A Conversation With Thomas Hale Boggs Jr.
Interview By Kathryn Alfisi
Lawyer and lobbyist Thomas Hale Boggs Jr. grew up around politics. His father was Louisiana Congressman (and House Majority Leader) Thomas Hale Boggs Sr., who served in the House from 1941 until his death in 1972. His mother Lindy filled her late husband’s congressional seat where she remained until 1991; she also was selected ambassador to the Vatican by President Clinton. Boggs’ younger sister is ABC news political analyst Cokie Roberts. (His older sister Barbara served as mayor of Princeton, New Jersey, and passed away from cancer in 1990).
Boggs attended Georgetown University and Georgetown University Law School. After graduating from law school in 1961, he served on the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress, followed by his appointment as special assistant to the director of the Office of Emergency Planning in 1965. A year later, however, Boggs left government service to practice law. After interviewing with numerous big-name Washington, D.C., law firms, he decided to join with James Patton and the latter’s firm, then known as Barco, Cook, Patton & Blow. Boggs decided to enter politics in 1970 with an unsuccessful bid for a Maryland congressional seat.
Since Boggs joined the firm four decades ago, Patton Boggs LLP has grown to more than 600 lawyers and nonlawyer specialists working at seven offices across the United States and two in the Middle East. The firm has had a hand in major pieces of legislation such as the Telecommunications Act of 1995 and the North American Free Trade Agreement, as well as cases involving the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline, the Bank of Commerce and Credit International (BCCI) scandal, and the rescue of Chrysler Corporation from bankruptcy.
Washington Lawyer recently sat down with Boggs to discuss his memories of growing up in a political family; his short career in politics; the early years at Patton Boggs; and the past, present, and future of lobbying.
Did you grow up in Louisiana or in the Washington metropolitan
I grew up in both places. In those days Congress was much more of a part-time job, so until I started the seventh grade I would spend six months here and six months in Louisiana. I consider Maryland to be my home, but I certainly have deep roots in Louisiana.
Your father Thomas Hale Boggs Sr. gathered some of the most powerful
men in the country as regular guests in your house. What was life like
growing up in the Boggs household?
My older sister Barbara, who is now deceased, would say that you would go to your friends’ houses and they would have antiques and Oriental rugs, but if you come to our house you would have Samuel Rayburn, Lyndon B. Johnson, and John F. Kennedy. They were our antiques. My father was very much an entertainer. In those days, many members of Congress left their families at home, and, of course, Sam Rayburn was a bachelor, so lots of congressmen would come by our house. Rayburn was there a lot and Lyndon Johnson was there some. And Vice President Hubert Humphrey visited a good deal because he lived nearby. Members of the House Ways and Means Committee also would visit.
Did you learn anything from being around those men?
Yes, just by osmosis. What I did learn is that most of these politicians were very hardworking, honest people who basically put the country first and enjoyed what they did. It was doing good but having fun.
Didn’t you spend time running elevators in the House office
buildings during college?
While attending Georgetown University, I ran the elevator in the Longworth House Office Building. I was promoted to running House Speaker Sam Rayburn’s private elevator behind the House chamber. I worked there during the evening hours after school from 5 p.m. until the speaker left his chambers, which was rarely before 9 p.m.
I remember one night, then-Senate Majority Leader Johnson walked in holding an unfinished tumbler of scotch. He asked me to take it. I joked back, “Mr. Leader, you could leave a little more scotch in there.”
From there, I started helping Johnson run for president in 1960. Of course, that was the year John Kennedy defeated Johnson for the Democratic nomination, and then defeated Richard Nixon in the November election, with Johnson as his running mate.
Why did you decide to go to law school? Did you stay involved in
politics while attending Georgetown?
I went to law school because it’s probably the most flexible thing you can do in terms of a postgraduate degree. If you have a law degree, you can always find a job someplace. While I was at Georgetown Law, I worked with the Joint Economic Committee under a man by the name of Paul Douglas, a senator from Illinois and chair of the committee. My youngest son is named Douglas, after Paul. He was a terrific guy. One of the few economists in the Senate.
I spent my first six months there answering letters from the Marines. Paul Douglas enlisted in the Marines when he was 50 years old, so he was a big hero of theirs. After that I basically did trade research work. I organized a series of hearings on the maritime industry.
I worked on the committee from 1961 to 1964. You couldn’t have had a better experience while you were going to law school.
What are your memories of Lyndon B. Johnson?
While I was working the elevator, I saw Johnson almost every day when Congress was in session because he was Senate majority leader at the time.
Then I worked for President Johnson at what was then called the Office of Emergency Preparedness, now [Federal Emergency Management Agency] FEMA. While I was there, Buford Ellington, who had been governor of Tennessee, was the head of the office. My primary job was to act as a liaison with the governors. It was then, in 1966, that I told Johnson I was leaving to pursue a career in law. I was scared to death to tell him. But when I told him I was going into law, he looked at me and said, “Tommy, I think you should, too.”
I have lots of memories of him. Once, I advanced a trip to New York for him. I guess it was 1964. I was late getting back to our helicopter and they had started the propeller. I ducked, hit the ground, ripped my pants, and got on the helicopter. Johnson asked, “How come you’re late?”
I was with the Joint Economic Committee when I helped with the advance work for President Johnson’s antipoverty tour of Appalachia in the spring of 1964 and for the president’s trip to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A local newspaper quoted me detailing the president’s plans. My phone rang at 6 a.m. that day. It was the president: “I’m supposed to announce what I’m doing, not you!”
After Johnson won the 1964 election against Barry Goldwater, I went to work for the White House as assistant to the director of the Office of Emergency Planning. I was in charge of working with the governors and mayors when disaster would strike. But I basically did what the president asked me to do. I was supporting my family, including two kids and a third on the way, on a salary of $10,500, but it was an incredible experience. I stayed for 15 months and then I left.
So what made you decide to initially forgo politics and join a law
I decided if I didn’t leave the White House then, I would have to stay until 1968 and I didn’t want to delay my career in law that long. I really wanted to get started with my legal career. My father wanted me to go to a law firm in Washington or New York to earn more money.
How many law firms did you interview with?
I interviewed with 17 firms, which was one of the better things I did because the Washington legal community then was much, much smaller and I got to meet a lot of people who I had never gotten to know before. That actually proved to be invaluable to me.
I had an offer from Clark Clifford, who wanted me to sharpen my skills at Hogan & Hartson LLP for two years before working with him. In all, I had about a dozen others, but in the end I decided to hook up with Mr. [James] Patton and join what was then Barco, Cook, Patton & Blow. The firm was just four years old and had five lawyers between Washington and New York. The firm focused on international law—something I knew well from working with the Joint Economic Committee.
My father thought I was crazy when I told him what I was doing, but I liked the challenge of starting something new.
What was the offer from Clark Clifford? What was your relationship
with him like?
It was an extraordinary offer. It basically entailed working for another law firm for two years before going to work for Clifford. He was happy that he made the offer, but he was not happy that I turned it down. However, he did send me one of my first clients, one who could only afford to pay below the minimum Clifford required to represent someone. It was a little company called Pfister, a chemical company long since gone by the wayside. My relationship with Clifford was very good. I liked him a lot. Early on he was a mentor of mine.
I would have lunch with him about twice a year. We shared a client and all he did was have lunch with the client once or twice a year. My job was to try to set up lunch at a time that didn’t prevent Clifford from playing golf in the afternoon. He had very, very good judgment and had been around virtually every president since Harry S Truman.
Later we became adverse to him because he was the president of First American Bank and in the BCCI case, we represented the Abu Dhabi family who owned most of BCCI. So we became adversaries, but friendly adversaries.
How has your firm changed since you started working here?
Well, early on there were six of us who needed business and now there are 600 of us who have plenty of business, but could always use more. In the early days there were only a handful of lawyers and we did everything, but then we departmentalized and specialized. It’s a different place now, but we still operate like a small law firm.
What was the environment for lobbying like when you started?
It was very different. There were about 10 people who really ran Washington and you had a unified government among the White House, Congress, and the agencies. That all changed in the 1970s. Instead of 10 people making decisions you had 1,000 people, and when you have that many people making decisions, you need a lot more lobbyists. In the late 1960s and early ’70s the only source of real information was the U.S. government. If the Treasury said such and such was so, everybody believed it, but today our sources of information are much better than the government’s, and we have more expertise.
Was there an early project that you think helped solidify Patton
Bogg’s public policy lobbying practice?
One of my first clients was the Boating Industry Association. At the time there was basically no regulation of the industry, so the first thing I worked on was the Boating Safety Act of 1968, which is still the law of the land in terms of regulation. I remember I got paid $750 a month. Today, I would laugh at you if you told me you would pay that much to help get a bill passed.
That was the real first public policy issue I worked on. One of the results of representing the boating industry was that one of its big members was Chrysler and that’s how we got retained by them to work on the bailout. That was a fascinating case. That was in 1978, and two years before that, we had worked on the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System legislation. Those were two huge projects for us. Then shortly thereafter we had a huge project that we lost. We were representing the coal industry against the railroads. The 1970s put us on the map in terms of lobbying.
The Chrysler case was really one of the first instances where you had to convince all 535 members of Congress. We had the Michigan delegation and about four or five other state delegations that were pro-auto industry, but the rest of Congress was very skeptical of any kind of bailout. We teamed up with Timmons and Company, a lobbying firm that concentrated on the Republicans, while we focused on the Democrats. We worked with Howard Paster, the D.C. lobbyist for the United Auto Workers (UAW), and Doug Fraser, president of UAW. There were lots of dealers and lots of suppliers. Lots of banks got in trouble when the companies and suppliers could not service their loans. We organized Chrysler’s 4,000 suppliers (steel, rubber, windshields, brakes) and an equal number of dealers into a formidable lobbying force.
The administration was reluctantly in favor of it, very reluctantly in favor. The bailout was designed to prevent Chrysler, then the number three automaker, from heading into bankruptcy court, a decision that would have put thousands out of work and send a chill throughout the U.S. financial markets.
I had worked with the Carter administration on the Panama Canal and [Strategic Arms Limitation] SALT II treaties and served on the president’s tax reform committee. I had his ear when I exposed the political dangers of massive layoffs in Michigan and Missouri. It was a hard sell, although we prevailed in the end, but not without a price.
One of the toughest things I had to do was tell John Riccardo, Chrysler’s chair, that as part of the bailout deal he had to resign. I was 37 years old and it was very hard to tell someone who had hired me to rescue his company that he had to go.
Why were the 1970s a turning point for public policy or lobbying?
It was a total turning point for public policy because of what happened in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. After Watergate, most people in Congress and the White House were not about to try to influence agencies. There were a host of new “sunshine laws” enacted by a fresh crop of lawmakers who came to Washington determined to change the way things were done.
In the old days, it was normal policy for the White House to call the [Federal Communications Commission] FCC and say, “I want you to rule a certain way in such and such case.” Now you have people working with agencies who didn’t work with the agencies before. That’s really where the combination of law and public policy took off.
Before that you had a really small army of boutiques, but most of them were not successful because most were not law firms. Most of the bigger firms didn’t think that lobbying was something that was very profitable, and they thought of it as not really practicing law. It’s the total opposite today. Every big law firm in Washington has a major lobbying practice.
We learned very quickly that if you combine legal disciplines with lobbying, you have a much better chance of getting something accomplished than if you just lobby. Lawmakers are much more interested in listening to someone trying a Clean Air Act case in court than listening to a lobbyist try to explain what was wrong with the act.
So we would always try to combine legal disciplines with lobbying. That’s pretty much how lobbying is now done, unless you’re talking about major public policy issues that are widely disseminated in the media.
In 1970 you ran for Congress. What did you take away from that
I decided, reluctantly, to run in 1969 at the age of 29 for the 8th District of Maryland. I had the backing of the Montgomery County regular Democratic organization, then Maryland Governor Marvin Mandel, and the Kennedy family. My wife, Barbara, always said it was in my blood.
I won the primary but lost the race to Gilbert Gude, the Republican incumbent. Even though I didn’t win, running was actually a good experience. I learned what these guys have to do, and it’s not easy. I learned how hard it is to raise money. It took me until the following year to pay off my $40,000 campaign debt. I sold my house and took out four mortgages to get another one. I learned that it’s not easy—you have a whole bunch of smart people trying to bring you down. I understood politicians better after I ran and lost.
My district was huge and included Anne Arundel County and part of Howard County, which were more rural and the people there thought I was a good ole boy from the South. But in Montgomery County, I didn’t do too well because it was a more liberal and closer-to-Washington suburb. That was one of the most frustrating things about my race—I lost in my own backyard.
In 1972 the plane your father was flying in disappeared in Alaska.
How was the decision made that your mother would take your father’s
It has been 36 years since it happened (October 16, 1972). We didn’t discuss it much at all. My mother had been very active in all my father’s campaigns and everybody knew her. The only concern was that the district was becoming predominantly African American and both she and my father had thought maybe an African American should be in that seat. But in the end, she decided she would do it, and she became a very effective lawmaker.
The House Speaker offered my mother a coveted role on the Appropriations Committee. I had wanted her to go on the Committee on Ways and Means, but she preferred Appropriations. She was one of three women on that committee at the time, and the sixth woman to ever make it there.
My mother was so effective that the Appropriations chair at the time, Rep. Jamie Whitten, was quoted as saying that she always got what she wanted from him. When people asked him why, he told them that my mother knew how to ask for what she wanted. He said it made him feel good to help her and that it was hard to say no to her southern charm.
You are known as a big Democratic supporter and fundraiser, yet
there are many Republicans in your public policy practice. Is there
a conscious decision to keep Patton Boggs bipartisan?
To be honest with you, I have no idea what the political makeup of Patton Boggs is. If you were to ask me that out of 600 people, how many are Republicans and how many are Democrats, I couldn’t guess. I like it that way. In the public policy area, however, I know there are as many Republicans as there are Democrats.
Does that change depending on who is in the White House?
Oh, yes. That changes primarily because of who is coming out of the administration and who is going into the White House when there is a shift in power. Our work doesn’t really change. The irony is that it’s easier to get things done when your friends are not in the White House. It’s a lot more fun when they are there, but the problem is that they can tell you “no” more easily.
Public policy practice tends to be more lucrative when the Republicans are in the White House because business spends more money. But with the tremendous changes that are needed in health care, trade, and the tax area, there’s going to be a huge amount of public policy work in the Obama administration.
First of all, the tax provisions are set to expire, so we’re going to have to rewrite most of the major tax provisions that Congress has passed over the past decade. In the health care area, there is clearly enough demand to finally do something. The last time that happened was during President Clinton’s first year in office. That involves lots of businesses, lots of interest groups, and lots of activity. In the trade area, where it depends a little bit on who does win, you’ll see a shift in trade with much tougher restrictions in a Democratic Congress. The other area is going to be public energy. And there is no doubt that Congress will have its hands full with the financial meltdown on Wall Street. It’s unusual for Congress to have so many big, big items on its agenda.
Many people do not favorably view lobbyists. Do you think this
is based upon incorrect assumptions?
I think it’s more than that. I think there’s a mistrust of Washington, which is why the Obama “change” message is so popular. It’s not just Washington lobbyists, it’s Washington people. The right to petition the government dates to the Magna Carta. It is an important right that is firmly embedded in our First Amendment. The truth is, lobbyists shed light on important issues. Lobbyists are the voices of the people, many of whom would not otherwise be heard before Congress.
Do you think that mistrust has increased in recent years?
No, I think the opposite is true. I think there is a realization that you can’t manage a government of this size without having people on the outside help those on the inside. It’s much more of an organization problem than it used to be. Again, information access comes from us much more than it comes from anybody else, and you can’t govern without information. What lobbyists do is basically explain what’s in a bill and what it means for the country and a lawmaker’s constituency. Most of them do not rely on one source, but on multiple sources. One thing we do here with members [of Congress] is give them both sides of the issue. We give lawmakers the straight facts. This generates trust, a very important commodity on the Hill.
How integral is fundraising to what you do?
The McCain–Feingold campaign fundraising bill put lobbying and fundraising back into business. It was really out of business before that. Why? Donors were allowed to give unregulated “soft money” to political candidates. That meant that the chair of General Motors Corporation could give $100,000 to the chair of X,Y,Z Committee and he didn’t have to call a Washington lobbyist or fundraiser to handle it for him. Once they got rid of soft money and returned to limits on how much you could raise from individuals, lobbyists were needed to help politicians raise enough money to run. That put lobbyists back into the fundraising business.
These guys have to raise a lot of money, so they have to rely on people who can help them within the confines of a complicated law. It’s part of the game. A member of Congress now spends a third of his time raising money, which is ridiculous. The advent of raising money on the Internet has helped somewhat because it relieves lawmakers from having to make thousands of phone calls.
What effect did the Jack Abramoff scandal have on what you do?
It changed it some. It certainly changed some of the good perspectives that were coming out about lobbying activities and returned the image to the back room dealers, but it didn’t change the actual work of lobbying in Washington very much. Most lobbyists are above-board dealmakers. They are trying to negotiate the best public policy for their clients. That is a very honorable profession. Abramoff, unfortunately, changed the perception outside of Washington about what lobbyists do.
What about the Internet and the rise of Netroots such as MoveOn.org?
Is that changing the face of lobbying now?
It changed it some in the sense that these groups have a big network of people who can take a position on a piece of legislation and influence it. Before, you didn’t have a way to reach out to a network of hundreds of thousands of people through e-mail. The Internet also has changed things because it allows you to communicate a lot quicker and a lot better. If something is pending before a committee or on the floor, it’s a lot easier to e-mail someone than to reach him or her on the telephone. Of course, we use the Internet all the time for research and information, but in terms of trying to do grassroots type of lobbying using the Internet, I don’t think it’s there yet.
[Lobbying] has changed. It’s much different than it was 20 years ago, but again, when you have issues as complicated as they are and a federal government as big as it is, it’s going to continue to grow. You can’t run a government without information and lobbying. In some ways lobbying has never been more important. With so many competing interests, it’s imperative to have knowledgeable navigators for lawmakers and the groups that need to voice their thoughts.
Other than going from six to about 600 lawyers and professionals,
what else has changed at Patton Boggs since you joined? What changes
are you currently considering?
One thing that has changed a lot is that when we were a small law firm, we had problems recruiting the best and the brightest kids right out of law school. In those days most people did not want to become lobbyists. All of a sudden, when you had President Reagan and President Bush in office, a lot of these young people did not want to work in the administration. We offered them a place where they could practice public policy law, so we wound up having very good luck in recruiting very, very bright people.
Our biggest focus in the last couple of years has been the New York region. We opened a very big office in Newark and another in New York City. We opened an office in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, this summer which, together with our Doha office, service our clients in the Middle East.
Do you get to visit Louisiana often? Would you ever stay there
I was actually there just this fall. I don’t spend a lot of time in Louisiana, but I love to go. I gain about 10 pounds every time I visit.
But I’m a Washington person. I have two places on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. One is a hunting lodge, which I use for both business and relaxation. The other is a family retreat where my wife and I can gather our children and grandchildren. I go down to the lodge during hunting season, which is November through January. We spend many weekends during the rest of the year at our other Eastern Shore home—I get there a lot, probably 20 or 30 times a year. Family, I find, is my most valuable treasure. I love to spend time with my eight grandchildren, passing down the stories of our family, and there are many of those. My grandchildren range in age from 4 to 18—5 boys and 3 girls. My oldest just started at my alma mater, Georgetown.
Do you see yourself retiring anytime soon?
No, I see myself doing this as long as I can. I’d be bored if I didn’t do it.
Periodically Washington Lawyer features a conversation with a senior member of the District of Columbia Bar reflecting on his or her career as a lawyer. The “Legends in the Law” are selected by the District of Columbia Bar’s Publications Committee on the basis of their prominence in their profession and their individual impact on the law and the legal profession in the District of Columbia. For past interviews, visit www.dcbar.org/legends.