serious affair. The committee was investigating the latest scandal to work the second Grant administration. The Pacific Mail Steamship Company had allegedly pried out of Congress a subsidy to carry the mail to the Orient only after greasing the skids (and several palms) with what the New York Tribune claimed was the extraordinary sum of one million dollars. Sam Ward’s name turned up on a list of men who profited by the deal, and he had been summoned to appear before the committee to explain himself.
Kaiser, in his book about lobbying, quotes from the hearing transcript, describing how Ward matter-of-factly detailed the payments he received for his help. “I must say,” Ward said, “that it was very liberal compensation for the moderate amount of work which that subsidy seemed to require.”
Kaiser noted something odd about the testimony, too.
“The official transcript of Ward’s appearance contains numerous references to the laughter in the hearing room that his testimony provoked,” Kaiser wrote. “He was a genuine Washington character who exploited the character of the times, which was corrupt.”