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The School for Scandal

Training America's next generation of political hacks.

THE NATION'S political professionals—all the consultants, campaign managers, lobbyists, pollsters, and media wizards who have overrun Washington and established a serious beachhead in most big cities and state capitals—have a problem. On the surface, things seem to be going pretty well. The pros have built the political system into a multibillion-dollar industry, employing thousands of people. They've made themselves seemingly indispensable to every kind of high-officeholder, would-be officeholder, and moneyed interest with an ax to grind. They have seriously weakened the legal profession's traditional lock on political influence. To the lawyer's role as automatic political insider, they have added the entrepreneurial independence and personal flamboyance of the modern-day business hero, resulting in a mythic formulation all their own.

But though they are as rich as the businessmen and as powerful as the lawyers, there is one thing the political pros still don't have: respect. They still lack a "profession," with the exclusivity and prestige that would entail. Now they have taken their first step toward psychic equality with the doctors and lawyers. They have the Graduate School of Political Management.

Chartered in 1986 by the state of New York, GSPM started holding classes last September at City University of New York's Bernard Baruch College. It is the brainchild of Neil Fabricant, a lawyer who held a series of jobs in and around New York state politics before founding something called the New York State Legislative Institute. As executive director of the institute (the major function of which, it seems, is to employ Fabricant), he became a kind of public sector entrepreneur, moving first into computers and demography, then taking over, building up, and selling the Empire State Report, a magazine on New York politics.

Four years ago Fabricant saw that the technological and financial overkill that characterized politics in the Reagan era had created an opportunity for someone like him. "Politics in the last 20-25 years has really changed so dramatically… The technical skills that are brought to bear on the political process are so vastly beyond the knowledge of people who have grown up in politics,” he explained. So he set himself to the task of "training technicians, well-trained people who will make an impact."

FABRICANT UNDERSTOOD that most prospective students would be attracted to his school for the same reason they are attracted to, say, the Harvard Business School, to which he explicitly compares GSPM. In the process of establishing the school, he made sure that he "developed a strong network of people in Washington and Albany that we think will take a look at [hiring] our students." He had the proposal studied by a blue-ribbon panel of experts in the field, including Reagan-Bush media consultant Roger Ailes and Democratic consultant Ralph Martine.

Then he seems to have taken care to sign up for the faculty potential employers of students, or at least to create that impression among incoming students. The teaching faculty includes heavyweight Republican consultant Douglas Bailey (former mastermind for Gerald Ford) and a couple of big-state Republican governors. (George Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater and political scientist and commentator Larry Sabato are both billed as faculty members even though neither has ever taught at the school. Not surprisingly, only a few GSPM students have found jobs with the "strong network" of employers, and several students feel that the administration misled them about their job prospects as GSPM graduates.) The other teachers are mostly entrepreneurs who are lesser known but successful from various branches of the politics industry: the president of a political market-research firm, the president of a political computer firm, a veteran Republican lobbyist, etc. There are even a couple of real academics on hand to round out the roster.

Though the faculty seems to list toward the starboard side of the political spectrum, Fabricant and everyone associated with the school stress its non-partisanship. A press release boasts that "neither the make-up of the faculty nor the curriculum reflects any ideological preference." This neutrality is vital, since "the School's education goal is to teach concepts of political management that are equally valid for students of any party orientation."

GSPM is not pursuing anything so boring as an ideological program. Unlike some similar enterprises spawned by the high-tech New Right, it is not attempting to train commandos in the war for truth. The school's promotional material makes its real agenda clear. In the school's admissions brochure, Fabricant writes: "It is our intention, made explicit through admissions procedures, the appointment of faculty, and the academic program itself, to contribute to the development of a true professional politics." Elsewhere the school makes even broader claims for itself. According to one of its press releases, the school could transform "the way that politics is practiced in this country, if [it] is successful in achieving its main purpose of stimulating professional identity and discipline in what is de facto a profession."

Just what would constitute a "true professional politics"? The answer seems to be, a politics practiced more like the law is practiced, conducted on behalf of others by zealous but essentially disinterested mercenaries. Talking about his school, Fabricant sounds like John Houseman in The Paper Chase ("You come in here with a mind full of mush, and you leave thinking like a lawyer"). "The students don't know this yet," he says, "but [the GSPM program] will teach them about politics the way law school teaches lawyers about the law. Law school is like a religion. What we want to do is teach a way of thinking, to think strategically. What will be driving [the students' thinking] is almost a matrix, of costs and benefits associated with each political approach."

What would be a practical example of such "strategic thinking"? Given a particular client with a particular political objective, Fabricant explains, the student could "cost out" each of the client's options ("hire a lobbyist, form a PAC, bring a lawsuit, run a campaign, etc.") and then pursue the most effective one.

For someone as steeped in the lore of interest-group politics as Fabricant, belief in causes just gets in the way, and the rise of the professional, ideologically indifferent political manager is only logical. "It's not a bad development," he says, "to have a dispassionate relationship between manager and client, if you see democratic politics as a matter of groups of people who have a right to be at the table, who are entitled to representation."

T'HE GSPM CURRICULUM may be useful to both brands of politicians. Republican and Democratic, but it is geared to only one style of politics: the big-money, big-media style. Of course, this style is not equally available to all the interests with "a right to be at the table." Nor is it clear whether even the universal availability of GSPM's style of politics would enhance American democracy or the opposite.

The flavor of democracy, GSPM-style, is obvious from a glance at some of the school's course offerings. You can take "Campaign Finance," covering budgeting, accounting, and the "major tactics used in raising money for campaigns," including weighty topics like "contacts with Political Action Committees," "the organization of finance committees," and "entertainment events." In other words, this is a class in wheedling money from PACs, greasing up rich people, and throwing boffo parties. Or there is Professor Bailey's course, "Campaign Advertising and Promotion," where students make sample ads for a sample campaign and also learn the "strategies and techniques" for getting on the TV news.

Then there are several computer and statistics courses, and one called "Qualitative Research." This turns out to involve learning to analyze those group interviews with "average" citizens that form the basis of many political ads and long, boring election-year news stories. With a syllabus heavy with anthropo-, socio-, and psychological tracts, the main goal of the course is to teach students how to use "focus groups" as political lab rats, to try out new campaign messages, slogans, and ads. This way they can get some hard data on the ergs of "vision" or rems of "leadership" the voters want from their next president or sewer commissioner.

Best of all, however, are Lobbying I and Lobbying II, taught by business lobbyist Harold Griffin. For class one day last winter, the syllabus listed the topic as "How to Influence the Legislative Process," with subheads like "Methods of Gaining Access to Congress," "Entertainment," and—that old standby of democratic theory— "Honorariums for Speaking Engagements."

ALL THOSE CONNECTED with the school emphasize that one of the most important achievements of the professionalization process will be the development of a "canon of ethics" for political managers. The press releases emphasize this aspect; one piece of literature even goes so far as to dub the school's library the Political Management and Ethics library.

But Fabricant admits that he's been busy and the school has had to "put ethics aside" for a while. "Ethics is one of the things that isn't thought through yet," he said, in a bewildered tone, "What we have concentrated on is the skills and the technology. You have to make sure you can deliver the product." On the other hand, he went on, GSPM has hired an "ethicist," as well as a graduate researcher who would be assigned to "do nothing but develop the ethical dimension."

The students seem even less worried than Fabricant about the missing "dimension." In Professor Griffin's Lobbying I class, a discussion of a book about the 1986 tax reform bill suddenly turned to Griffin's own career in the influence business, A woman in the class asked whether lobbying for causes he didn't believe in harmed his "effectiveness," Griffin replied that it didn't because in many cases the people he lobbied didn't even know what his personal philosophy was. The class nodded sagely.

The student pressed Griffin for any ethical problems he might have had. Stumped for a moment, he retreated to his profession's "canon of ethics," Referring to "a friend" who had once worked for the Tobacco Institute, he replied that "every industry is entitled to their own fair shake. A criminal defendant, even if he's guilty, deserves representation."

Most of the class seemed to think this was just good sense, but a student named Adam made the point that the courtroom example didn't apply at all. "A person doesn't have a constitutional right to a lobbyist. How can you separate lobbying from what it is you are lobbying for? If you believe tobacco is killing millions of people, then how can you lobby for it?" Adam's argument seemed to baffle his classmates. Someone in a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt protested that "free speech is a constitutional right."

Adam pushed ahead. "Why is it that a person has a right to a government-appointed lawyer and not to a government-appointed lobbyist? Why is that, is lobbying different or do lobbyists just not have as good a lobby?" he asked. I laughed, but the class didn't seem to get the joke.

Such disrespect for their chosen profession was too much for the other students. For the better part of a half-hour, the class took turns disagreeing with Adam. Several rephrased Griffin's rationalization. One expressed the view that "if you want to make money, you don't have to worry about what you believe."

With class opinion running heavily in his favor, Griffin summed up what most of his students seemed to be feeling: "The difference between many of us and Adam is that we have a lot of faith in the system…. If you give this guy your best shot, a jury will convict him if the facts are still against him. Your only ethical duty is to represent him as well as you can."

WHICH SEEMS to prove why the last thing this country needs is a "true professional politics." The problem with the Graduate School of Political Management is not that it might be ideologically biased or even that it lacks a code of ethics. The problem is with the very concept of a political profession skilled at using the system to achieve the goals of whoever can pay it, and convinced that its very nobility lies in its indifference to the merits of the particular cause it has been hired to advance. This is a problem that cannot be addressed by adding "ethics" like sugar.

Every defendant is entitled to a lawyer in a criminal trial because the state has chosen to direct its prosecutorial power at a particular individual. Through faulty analogy, lawyers use this principle to justify the high-minded moral agnosticism with which they represent clients in all other areas of their work. But at least the paradigm of the law is that lawyers on opposing sides will argue their case before a neutral judge or jury. There is no such paradigm of democracy to justify the work of lobbyists and political consultants. The paradigm of democracy is that citizens are represented by their elected officials, not by lobbyists, and certainly is not that every political campaign and cause has the full panoply of advanced manipulative skills available to it.

On the other hand, why should we draw the line at politicos? Mere occupations have always become "professions" in order to protect the privileges and boost the incomes of the professionals, for the good of the members, not the customers. When a "canon of ethics" develops, it is usually a series of rationalizations that serve to excuse or explain away the particular moral shortcuts involved in pursuing a profession for profit. If the ethical code does proscribe certain activities, it will only be those that would severely damage the profession's reputation and thus the earning power of all its members. The ethical proscription merely serves to insulate the professional from the crimes of his colleagues. "Professionalism" is the means by which professionals achieve maximum income with minimum accountability.

This may be OK for law, medicine, dentistry, accounting, and so on. But politics is too important to be left in the hands of professionals.