Reporting Tips From the Big Boys

Chatterbox is impressed that Robert G. Kaiser (former managing editor of the Washington Post) and Michael Janeway (former editor of the Boston Globe and author of the just-released Republic of Denial: Press, Politics and Public Life at the Millennium) managed to conduct an entire interview with Washington lawyer-lobbyist Harry McPherson without once uttering the word “tobacco.”

The interview, occasioned by McPherson’s 70th birthday, appeared in the “Style” section of Oct. 20’s Washington Post. McPherson was introduced, quite properly, as an important former aide to Lyndon Johnson and author of a “much-praised” memoir, A Political Education. Chatterbox will even go along with the interview’s overall tone of deference (headline: “The Long View of a Changing Capital”); from a distance, McPherson has always struck Chatterbox as a kind, thoughtful, and (for the most part) honorable man. The facts that McPherson was an old friend of Kaiser’s and a former boss of Janeway’s were noted prominently, and did not strike Chatterbox as disqualifying.

But Chatterbox is at a loss to explain how anyone but a pair of formerly high-ranking newspaper executives could conceive of interviewing McPherson without grilling him about his representation of the tobacco industry, which in 1997 transformed McPherson’s law firm, Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand, into a gaudy lobbying powerhouse (at least in terms of billable hours). An appropriately tough Washington Monthly* article by Amanda Ripley about McPherson’s tobacco sellout reports that in 1997, Verner, Liipfert raked in more revenue than any other Washington lobby firm. According to the Monthly piece, Verner, Liipfert, though hired to help sell to Congress the settlement reached between state attorneys general and the tobacco industry (without, of course, letting Congress make the minimal improvements required to make it even a marginally acceptable deal), was in fact mostly selling its reputation. The substantive negotiations were conducted by others; the firm’s apparent role (mostly in the person of partner George Mitchell but also through McPherson himself) was to lend prestige to the tobacco industry’s side. In the words of one former Verner, Liipfert partner quoted in the Monthly story: “They were getting paid more for who they were than what they did.”

Here is the bold way Kaiser and Janeway approached this issue in their McPherson interview:

Q: Some would say that money talks loudest of all in the business you’re now in. What about your practice and this firm’s practice? Can you represent people based on some ethical or political judgment about how much they deserve your representation, or is it really just a question of selling yourselves to the highest bidders?

Despite Kaiser and Janeway’s invitation to answer this question with breezy generalities, McPherson (to his credit) answers by getting into specifics about his firm’s tobacco business:

A: Well, you hope that the people you represent will be those that you feel ought to prevail or at least ought to be protected. Let me take something that has been an issue with our firm and with me personally. I’ve taken a fair number of hits for being one of the people who signed on to represent the tobacco industry when they started their negotiations with the state attorneys general and the health groups back in 1997. The initial contact with our firm was made with George Mitchell. Senator Mitchell is a man of tremendous integrity and intelligence.

Chatterbox translation: “Don’t blame me. It was that greedy bastard Mitchell’s idea.”

He was invited to involve his firm, my firm, in representing the tobacco industry as it began a negotiation in which it was prepared to pay an enormous, an unbelievable amount of money to various state coffers, which could be used for anti-smoking campaigns and all manner of such things. It was prepared to make all kinds of changes in its behavior–the way it advertised, particularly toward young people. In exchange for that, it was hoping to get protection from bankruptcy, which it feared would come if some of the state suits that had just been fashioned [had succeeded].

Chatterbox translation: “Like I said, it was Mitchell’s idea.”

Our job in this law firm was never to go to the Hill or to the executive branch and say smoking doesn’t cause illness. It was never to say the tobacco industry is being mistreated. It was simply to say the industry is prepared to make revolutionary changes in its behavior if it gets some protection from these giant suits, and this is a good deal for the public.

Chatterbox translation: “Of course tobacco companies represent something close to pure evil. But the real dirty work had already been done. We could present ourselves as the good guys–midwives to a historic settlement of health claims–while downplaying the role we played in minimizing (on our client’s behalf) whatever sacrifice Big Tobacco had to make. And if, as ultimately happened, no settlement resulted, we could shrug our shoulders, say, ‘Hey, we tried,’ and act like unsuccessful brokers to an honorable peace.”

Some journalists wrote scathingly of me, Mitchell, [former Texas Gov.] Ann Richards [also McPherson’s partner], because we had agreed to do that. We agreed to do it because we thought it made a lot of sense in terms of the public interest and, secondly, because it was very handsomely compensated work.

Chatterbox translation: “See how easy that is? Look, we can even concede publicly that we were getting paid a lot to do this–better that we should point that out, rather than you–and still make our critics look like a bunch of braying jackals. I bet you aren’t even going to ask me a follow-up question.”

And they didn’t.

*Chatterbox should here disclose that he is a contributing editor at the Monthly. On the other hand, Kaiser gave Mrs. Chatterbox her start in journalism.