The Speaker’s Lobby: Business Cards as Passports
By: Chad Pergram, FOX News
13 March 2009
Most will tell you that access is paramount in Washington. Access is everything: you can talk to the right people. Change a policy. Unearth a scoop.
But it takes a special brand of alchemy to develop access. That’s because there’s something more important than access: relationships.
Have a relationship with someone, and you can start to score access.
Someone once told me that in Washington, business cards are like passports. If you have someone’s business card, you’ve secured a visa into their world. Granted, it might just be enough to get you through their professional version of Checkpoint Charlie. But it’s a start. And once you have a phone number or an email address, that could lead to coffee, lunch, drinks, a meeting or a ballgame. You name it. Access is predicated on relationships.
Perhaps the best model to understand how to forge relationships in Washington comes via a relic of Cold War espionage.
Gen. Oleg Kalugin ran the KGB for the Soviet Union. He became an ardent critic of the agency after he defected to the United States. Several years ago, I asked Kalugin to speak to a group of students I worked with. Kalugin described to the class his methods to develop a foreign “asset” when he spied against the United States. Kalugin said he liked to befriend smart, Ivy League-educated twenty-somethings. He’d never ask them to do anything for him. They were just friends. Then about ten years later, those fresh-faced college graduates were in positions of power in Washington. That’s when Kalugin might call in a “favor.” But by that point, those Ivy League graduates thought they were just helping out “a friend.”
Certainly most relationships in Washington aren’t that sinister. But thematically they’re the same. People use their relationships to get information, gather intelligence or land access. And it works the same for lawmakers, lobbyists, administration officials, aides and journalists.
Before joining FOX, I covered Congress for a public radio news service that provided reports for a station in Roanoke, VA, among others. Years on that beat helped me get to know former Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA). Goode didn’t talk to reporters often. But overtime, Goode and I developed a rapport. We’d often chat about our dogs more than legislation. Goode would ask me about my Welsh Corgi Hampton and I’d ask the Congressman about his pooch, Mr. Bean.
In November, 2006, voters elected Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) to the House, the first Muslim to ever sit in Congress. A few weeks after the election, Goode criticized Ellison for deciding to use the Koran instead of the Bible during a mock swearing-in ceremony.
In a letter to constituents, Goode said that “The Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration, there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran.”
A few weeks later, Ellison arrived in Washington and elected to use a copy of the Koran owned by Thomas Jefferson. That was a stroke of political brilliance since Goode represented Jefferson’s home, Monticello, in his Congressional district.
So on the first day of the new Congress, I was charged with doing a story about Ellison and Goode. Ellison conducted many interviews that day. But Goode didn’t want much to do with reporters. Until I approached him. And guess who was the only journalist Goode talked to that day about his dustup with Ellison?
I wasn’t just a reporter wanting a one-time interview with Goode. We had a longstanding relationship that frankly centered mostly on our canine pals.
Last year a federal grand jury indicted former Rep. Rick Renzi (R-AZ) on 35 counts of corruption in connection with a land deal. The grand jury handed up the indictment on a Friday, a day the House was out of session.
I wanted to confront Renzi and get his side of the story.
The former Congressman’s father had just died earlier in the week and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Renzi’s the father of 12 children and lived there in suburban Washington. So I made a calculated guess that Renzi stayed in Washington and didn’t fly home to Arizona that weekend.
When the House meets on Mondays, it usually suspends any votes until 6:30 pm ET. That’s so lawmakers from the west can travel all day and fly in just before they start. I doubted that Renzi would come to his office early on Monday morning. But there was a chance. So we stationed a cameraman outside Renzi’s suite in the Cannon House Office Building early that morning. By late afternoon, Renzi’s staff took pity on the photographer and even put the indicted Congressman on the phone with him. The photographer then called me to announce that Renzi told him he “wouldn’t be coming in today and might put out a statement in the morning.”
So the shooter and the assignment desk wanted to call off the stakeout.
Here was my calculation: the only official act Renzi would be asked to perform that day as a Congressman was vote at 6:30 pm. Now, it’s not out unheard of for lawmakers in trouble to skip out of their legislative duties. But I would be angry if we waited as long as we did, called it quits and Renzi showed up at 6:30.
The other reason I said stay is that the last person I ever believe is someone facing a 35 count indictment. Thirty-four counts? Maybe.
So the cameraman waited. At 5:56 pm, he called me. “Guess who just walked into his office,” he said. I told him I’d be right over.
When I arrived at Renzi’s office, I decided it would at least be polite to tell his staff we’d like to ask the Congressman a couple of questions when he came out to vote. They were non-committal.
The bells signaling votes on the House floor sounded at 6:30 pm. And at 6:35, out came Renzi. I had interviewed Renzi many times before. So we knew each other. I told him I realized there were certain things he probably couldn’t answer. But I reminded Renzi I had always been fair to him and there was an easy way and a hard way to do this. The easy way would be for the Congressman to stop and answer some questions. The hard way would be to dog him Mike Wallace-style through the Cannon garage.
Renzi politely answered my questions. On camera.
“I’m not taking on the cloak of guilt because I’m innocent, Renzi declared. “People don’t believe me now. There’s a truth that will be told here.”
Renzi didn’t talk to any other reporters that day. Or any other day. The former Congressman has a chance to argue his innocence at a trial that starts in June.
Relationships are a two-way street. Sometimes lawmakers and their aides come to me wanting something. Perhaps a correction. A clarification. Maybe pitching a story. It’s a lot easier to approach someone you know. If you cold call someone, they don’t know you from Adam. They may suspect you have fangs and horns and nails, ready to go for the jugular. But if you know someone, you don’t think of them that way at all. Because you have trust.
As Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) told me once about relationships: “You might not see eye to eye on things. But you’re not going to screw your friends.”
Last year, I dropped by a lawmaker’s office several times to meet her press secretary. Each time, he wasn’t in. Each time I left a card. Yet never received a telephone call or email.
A few months later, a minor scandal broke involving this lawmaker and I attempted to get a comment from the same press secretary. I even went by the office. Nothing doing. And never met him.
Then one day I got a call from this very press secretary. His boss was working on a legislative initiative and wanted me to invite the Congresswoman to the House Radio-TV gallery for a press conference. On Capitol Hill, journalists are required to extend invitations to senators and representatives to appear at press conferences. They just can’t show up.
“Chad, I need you to invite us to a press conference at 2 pm today in the House Radio-TV Gallery,” the press secretary informed me.
NEED me? Today? Never mind the story wasn’t very good and FOX wasn’t interested in the issue.
Now I would never be punitive toward someone and give them bad coverage just because they hadn’t reciprocated with me. But it takes two to tango.
And for the record, I still haven’t met this press secretary. Or have his business card.
– Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.