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Robert Kaiser, a 43-year veteran of The Washington Post and its former managing editor, has been working on the story of Cassidy & Associates for the past two years. The result: a 27-part, 60,000-word, mostly Web-only chronicle of the rise of the lobbying profession as exemplified in the story of Gerry Cassidy, the city’s wealthiest lobbyist and co-founder of one of its oldest lobby firms. Kaiser also has a contract with Alfred A. Knopf to produce a book, which will be about twice as long. He talked with Legal Times reporter T.R. Goldman, who also spent years covering Cassidy, at the Mayflower’s Cafe Promenade last week, a few days after the series began.
LT: So how did all this get started? Kaiser: In 1987, I was the assistant managing editor for national news, and I assigned Dan Morgan to spend a whole Congress writing about the appropriations business. And Dan discovered the earmarking business. I carried this around in my head all the time because it was so interesting and eye-opening to me. One thing [in the Dan Morgan article] was about using a particular piece of legislation to create materials-research centers at universities. It was classic Cassidy. It just showed the kind of comprehensive approach to lobbying, which involved contributions and smart legislative tactics and creative use of authorizing legislation, you know, the whole nine yards. So that was probably my best sense of this world that I wanted to learn more about. Then I learned from my colleague Chuck Babcock that Cassidy had filed this S-1 [securities registration] in ’98 to go public, and I went and found it and read it with relish and said: �Oh my gosh.’ Great document. It was amazing. I just think that everyone who knew that world took for granted some of the revelations about how the business worked: why they had an expectation of future revenue — because they had long-term contracts with everybody who paid in advance, and the whole Cassidy system for minimizing risk and variation and cash flow is laid out there. Gerry has a wonderful line which he uses again and again with clients: �The only people who ever get hurt when riding a roller coaster are the ones who try to get off midway through the trip.’ For his appropriations clients, this was always a clever line. With my current status at the Post I’m allowed to do projects, but I have to get some interested editor to be responsible. I talked to [ Post Assistant Managing Editor for Investigative News] Jeff Leen. He immediately was intrigued, and so I went to Cassidy, which is characteristic of my approach to such matters and said: �Bad news, I’m going to pick on you. I’m not going to ask for any help today.’ I said give me few months to see what I can find out, and I’ll come back to you.
LT: Do you remember which year this was? Kaiser: This would have been just before the [presidential] conventions of ’04. And so I started to talk to people and read. And as you know, there’s a big Cassidy alumni association I began to discover.
LT: But who wants to know so much about Gerry Cassidy? Kaiser: It’s not, as you’ll see all about Gerry.
LT: Well, it’s about Gerry as an example of this way of life. Kaiser: The best book about Vietnam by far is Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, in which Neil uses the wonderful example of John Paul Vann, who was a young American officer when Sheehan met him the late ’50s, early ’60s, in Vietnam. You know Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. John Vann was the Quiet American 20 years later and a really interesting figure. And Neil used him in his career in Vietnam to write the best book about Vietnam, full of digressions about Ho Chi Minh. The book I’m going to write about Cassidy will be very much in that vein. Using the Cassidy story to tell about what’s happening in Washington. Happily for me, [Gerry] ultimately agreed to spend many many hours with me and my tape recorder. I have now a 250-page Word document, 155 or 165,000 words. Which is only Gerry Cassidy.
LT: How much did he let his hair down? Kaiser: Well, I think quite a lot.
LT: Can he let his hair down? Kaiser: I can’t answer that, you have to decide. He certainly, I think, went farther with me than he’s ever gone before in that direction.
LT: Where were the interviews? Kaiser: In his office.
LT: Not in his home? Kaiser: No, I’ve not been invited to any of his homes.
LT: Let me ask you this, how similar are you in age? Kaiser: I’m 64 next month, he’s 66.
LT: Did you see Gerry as in any way mirroring your background or your life, perhaps on a a psychological level. Kaiser: Almost none.
LT: Nothing? Kaiser: I don’t relate to him that way. I know what you’re getting at. I had a very happy childhood, I had loving parents.
LT: Personal goals and personal challenges? Kaiser: I never felt that I had this kind of compulsive ambition that he has, either.
LT: So there’s no kind of generational connection either? Kaiser: We shared experiences, lived through the same eras and so on, but no, I don’t think so. And you know, I honestly think our paths would have never crossed had I not gotten into this project. That was not true of Schlossberg, for example, who thinks he may have met me when he was a reporter on the [Washington] Daily News, though I don’t remember it.
LT: So what can you say about Gerry as a human being and as a business man? Kaiser: I’d hope that readers will see an extremely complicated person, an extremely determined and ambitious and driven person, but they have to evaluate for themselves the trade-offs he’s made.
LT: Why do you think he agreed to cooperate? Kaiser: I’ll tell you what I know, and then I’ll tell you what I don’t know. And it’s what I don’t know which is more important. What I know is — because he’s told me this now pretty explicitly — that Jody Powell told him when they discussed this: �Kaiser’s OK, he won’t be unfair, I can’t promise it’ll be any good, but I can say with confidence that it will be better if you talk to him than if you don’t.’ And I believe that turned out definitely to be true. However, it’s also a lot more intimate because he’s cooperated, and Gerry has told me more than once that he’s reminded Powell that if this blows up on him it’s Powell’s fault. What I don’t know is whether, as a number of people have speculated to me, he saw this as an opportunity to get recognized, some sort of valedictory gesture, at this stage of a long and successful career.
LT: Does Gerry feel misunderstood? He seems awful defensive sometimes. Kaiser: I don’t know. We all like to be seen in the best possible light, and as you know better than almost anybody else, he had a very difficult time dealing with the press for many many years. He’s not a colorful person. He doesn’t speak in great literary metaphors or tell hilarious jokes. But I find almost always that the people who really come from nowhere and make something considerable of themselves are always interesting. And that’s certainly my view of him. And how you do that is a recurring American tale of great appeal to me as a reader and as a writer. And the fact that this guy from this very narrow and impoverished, very Catholic background got himself to Cornell Law School and got himself to Florida to work on the [anti-poverty] project, befriended George McGovern and ended up working for him in Washington and then turned around and made a $125 million, more actually, that is a great story. Happily for me, my editors at The Washington Post saw it that way, too.
LT: How specific are you on the numbers? I thought you said he was the richest. Does that mean you know Stu’s [H. Stewart Van Scoyoc, founder of Van Scoyoc Associates] fortune, you know [Thomas] Boggs’ fortune? Kaiser: I don’t. I know a lot about Gerry’s fortune and how he got there, and I suppose I’m vulnerable to someone coming forward and saying: �No, no, I have $150 million. But I don’t expect it. Because it’s so much bigger. When I realized what he’s done with selling the firm three times, and started to understand how much was involved. I remember at one point coming back to Jeffrey [Leen] and saying this guy is worth $30 or $40 million. That seemed like a hell of a lot to me.
LT: And you’ve concluded he’s worth how much? Kaiser: Well, $125 million is the conservative estimate.
LT: Does that come from Gerry? Kaiser: I can’t talk about all that.
LT: Let’s talk brass tacks here. When the history of the lobbying business, pure and simple, is written, not through the eyes of someone but as a textbook, what will Cassidy’s innovations and accomplishments be, where will he fit into that story? Kaiser: There are several important answers to that question, and as I’m writing in this series, I think Schlossberg and Cassidy deserve a very big place for inventing the business of earmarking for fun and profit. There were these two priests at Georgetown who were, I think, the original earmarkers. . . . One of them is very much alive and the headmaster of Georgetown Prep, who won’t talk to me or you. The other died a few months ago. They used Georgetown, it was very clever, they used the hospital to cultivate members of Congress. They gave birth to congressional children for free. They did all kinds of favors. And they were involved in one of the first Schlossberg- Cassidy earmarks, which was a joint thing for the Georgetown [University] School of Foreign Service and the Fletcher School at Tufts. But they created the business, the first one of its kind. These two priests at Georgetown were just development officers at Georgetown trying to get money for one university. But Ken and Gerry created a business with which they made themselves a lot of money by acting as intermediaries between interested institutions that were paying them to develop plans for projects and then look to Congress for ways to get appropriations. I consider [Ken and Gerry] are responsible for the first modern earmarking appropriation, which is for Tufts Human Nutrition Research Center, so in that history this will be the biggest nod to them, I think. [William Timmons Jr., who founded Timmons and Co.] arguably creates the first lobbying company that has nothing to do with law or a legal practice. But Cassidy and Schlossberg is second, I think.
LT: It’s only by a few months. Kaiser: I never looked up Timmons, I will for my book. But Cassidy is the first operation that figured out how to make $20 million a year in revenues. They were the revenue leaders all through the late ’80s and ’90s.
LT: Many journalists would consider it a bit of an affront to have all this work not show up in hard copy. You take the opposite view. Kaiser: I do take the opposite view. This is personal to me. I am kind of the godfather of washingtonpost.com. When I was managing editor, I was invited to a conference in Japan organized by Apple [Computer]. John Sculley was president [of Apple], and it was a very good conference at which suddenly the scales fell from my eyes. It was 1992, and the realization that there were big things happening, which we had not paid any attention to. It was a three- or four-day conference, and on the plane back I wrote a memo to all my colleagues, from [publisher] Don Graham on down, saying: �There’s something really big happening, and we got to get on the stick here.’ Miraculously, it was one of those moments when enough recipients of this memo knew there was something to it that action actually ensued. And Alan Spoon, then-president of the Washington Post Co. and a very smart businessman, persuaded Graham to take this seriously. And this led to the first organization’s decision which produced the Washington Post online. And I felt for a long time that this is our future, and we have to master it, we have to figure it out. So the history of this [project] is simple. I went to Jeff Leen with a 50-page memo, sort of a chronology of what I’d learned about Cassidy, in the fall of ’05. and said, �Here it is. What should we do with this?’ And he was great. His reaction was you have so much and this story is so rich it would be a tragedy to reduce it to the classic three or four part Washington Post series. Let’s figure out what we can do. He came up with this idea, to do a serial on the Web. I came up with the idea that if we did it that way then I could do a book as well. So we cooked up a plan that made everybody happy. If I didn’t have a nice contract with an offer to write a book, the absence of the hard copy would be more difficult for me, I think. The hardest things about the reporting, I think, are related to the fact that I bit off 30 years of history. Which just means that there’s a great many things that can be pursued. The number of people is enormous the number of episodes is enormous, and in the case of the firm, the number of clients is enormous.
LT: I’m talking about the types of information that you tried to assemble. Were there any particular facts or chapters that were particularly tricky to compile? Kaiser: There are many, many months of reporting in this project. I’ll give you one example. Do you remember when they sold the Cassidy firm, how the news got out about how much they sold to [Interpublic Group] for. The figure that got into print was more than $80 million. But it was not a press release. And the amount is about $60 million, and I have spent more time on this than I should have. But it just became a point of fascination and frustration for me to try to figure this out.
LT: You couldn’t just ask Gerry. Kaiser: I did, but it was a very complicated deal and its ultimate value is considerably smaller than its anticipated and hoped for value on the day it was signed. The biggest problem was the impact of the disastrous merger of Shandwick Washington and Powell Tate. Powell Tate was not in very good shape financially at the beginning, which wasn’t understood at the time. But there were a number of earnouts and future payments based on performances that were never made. The biggest problem was, as somebody said: �We had two $15 million a year PR operations, Shandwick Washington and Powell Tate, and we merged them, and we ended up with one $15 million a year public-affairs operation.’ Valuing a transaction which is a stock merger turns out to be a lot harder than it looks.
LT: Could you have done the same story or told the story about lobbying in Washington through Tom Boggs? Kaiser: I could not personally, because I grew up with Tom Boggs and his sisters, and I have a personal connection with them that would preclude me from writing about them. I’ve talked to him and I’ll talk to him some more, generic conversations. He didn’t want to talk about Gerry personally.
LT: He didn’t want to? Kaiser: No. But Tom invented the idea of the bipartisan lobbying firm for all seasons. Maybe �invented’ is too strong because Timmons had [former United Auto Workers lobbyist and Democrat] Howard Paster. I remember Tommy telling me years ago, we used to have lunch about twice a year, and it was in the early ’80s, when he just hired some Republicans. I said, �Why’d you hire that guy?’ He said, �Because some day we’re going to need Republicans.’ Maybe that was in the ’70s.
LT: That’s true. There weren’t a hell of a lot of Republicans there before ’94, but there were a few. Kaiser: But you know Gerry will talk for hours about the unfair advantages that law firms have now because of their ability to perform multiple services for the same client. Gerry thinks that he loses clients to Boggs whom he ought to have for lobbying because Boggs is making them a package deal. I don’t know if that’s true or not but it is different. To do this out of a law firm is definitely different. But Tommy has adopted many of Gerry’s gimmicks, including the 10 percent commissions for people who bring in business. There was a guy, Marc Cowan, who worked for Gerry, who now works for Tom doing this who ran his own little group for a while.
LT: Did you get any sense of the essential nature of the lobbyists? Compared to the journalist or the lawyer? Kaiser: Interestingly, perhaps naively, my conclusion is that there isn’t one. You have, as you do with journalists, people with a wide variety of personal and intellectual attributes who can be good journalists or good lobbyists.
LT: You don’t think you need an outgoing personality to be a lobbyist? Kaiser: No, and I think Gerry’s the proof of that. Gerry’s not a schmoozer. He doesn’t have a lot of friends, and he’s slightly self-conscious and awkward in groups. And you know also he’s been a very successful lobbyist without doing a hell of a lot of lobbying. He’s running a business. And he’s a very shrewd investor. One of the reasons I think he’s richer than Tommy is that he’s done some brilliantly smart investments.
LT: If you can compare your brain now to your brain five years ago, is there anything you know about the lobby business that you hadn’t realized before. Kaiser: Oh a lot, I didn’t know a lot. It’s embarrassing to admit to myself, let alone to you or your readers how much I didn’t know. I didn’t understand the significance of the retainer system or the prevalence of it. I didn’t understand how clients calculated the cost-benefit analysis of hiring a lobbyist. But I think you cannot understand the boom in lobbying in Washington in modern times without appreciating how the clients understand the real costs. And not to belabor the point. I think the real costs for many of the clients are small. Even though the dollar numbers can be big, the real cost is often marginal.
LT: Because the results from a small investment can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars? Kaiser: Millions. And because the cost of the wrong thing happening can be very high, too. But I just had never thought about many aspects of this.
LT: What about the book? Kaiser: The book differs from the series in a fundamental way: It will look at the way money has changed everything in Washington. Cassidy contributes richly. Gerry is a very smart student of the modern Washington system. He has a very sophisticated view of how fund raising and very expensive campaigning has changed everything. Gerry and I both started in a Washington that was much simpler and cheaper. The average cost of a winning House campaign the first year Gerry and Schlossberg were in business was $50,000 to $60,000.
Working Lunch appears every other week in Legal Times .

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