Lobbying: where money and power meet

Peek through a partially opened door in a new exhibition exploring the grandness, boldness, and complexity of America’s democracy. You’ll see a video of the late Senator Alan Cranston, who intervened with banking regulators to help a major campaign donor, saying on the Senate floor, “I am far from being the only senator to do what I have done.” And you’ll watch the late Representative James Traficant telling reporters at the House ethics committee, “There are no ethics in politics.”

An exhibition section. A partially opened door reveals a television screen where a video of political scandals play.
Visitors to the “American Democracy” exhibition see televised clips from lobbying scandals through a partially open door, giving them a peek into activities that usually occur “behind closed doors.”

American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith, which opened last June, explores the bold experiment of creating a democracy from a monarchy. It demonstrates how Americans in a diverse society participate in their government and the principles and ideals that govern the nation’s political system.

But one small part of the exhibition demonstrates something else. It explores the dynamic between participation by those willing to spend lots of money and politicians eager for payoffs—the dirty laundry of U.S. politics. And that’s why visitors can look through a cracked-open door to see a television screen, playing a three-and-a-half-minute video loop of political scandals. The new exhibition couldn’t tell the story of American democracy “without talking about money, corruption, and power,” said Harry Rubenstein, former chair of the museum’s Division of Political History and leader of the team behind the exhibition. Rubenstein said he wanted to symbolically show that corruption takes place behind closed doors, “so we cracked the door open to show scandals.”

A label near the door explains that “well-funded” lobbyists have represented large corporations and established organizations. Then comes the kicker: “And where money and power meet, there is always the possibility that in this representative democracy not everyone is listened to equally.” In this and other sections, the exhibition demonstrates that our democracy sometimes exists "beyond the ballot."

Cartoon drawing with title "The Deadly Upas Tree of Wall Street" shows several men drifting to sleep beneath a large tree whose leaves are made of gold coins.
Fear of the corrupting influence of money is nothing new in American politics. In this 1882 illustration, the face of financier and railroad developer Jay Gould is formed by the limbs and branches at the center of this poisonous tree blooming with bribes.

Rubenstein said two of the scandals featured in the section’s accompanying video epitomize the influence of money in politics: the downfall of corrupt super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the FBI sting known as ABSCAM. The beginning of the video loop shows the disgrace of Abramoff, who served 43 months in prison until 2010 after lavishing gifts on congressional and executive branch officials and earning great wealth while bilking American Indian tribes.

Jack Abramoff's black and white portrait on the cover of Time magazine, January 16, 2006
In one of the most publicized political scandals in modern times, lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion. The case, which centered on an Indian casino, uncovered a world of bribes, money laundering, and double-dealing that even surprised the capital’s establishment. Time put the scandal on its cover on January 16, 2006.

In ABSCAM, FBI video shows corrupt congressmen taking bribes in an operation that burst into public view in 1980. One U.S. senator, six congressmen, and more than a dozen other criminals and corrupt officials were arrested and found guilty, including several who were filmed accepting cash from an undercover agent. In one of the most famous filmed lines ever spoken in modern times by a corrupt politician, then-Representative Michael Myers of Pennsylvania told an undercover agent: “Money talks in this business and bull**** walks.”

The Abramoff case “was the modern marker of money and influence,” Rubenstein said, explaining his choices for the video. “ABSCAM was the classic case” of bribery behind closed doors and became familiar to many Americans when it inspired the hit movie American Hustle in 2013.

Others scandals you’ll find in the video loop include the following. How many of these do you remember?

  • James Traficant, an Ohio congressman, in 2002 went to prison for corruption and became the second House member expelled since the Civil War. Michael Joseph “Ozzie” Myers was the first, in 1980. Traficant’s description of politics in the video: “It is dog eat dog. Castrate your opponent.”
  • Alan Cranston, at the time the assistant Senate majority leader from California, received a severe reprimand from the Senate’s ethics committee in 1991 for “improper and repugnant” conduct. He was one of five senators who improperly received political donations from savings and loan owner Charles Keating and his associates while intervening with federal regulators on the owner’s behalf.
  • Vice president Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace in 1973 after pleading no contest to federal income tax evasion in exchange for prosecutors dropping corruption charges. He was fined $10,000, sentenced to three years of probation, and disbarred by the Maryland court of appeals.
  • Former Representative William Jefferson of Louisiana began a 13-year federal prison sentence in 2012 for corruption in a case mainly involving his efforts to secure contracts in Africa from businesses giving him payoffs. The case attracted wide attention when $90,000 in ill-gotten cash was found in Jefferson’s freezer. Jefferson was released late in 2017 after several of his convictions were thrown out.
  • Former California Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham served more than seven years in prison after pleading guilty in 2005 to wire fraud, mail fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to commit bribery. He kept a record of the bribery amounts he received on congressional stationery.

“We are constantly trying to make democracy work as a system for people,” Rubenstein said. “But there are times when political democracy doesn’t work all that well.”

Larry Margasak is a retired journalist who has written about the museum’s Steinway Diary Project, Hollywood during World War II, the origins of the New York subway, and the emotional attachment of visitors to the Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz.