A month before he died in 1994, former House speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill recounted to his tablemates at a lunch how he had pressured 17 Democrats into supporting President Clinton’s controversial North American Free Trade Agreement. Clinton, in O’Neill’s telling, had happily given away the store to cajole members of Congress to back NAFTA—highways, post offices, veterans’ hospitals, whatever mattered most to a specific member. One of the diners said, “Tip, that’s a hell of a way to run a government.” The onetime speaker flashed his big smile and shot back, “Mary, darling, that’s the only way to run a government.”
That intersection of favors and politics has been a lifelong interest of Martin and Susan Tolchin, who have spent nearly 40 years writing about Washington—he as a reporter and she as a political scientist.
They met in their native New York City—where Marty got his start as a reporter for the New York Times and Susan earned her PhD from NYU—and married in 1965. Arriving in Washington during the Nixon administration, they began covering the city in their respective disciplines and collaborating frequently.
Together The Tolchins have written eight books—Susan has authored even more on her own—the most recent of which, Pinstripe Patronage: Political Favoritism From the Clubhouse to the White House and Beyond, examines the favor-trading that O’Neill said was so central to governance. It’s an update of the Tolchins’ 1971 work on the subject, To the Victor . . . : Political Patronage From the Clubhouse to the White House. In between, their research and reporting have touched on gender and politics (Clout: Womanpower and Politics), globalization (Buying Into America: How Foreign Money Is Changing the Face of Our Nation), and the tone of debate in Washington (Glass Houses: Congressional Ethics and the Politics of Venom), among other topics.
After rising to be the Times’ congressional correspondent, a job he held from 1973 to 1994, Marty Tolchin founded the DC-based newspaper the Hill, where he served as publisher and editor-in-chief for nearly a decade. He came out of retirement in 2007 for two years to help Robert Allbritton launch the publication that became Politico.
Susan Tolchin, 70, started out in Washington teaching at Mount Vernon College, now part of George Washington University, and taught public administration at GW for 20 years. Today she’s a professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University; Marty, 83, is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Over lunch at Ris in DC’s West End, they discussed how they’ve seen Washington evolve over almost 40 years.
How did you come to Washington?
Marty: I was transferred on a temporary one-year assignment from New York for the Times. That was ’73, and we’re still here.
Susan: It’s Potomac fever, I suppose. I was at Seton Hall University at the time, and it was very hard to get a job in Washington. I eventually ended up at George Washington and now at George Mason.
Tell me about the Times’ Washington bureau then.
Marty: It was a very different place. I joined the Times in ’54 in New York, and when I walked into that smoke-filled newsroom, there were at least two poker games in the afternoon and a lot of reporters kept liquor in their desk drawers. Everybody smoked. It was a much more leisurely place. Today newsrooms are so quiet—it’s like walking into a bank.
Everyone works around the clock. When I was covering Capitol Hill, if I had a press conference at 11 am, I had time for lunch, time to work the phones, time to read, and time to write. My story didn’t have to be in until 7 or 7:30. Today there’s no time for lunch, no time to report—as soon as your story comes out, you’ve got to get it online. Then there’s updating all day. It’s much more frenetic.
What were your first impressions of Washington?
Marty: The press corps in New York was definitely on the outside looking in—you had your nose pressed against the window. Down here, you were invited to dinner. Before I arrived here, we were invited to our first dinner—and there was Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas, the Israeli ambassador, the Secretary of Commerce, and our host, Congressman Brownie Reid, who was thinking of running for governor.
In New York, the elites gave the impression that the media weren’t worth their time. Here, reporters and editors are much more highly regarded. I think that’s now changed a little in New York.
Susan: It was very exciting for a political scientist because at every dinner you could sit next to leaders.
You worked together very early on. How did you zero in on political patronage as a theme, which has been a constant in your work?
Marty: I had written several articles for the Times on patronage. When the first one ran in 1968, I was called by several top publishing houses about turning it into a book. I knew I needed help, so I enlisted my wife.
Susan: The political-science literature had an enormous hole on the subject. It’s such a critical part of the political process—it was wonderful virgin territory. Then a few years ago, we decided to take another look at it.
In five Supreme Court cases, the first in 1976, the court has tried to restrict and outlaw patronage and favor-trading. Each of the decisions cited our research on the subject. This time around, we discovered the issue was bigger than ever. It had evolved from local politics into national politics, too. Instead of the Christmas turkey, you could have a seat on the board of Fannie Mae. Instead of snowplowing contracts, you could have a contract in Iraq.
Patronage was really an issue that crossed party lines. In those Supreme Court cases over the years, our work was cited by Supreme Court justices Brennan, O’Connor, Scalia, Stevens.
From that first book to now, what surprised you when you came back to the subject of patronage?
Susan: One of the biggest stories of this century in politics will be government contracting, the privatization of government. Fifty percent of government is now in private hands. Everyone’s talking about smaller government, but what government does is now huge. It may be fewer employees, but you can’t judge government by the size of the work force.
Marty: We had naively assumed that once the Supreme Court had ruled against patronage, that’d be it. But that only had a minimal impact.
Susan: We really shouldn’t be surprised, because the cost of elections is now so high—you’ve got to have something to trade. The minute you’re elected, you’ve got to start running again.
Earmarks are important to the process. A lot of earmarks are necessary—bridges, roads. If the federal government won’t do it, local governments are going to have to raise taxes. You’ve got to pay for it somehow. Maybe we’ll just come up with a new name—we’ll call them “liberty projects” or something like that.
Marty: It’s amazing to me that Congress is willing to cede so much power to the President. Getting rid of earmarks, they’re ceding all that to the administration.
Susan: I don’t think that the Tea Party fully understands what they’re giving up.
Next: Why patronage matters, and who has used it for good