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THE FALL TV SEASON

Word on the 'Street'

HBO's series on lobbyists has the Washington elite abuzz: Should they be shocked or get a cameo?

September 12, 2003|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — At a bus stop on K Street in downtown Washington, a banner ad promotes a coming HBO show about lobbyists and consultants. The ad features a rain-splattered car with a side-mirror view of the Capitol. The producers of "K Street" (the television show, not the traffic jam) promise a look at "politics from the inside out."

The show, which debuts Sunday, has already attracted the Washington equivalent of buzz. Like Arianna Huffington muscling her way into the photograph of Arnold Schwarzenegger filing for governor, prominent Washingtonians are clamoring for cameos.

The ubiquitous husband-and-wife team of Democrat James Carville and Republican Mary Matalin play themselves on the show. Michael K. Deaver, the king of backdrops for the Reagan administration, helped come up with the concept. Washington is filled with talk about who else might be validated by Hollywood's cameras: Ace lobbyist Tommy Boggs and famed lawyer Robert S. Strauss are among the rumored chosen.

To some here, the advent of a television series in which each week's script is interspersed with actual news footage -- they call it "real-time fiction" -- is a new twist on "reality" TV.

A 20-minute test episode opens with real footage of Iraqi nationalist Ahmad Chalabi being interviewed, from Iraq, by Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press." The cast -- three actors playing lobbyists and three politicos, Matalin, Carville and Deaver, playing themselves -- then debate the issue of whether Chalabi is too controversial for the fictional firm they represent. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), in a cameo, offers that even Libya has representation in Washington.

"The courtiers have become more important than the kings -- Carville, Matalin, George Stephanopoulos -- they're all thriving," said Christopher Buckley, an arch observer of Washington culture and satirist whose books include "Thank You for Smoking," which chronicles the life of a lobbyist for the tobacco industry. "The fact that lobbyists are now playing themselves on TV is the last dreary shred of evidence we need that we are living in a post-satirical world. The snake is now eating its tail. I retire."

'No bada bing'

Washington is also puzzling over how the show's producers will portray, as entertainment, a profession that often attracts serious wonks. K Street's suits (usually Brooks Brothers or better) are not usually as colorful as the characters in, say, "The Sopranos."

"It's not like people out there are getting whacked," Buckley said. "There's no bada bing." Said another Washington wag, "What will Hollywood think of next -- a series on the insurance industry in Hartford?"

To James Christian, who has been a Washington lobbyist since he left the Senate Appropriations Committee in 1977, the art of peddling influence requires more than a campaign contribution or a backslapping encounter at a cocktail party. It takes incremental attention to minutia, and that has never made for great television.

"I assume this will not be an anthem of praise," said Christian, who works at one of Washington's premier lobbying firms, Patton Boggs. "But this is a pretty serious business, actually. It's people doing research, writing memos, trying to figure out technical issues. It's a trade association that crunches data for their industry and develops policy in a competitive manner."

Well, sure. But talk to lobbyists in Washington and it isn't long before you hear stories that would make any television series crackle with drama. In fact, some in the profession fear that the new show may expose some unflattering aspects of a business they say is as old as the Republic.

The tales of lobbyists

The point man for Monica-gate in the Clinton White House, lawyer Lanny J. Davis, who now advises corporate clients on how to communicate with the public during a crisis, thinks the public will be shocked.

"There have been times, when I have been in the middle of a room filled with lobbyists writing a bill, with no member of Congress or staff member in the room, where I knew that what we were doing would become the law of the land, times that I turned to a fellow lobbyist and said, 'If anybody outside the Beltway really knew what we were doing, there would be a revolution.' "

Mike Hardiman runs his own lobbying firm, Hardiman Consulting, based not on K Street but in less trendy Southeast Washington. Like Davis, he sees potential for Hollywood to explore the cynical underbelly of Washington -- namely what lobbyists tell their clients.

Named Advocate of the Year in 2000 by the Property Rights Foundation of America for helping to defeat a $47-billion land acquisition trust fund proposed in Congress, Hardiman recalls he had been lobbying for a client with a major government agency when that department's No. 2 official called him in for a chat.

"I thought he was calling me in to work out a deal on an issue," he said. "He spent 45 minutes reaming me out for all the things I had done that went against the department's position."

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