It’s Not Lobbying; It’s HBO

Now will you believe congressmen envy lobbyists?

Steven Soderbergh, the A-list film director of Traffic and Out of Sight, is about to produce the crowning piece of evidence to support Chatterbox’s thesis (laid out here and here) that members of the House of Representatives have become the social inferiors of lobbyists. As Chatterbox has noted previously, a Washington in which House members daydream about becoming lobbyists is far more chilling than a Washington in which House Majority Leader Tom DeLay tries to bully lobby firms into hiring more Republicans. Indeed, the latter may serve as a handy corrective to the former. But Soderbergh and his co-producer, the actor George Clooney, are ready to deal the lobbying industry’s trump card.

The New YorkTimes’ Jill Abramson reports that HBO, Soderbergh, and Clooney will soon unveil K Street, a cutting-edge dramatization of life in the nation’s capital focused entirely on … lobbyists. Chatterbox doubts any network today would attempt a dramatic TV series, on HBO or anywhere else, recounting the lives of one or more of the 435 unsung heroes who serve in our nation’s lower house. * He’s certain no TV network would attempt such a project today. (It’s different for senators, who remain situated higher than lobbyists on Washington’s status ladder. Hal Holbrook played a U.S. senator three decades ago on The Bold Ones: The Senator, and this year Josh Brolin played Mr. Sterling, a U.S. senator invented by Lawrence O’Donnell, a former aide to former New York Sen. Pat Moynihan.) A TV show depicting the daily triumphs and tragedies of lobbyists is the logical outgrowth of a political culture that makes a diva out of Hilary Rosen, departing chairman of the Recording Industry Association of America.

There’s some evidence that K Street will portray lobbyists in a sympathetic light. Abramson writes,

His lobbyists won’t conform to the snide caricature of “The State of the Art Washington Sleazeball,” as The New Republic famously described the Republican lobbyist and political consultant Roger Stone in a cover story in the 1980’s.

If that’s truly Soderbergh and Clooney’s attitude, then the show will fail to capture the fundamentally crude reality of influence peddling in Washington. (The Stone piece, written by Slate’s editor, Jacob Weisberg, was no caricature.) The world of corporate lobbying is not, as many of its occupants would have you believe, a morally complex milieu whose subtleties go unappreciated. Rather, it’s a morally straightforward milieu populated by people who often like to pretend that it’s morally complex. For example, Mike Deaver, the former top aide to President Reagan who now works as a lobbyist (and who will be appearing on the show as himself) praised Soderbergh for not having “an agenda” and for simply wanting to show “how it works.” But this is the same Mike Deaver who, shortly after leaving the Reagan White House and hanging his lobbyist shingle, posed for the cover of Time magazine talking into a phone in the back seat of a limo. “Who Is This Man Talking To?” was the cover line. The obvious implication was that in hiring Deaver, corporations could purchase the ear of the president. This lurid tableau of a government for sale helped provoke Deaver’s prosecution for perjury in connection with investigations into whether he’d violated federal lobby restrictions on former government officials.

As these rich narrative details demonstrate, simply showing “how it works” when lobbyists trade on their own government connections or their clients’ campaign contributions may be the best way to paint a devastating portrait of the whole endeavor. After all, Soderbergh’s previous films show little evidence of a weak mind. Even so, K Street will likely serve to glamorize even further a profession that’s already grown far too glamorous. By definition, dramatizing the activities of any particular group of people imparts to those people a certain, well, drama. The Sopranos, for instance, can hardly be accused of sugarcoating the reality of life in the New Jersey mob. Yet it certainly makes that life appear very compelling. Admit it: Haven’t you daydreamed about being Tony Soprano? Imagine how much easier it will be for K Street to heighten the rumored desire of Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., to be Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

Correction, Aug. 27, 2003: Originally, the piece stated that Chatterbox was “pretty sure that there has never been a dramatic TV series” depicting life in the House of Representatives. In fact, there was such a show, starring William Katt and titled King of the Hill that lasted for eight episodes in 1989. Also, this past summer Nathan Lane starred in a summer replacement series Charlie Lawrence, about a former TV actor elected to the House. The latter is mentioned only as a matter of interest; it was not a “dramatic series,” but a sitcom, and the premise underscored Chatterbox’s point that today members of the House get less respect than lobbyists do. (Return to the corrected sentence.)