Truth and Consequences, Washington Style
In early 1981, as a newly-minted Senate staffer, I was ensconced in my dilapidated office in a condemned building known as “Senate Courts.” (The site now serves as a parking lot for the Capital Police.)
I was new on the job and not really that familiar with “lobbying” — or lobbyists. So I was excited when my first visitor of that profession called for an appointment to see me to about funding a particular item in the Foreign Assistance Act — known in the vernacular as “foreign aid.”
The Profitable World of Foreign Aid
She was a lobbyist and a registered foreign agent for the “Republic of Haiti.”
Those were the days, as the folklore goes, when the United States supported dictators in the Western Hemisphere to defend the region against communist insurgencies fomented by Fidel Castro and his allies in the Soviet bloc. One of the real tyrants in the region — a pretty grim figure — was Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, son and heir to the notorious “Papa Doc,” who had ruled in Haiti for over 20 years. Between them, they and their dreaded Tonton Macoutes murdered untold thousands of their own people during a reign of terror that lasted more than thirty years.
Her visit was nothing new. Dictators the world over had already been hitting up the United States for billions of taxpayer dollars in “assistance” for decades. And curiously, the Foreign Assistance Act had bipartisan support: bleeding-heart Democrats supported “humanitarian assistance,” while anti-Communist Republicans supported “military assistance,” or so the story goes (and it still does).
In fact, U.S. contractors for projects in both categories, together with the ruling dictators of dozens of foreign aid recipients, cashed in, big time, early, and often. Right off the top.
First Impressions Matter
Well, my visitor, officially representing a bloodthirsty dictator, arrived in my office. She was impeccably dressed, well spoken, and attractive. In fact, just weeks before, on my very first day as a Senate staffer — literally on my way to get sworn in — I had remarked out loud to my colleague that every woman we had seen in the hall on the fourth floor of the Dirksen Building was much better-looking on average than the women I was used to seeing in my years as a roadhouse entertainer during grad school back in Indiana.
He just laughed.
I welcomed my visitor and offered her a chair. It was rather well-worn, but it was the only one I had. The building was slated to be razed, and the furniture was undoubtedly bound for a bonfire. She didn’t bat an eyelash. She sat down and got right to the point. (I was soon to learn that my time was very valuable.)
The Republic of Haiti was intent on educating Haitian children for democracy, she explained, and the emolument proposed for inclusion in the foreign aid bill would perform a critical service — indeed, a turning point in the history of the Republic (the Haitian Republic, that is), should it be included in full. Her client, the government of Haiti, desperately needed this money in order to counter the always-threatening forces of darkness, which had assailed Haiti’s suffering people for years. Including this line-item in the bill would open a doorway out of the darkness into the light of democratic life for a desperate people.
Or something along those lines.
‘What is Truth?’
Okay, I didn’t know a thing about Haiti, but my naïveté got the better of me. “You know,” I said, “I’m new here, and I don’t know very much about lobbying. Tell me what it’s like. Tell me about your job and what you do.” (My father had taught me that, when a conversation lapsed into an uncomfortable point of struggle, I should “ask them about themselves.”)
She then gave me some boilerplate description — the kind that we would probably find on Wikipedia today, I’m sure.
When she finished — remember, this was half a lifetime ago, and I was even younger than that — I pressed on: “Well, I mean, you work for a government, the government is your client. They tell you how much money they need and — if I understand you correctly — you ask us to provide it. I wonder, in order to make your case, does your client ever ask you to lie to make your pitch more successful?”
She looked uncomfortable. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” I said, “does your client ever tell you not to tell the truth?”
She was really flustered. Finally, she said, and I’m not kidding — “What is truth?”
I said, “You know, that’s what Pontius Pilate said to Jesus.”
She leaned over, picked her purse off the floor, got up, and headed for the door. “I’ve got another appointment,” she said.
I never saw her again, and I don’t remember how much money the Republic of Haiti needed to sow the seeds of democracy among its young, and I don’t know whether they ever even got it.
Oh, by the way — the lobbying firm she worked for was called “Black, Manafort, and Stone.”