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Victor Gold Knows How to Succeed in DC
After 50 years in Washington, the ex–political operative has some advice: Ignore the thumb suckers, avoid the “bubble,” and remember that even in politics, sports conquers all. By Vic Gold
Comments () | Published October 1, 2008
Photograph by Matthew Worden.

Vic Gold reaches two milestones this fall, his 80th birthday and the passage of 50 years since he arrived here as a crewcut political neophyte. Ten presidents and 17 Redskins coaches later, he interviews himself about the Washington he knows and what he’s learned.

A theme this election year is that Washington is more partisan than ever. That true?

Mere campaign blather. When Nixon was inaugurated 40 years ago, he promised to “bring us together” because people were wringing their hands over how “partisan” politics had become. And George H.W. Bush in 1989 said we needed a “kinder, gentler” atmosphere in Washington, followed by Bill Clinton’s promise to end partisan “gridlock.” Partisanship is the nature of democratic government. If you’re looking for a non-partisan capital, move to Beijing.

But what about the tone of partisan debate—the idea that politics has become a blood sport, meaner than ever?

Meaner and nastier than it was during the Cold War 1950s and ’60s? I don’t think so. What makes it seem meaner and nastier is the round-the-clock chatter on talk radio and cable news. Once radio and TV producers discovered that controversy brings in audiences, they threw away the straight-news format. They wake up every morning thinking of ways to start political dogfights.

Not that I come to this with clean hands. Back in the 1970s, after Vice President Spiro Agnew criticized the networks for not being open to conservative opinion, a couple decided to stage mini-debates between liberal and conservative spokesmen. The first to use this format was CBS. Remember James J. Kilpatrick and Shana Alexander on 60 Minutes? The second was ABC, kicking off its new show Good Morning America. They brought in Frank Mankiewicz to argue the liberal side and me—I’d just left Agnew’s staff—as the conservative yakker.

Our first debate was on the New York City bailout. Frank and I discussed it ahead of time and agreed we could have a reasonable five-minute exchange of views. But that wasn’t what the director wanted. He asked us to raise the volume and wake up the early-morning viewers. That we did. I called Frank a knee-jerk liberal, and he called me a right-wing nut. None of which had anything to do with the bailout, but the director invited us back the following week.

Were you and Mankiewicz still speaking after the show?

It turned out to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. We discovered we were both St. Louis Cardinals baseball nuts and decided to organize a fan club, the Stan Musial Society. Frank had been with Bobby Kennedy and George McGovern, and I’d been with Barry Goldwater and Spiro Agnew, but it made no difference. Sports conquers all.

Sports in Washington means the Redskins. You’ve been a season-ticket holder for how long?

Since 1959, when they played their games at Griffith Stadium and there wasn’t a black player on the team. They finally integrated when Bobby Mitchell came over from the Cleveland Browns but started winning only when Edward Bennett Williams took over and brought in Vince Lombardi and then George Allen to coach. It had a kinetic effect on the town.

In fact, if I had to point to one single change that transformed Washington in the past half century, it wouldn’t be the coming of the Metro or home rule for DC but the Redskins’ starting to win. This is a splintered community—the Virginia and Maryland suburbs, the District’s inner city—but our sports teams bring us together. Not only the Redskins but Abe Pollin’s team—I still think of them as the Bullets—winning the NBA championship in 1978. When Wes Unseld sank that winning free throw, the town erupted. And who can forget that euphoric Sunday in 1972 when the Skins beat the Cowboys for the NFC championship?

Getting back to the tone of political debate, what about the megagrowth of the lobbying industry? Hasn’t that had a negative effect?

Absolutely. You throw big money into the mix, and things are bound to get worse. But don’t put all lobbyists into the same pot. We’ve had people like Bryce Harlow and Jack Valenti who set the standard for civility.

What bothers me today is the number of senators and congressmen who give up public service to go into influence peddling on K Street. Money, money, money. I remember what my old boss Barry Goldwater said when he left the Senate and was asked whether he planned to go into lobbying: “No, I’m too old to pimp.”

But don’t blame just the lobbyists—blame the growth of government. Fifty years ago we had a federal bureaucracy one-fifth the size it is today, and the special interests needed only one-fifth the number of lobbyists. Big government is the mother’s milk of the lobbying industry.

Several years ago you wrote about burning your law degree because you were unhappy with what was going on in the legal profession. Still feel that way?

I burned my license, not my law degree. Once a lawyer, always a lawyer, unless you’re disbarred, which isn’t likely to happen in my case because I haven’t practiced since Fred Vinson was Chief Justice.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 10/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles