Politicians and Their Friends

The Sunday Washington Post has a lengthy story on Terry McAuliffe’s highly successful “business” career. McAuliffe, of course, is the longtime Democratic fundraiser and “first friendof Bill Clinton who is now the Democratic nominee for governor of Virginia.

How did a lifelong political operative make many millions for himself? The Post reviews:

The pitches to potential investors in a new electric-car company have been unabashed about its promise: It will enjoy “billions” in government subsidies and tax credits, will rise to a dominant position in the U.S. electric-car industry and, perhaps most critically, has a politically connected founder with the savvy to make it all happen….

The prospectus, along with other documents reviewed by The Post, shows how GreenTech fits into a pattern of investments in which McAuliffe has used government programs, political connections and access to wealthy investors of both parties in pursuit of big profits for himself.

That formula has made McAuliffe a millionaire many times over, paving the way for a long list of business ventures, including his law firm, from which he resigned in the 1990s after profiting — along with his partners — from fees paid by domestic and foreign clients seeking results from the federal government.

A review of McAuliffe’s business history shows him often coming out ahead personally, even if some investments fail or become embroiled in controversy.

Or as McAuliffe told the New York Times:

”I’ve met all of my business contacts through politics. It’s all interrelated,” he said. When he meets a new business contact, he went on, ”then I raise money from them.”

And how did Bill Clinton meet his very good friend? Was it in high school? College? At Oxford? The local Kiwanis Club? No, President Clinton was down in the dumps after his electoral thumping in 1994 and needed to get in gear for his reelection campaign. Harold Ickes, “his politically astute deputy chief of staff,” urged him to meet McAuliffe, who had been a fundraiser for President Carter, when he was 23 years old, and Dick Gephardt. McAuliffe quickly recommended renting out the Lincoln Bedroom, and that worked so well that they became fast friends, maybe even “best friends.”

For more on how to make big money by being a friend of Bill Clinton, see the current cover story in the New Republic.

Meanwhile, McAuliffe is seeking the job currently held by Gov. Robert McDonnell, who is currently under fire for accepting many expensive gifts from a businessman seeking to do business with the state. The gifts were lavish – $15,000 to pay for catering for the governor’s daughter’s wedding, $15,000 to take the first lady shopping at Bergdorf Goodman in New York, use of a vacation cabin, use of a Ferrari, a Rolex watch for the first lady to give the governor, and some $120,000 in loans to a business McDonnell ran – but perhaps the sort of thing old friends do for one another. How old was the friendship? The high school soccer team, maybe? Church? No, McDonnell met his “family friend” as he was gearing up to run for governor in 2009. And as Jonnie Williams contributed more than $100,000 to his campaign, McDonnell quickly came to consider him a “personal friend.” No more, though, after the details of their friendship hit the newspapers.

Ah, friendship, it’s a beautiful thing. As Yeats wrote, “say my glory was I had such friends.”

And then consider the case of General Joseph F. Fil Jr., the former commander of the U.S. Eighth Army in South Korea, ­who was found by the Pentagon’s inspector general to have ­improperly accepted gold-plated Montblanc pens, a $2,000 leather briefcase and other gifts from a South Korean citizen while commanding U.S. troops in that country. His explanation? You guessed it:

Fil told investigators that he accepted the gifts in “good conscience,” believing that they were legal because the giver was a longtime personal friend. 

Awkwardly, though, 

Investigators cast doubt on that explanation, however, noting that the South Korean did not speak English and that Fil had to communicate with him by “using hand and arm signals.”

Of course, as the Dominican brother Innocent Smith has written, “One of the signs of a true friendship is that friends can be silent together without awkwardness.”

Seriously, though, we could consider all these politicians and generals hypocrites: They call people “friends” who are useful to their pursuit of power and money. But we might also feel sad for them. The people they call friends, “personal friend,” “family friend,” even “best friend,” are trading money for access, and access for money. Some might view it as more of a symbiotic relationship than actual friendship.

Perhaps the term they should use is “crony,” which interestingly enough is defined by Merriam-Webster as

a close friend of someone; especially : a friend of someone powerful (such as a politician) who is unfairly given special treatment or favors

So there you have it: a crony actually is a close friend. Who seeks and receives favors. 

And all of this is a far cry from actual businesspeople, who create wealth by discovering and serving the needs of other people. Sam Walton, Bill Gates, Fred Smith, and your corner deli owner are businesspeople. Terry McAuliffe and other political operatives who trade on their political connections to get cut in on sweetheart deals and government subsidies are something else again.