In trying to move away from a stereotype to a more balanced image of lobbyists, we can look at a surprising source for illumination – the movies. The exercise can also help us discover the one hard truth about lobbying.
Nobody said stereotyping is a good thing. But sometimes that’s the only way you can make sense of the human complexity around you. Even the most open-minded among us are not above this pastime. If we periodically rail against women drivers or speak of the wealthy in the same breath as the haughty, then we are guilty of it also. It goes up a notch or two in intensity, however, when we start attributing animal characteristics to entire professions.
On the barometer of public perception, chameleon-like lobbyists hover near the bottom, poised somewhere between opportunistic legal hyenas and wheedling real estate sharks. On any given day, we know we can find them on the payrolls of companies that run roughshod over coral reefs, or plot the infusion of foreign substances into our food chain.
Some obvious character traits emerge from this – unscrupulous, manipulative, crooked. Did we mention unscrupulous?
To see how these attributes lend themselves to riveting storytelling, we only have to look at a movie like ‘Erin Brockovich’ that, ironically enough, derives its plot from real life. In it, Julia Roberts’s gutsy character wages a one-woman crusade against a giant public utility (and its implicit team of spin doctors) to expose its water contaminating ways. There are several other excellent movies that have used a similar David versus Goliath ploy to great effect and box office results. Such guidelines will be helpful, for instance, The widely traded view of the lobbyist’s place in the universe may work well as cinematic fodder but it doesn’t get us closer to understanding the individual. What drives him? Does he agonise over positions that seem to run counter to the public good? Is he personally motivated by causes he lobbies for?
To arrive at a more nuanced picture, we can delve into the movies again. A handful of Hollywood films portray lobbyists with compassion, or humour, or both, and give us helpful insight into their collective psyche.
‘Casino Jack’ leads the pack as a docudrama based on the true story of Jack Abramoff, a former Washington DC insider who was embroiled in a casino industry lobbying scandal in 2006. He was subsequently convicted and served time in prison following an extensive corruption investigation.
As Abramoff, actor Kevin Spacey projects a larger-than-life persona with more than a hint of megalomania. Rather than the dodgy villain that Abramoff was made out to be at the time of his trial, however, he is depicted in the movie as a natural by-product of a loophole-riddled system.
If his run-in with the law prompted any introspection, then Abramoff doesn’t completely let us in on this – in the movie or in his life, off-screen. At one point in Casino Jack, he eloquently defends his role (‘We are doing important stuff that matters for people’). Following his release from prison in 2010, Abramoff wasted no time in capitalising on his experiences. He wrote a tell-all book about the underbelly of Washington politics, launched a website and threw himself into the speaking circuit, selling himself as a former insider who had survived to talk about it. Taking time off for soul searching? Not for Abramoff.
The darkly satirical ‘Thank You for Smoking’ tracks the career ups and downs of tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor in the face of opposition from several quarters, including activists and senators. Naylor can come across as insensitive as when he brags about tobacco’s ‘killing’ potential with lobbying friends from other ‘death’ industries – the fast food and gun manufacturing groups. But he is also a responsible parent who seeks to be a role model for his twelve year old. How he finds a way to still be that while defending people’s right to smoke becomes a central theme in this offbeat movie.
In the recently released awards favourite, ‘Lincoln’, actor James Spader plays the part of W.N. Bilbo who has been described as a 19th century version of a political lobbyist. Acting on behalf of the Lincoln administration, Bilbo lobbied members of the Democratic party to win their support for the 13th amendment which ultimately abolished slavery under US constitutional law. Spader’s Bilbo is easygoing and charming but reveals little about his private views on the subject of slavery. The question of whether his efforts were motivated by personal conviction or by the money involved is one that is left for the viewer to answer.
A stereotype, it becomes clear from all this, gets us close to reality but doesn’t completely reflect it. The common image of lobbyists speaks to the corruption in the industry but doesn’t address the individual struggles, beliefs or values of its members. It also misses the larger point that, no matter how unpopular the cause or client, the lobbyist has a job at the end of the day – one that somebody needs to do and that is often difficult to do. As Nick Naylor famously says in the movie: “If you want an easy job, go work for the Red Cross