The Magazine

Book Review: Business as Usual

The Washington lobbyist as hero and villain.

Dec 6, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 12 • By KEVIN R. KOSAR
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The time was perfect for a man with restless energy, the gift of gab, and a taste for good food and drink. Sam Ward, with his flashy clothes and gift for yarn-spinning, was impossible to miss and made entertaining company. Destitute, he talked his way into the offices of nearly everyone of importance—and once in, was welcomed back by most. He spent his days glad-handing, vacuuming information, meeting with those who wanted to get things done. He was a social connector, a go-between for congressmen and agents of the many new interests in town. The moneyed powers loved Sam Ward, and made him rich. He took their money eagerly, and spent a lot of it on lavish dinner parties where he fostered friendships and brokered political deals.

The press of the time regularly derided the “huge, scaly serpent of the lobby” and the immoral “spider women” who persuaded congressmen. Sam Ward, however, largely escaped criticism. This was not because he was wholly aboveboard—which he was not, lifting government stationery for use in his lobbying correspondence, appropriating congressional franking privileges to mail personal correspondence, giving baskets of peaches, wine, and more to members of Congress, perjuring himself before committees—but compared with the spider women and lobbyists who stuffed the pockets of legislators, committee staff, and reporters with cash and stock, Ward’s transgressions were comparatively small beer. Add to this his personal charm and his useful efforts in helping politicians get things done, and reporters had little cause to sully “Rex Vestiari” with bad ink.

After a 20-year run, Ward left Washington and lobbying, and as in his youth, squandered his last fortune. Rascal that he was, he absconded from his creditors, landing in England, then Italy. He died in 1884. After word of his death reached America, the New York Times ran a 4,000-word obituary, and dailies around the nation mourned the passing of the “great reconciliator.”

Kevin R. Kosar is the author of Whiskey: A Global History.


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