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Volume 3, Number 10
October, 1998

The Wise Men

by David Mandel

Sooner or later every President has a crisis. Crisis can be personal or political. They range from Jimmy Carter's hostages in Iran, Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra controversy, Richard Nixon's Watergate disaster, and Bill Clinton's relationship with a White House intern. In each instance the cry goes out in Washington. Bring in the Wise Men.

President Clinton had barely confessed to his affair with an intern when the chorus for the wise men began. Within a few days of the President's admission, every inside the beltway pundit pontificated that only the wise men could rescue the President.

Just who are these wise men? They can be found in the partnership ranks of Washington D.C.'s K Street law firms. Wise men call themselves lawyers but serve as a "government relations" consultants to corporations and trade groups. In other words, they are lobbyists. Most came to Washington D.C. decades ago, as an elected official or in a prominent appointed position. When their terms end they cash in. Wise men can't go home again. Instead they join D.C. law firms, and while retaining close contacts with their former colleagues, they lobby for hefty fees .

Some wise men go public, appearing regularly on Meet the Press type shows and in the op ed columns of major newspapers. Others prefer to quietly use their reputations and relations with the White House, Congress, and federal agencies to enhance their consulting or lobbying careers.

Presidents select wise men like baseball owners choose managers. They have a small rotating list and keep using the same faces. Like baseball owners, Presidents do not like to try anything new. Political affiliation is not a problem. Wise men are considered above politics. In fact, the latest demand in Washington is for President Clinton to anoint his former opponent, ex-Senator Bob Dole, as his wise man. Another potential nominee is retired Senator George Mitchell of Maine. They are perfect candidates for the job. After years in Washington, both left the Senate to join large lobbying law firms. Their mere presence is meant to signify something virtuous.

Defeated politicians crave the title of Wise Man. After he was defeated in Arkansas, Senator J.W. Fulbright spent his final days in Washington whispering sweet nothings to any leader who remembered him. After his resignation from office, Richard Nixon spent two decades campaigning for the role.

The wise men serve another convenient purpose for our leaders. Since they are wealthy and do not face voters, they can perform the deeds politicians secretly support but dare not do. When Congress wants a salary increase, it hires a commission of wise men to study the issue. The wise men predictably conclude that another pay hike is warranted. Want to raise the cost of postage? Appoint a postal rate commission and let them add on a few cents to each stamp. Feel like raising payroll taxes? Form a "social security" commission of wise men and let them recommend a round of payroll tax increases. The wise men, having already earned their pot of gold, have no problem calling on the American people to tighten their belts yet again.

When you hear that a President or Congress is calling on the Wise Men reach for your wallet.
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