Some of you know that I am a registered federal lobbyist for a Fortune 500 company. It pained me the day I registered, mostly because lobbyists’ popularity ratings fall slightly below the news media, politicians, and used car salesman. But I work for a great company and focus on issues that are relevant to our shareholders, customers and associates. I sleep just fine.
But tonight, I sleep even better because I know about Sam Ward. Ward was the “King of the Lobby” in the Gilded Age, just after the Civil War. “The Lobby” is how they used to collectively refer to lobbyists. This book made me feel much better about my chosen profession. It is dangerous to compare oneself to someone in history, but I found myself relating to Sam–or at least admiring him–for many reasons.
He pioneered the social lobby. Which is to say he understood that entertaining people, stimulating conversation, providing opportunities for networking, and fostering frivolity were all ways to build relationships. He would host dinners with lavish menus, and ensure that certain people who needed to talk were seated next to one another. But here’s why I liked him–he didn’t do it because he knew he would get a bill passed or a contract signed. He genuinely enjoyed bringing people together. It just so happened that he found a job that suited his lifestyle. I never got the impression that Sam was operating nefariously or using underhanded techniques to achieve a result for which he was paid. He just liked being in situations where interesting stories were told and interesting people were telling them. If he got something done in the process, then great. How can you argue with that? His job intersected nicely with his talents and the things he liked to do most (talk, listen, eat, drink, explore). Most people look for years for jobs that coincide with what interests them personally. Sam (and I) found one.
The book was also fascinating in its description of the Gilded Age. DC post-Civil War was corrupt but probably great fun. I loved the description of spider-lobbyists, who were female lobbyists “employed to entrap hapless congressmen.” (They still exist, by the way.)
Ward had the gift of gab. He told great stories (helped largely by an interesting life that included western exploration, South American exploits, a close friendship with Longfellow, a career in banking, a wedding to an Astor, and experiences as a “spy” during the Civil War.)
An early chapter on the history of lobbying is fascinating too. Colt (the gun manufacturer) was an early and aggressive pioneer of lobbying. Colt lobbyists gave Congressmen boxed pistols and “maintained a headquarters stocked with free food and drink and beautiful women, subscribing…to the theory that: ‘To reach the heart or get the vote, The surest way is down the throat.'” And the author points out, correctly, that the right to lobby is guaranteed in the First Amendment. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Next time someone tries to outlaw lobbying, remember, it’s as American as the freedom of speech.
So, next time I’m at a political event, I will raise a glass to Sam Ward. He knew how to eat a well-cooked steak, drink a strong drink, and tell a great story. He brought joy to the lives of others just by bringing them together. He was decent at his job, but more than anything, his job wasn’t a chore. He traveled, read often, and wrote letters to friends around the world. He had a life well-lived.