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Martin and Susan Tolchin, a husband-and-wife writing team who have studied politics for 40 years, talk about why political patronage matters, the difference between journalists and academics, and what it was like to grow up with William Safire

Martin and Susan Tolchin have studied DC politics together for nearly 40 years. Photograph by Jay Westcott

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

Why does patronage matter?

Susan: It’s the major reason people go into politics. That’s a pretty radical thing to say, but people aren’t going to get into it unless there’s something in it.

You can use it for good and for bad. Ruth Ann Minner, the former governor of Delaware, used it to boost women in government. You can use it as Mayor Michael Bloomberg did in New York to correct education.

Marty: Patronage matters because it drives policy. It’s how mayors, governors, and presidents drive their agenda. It’s how Obama got health care through. It’s how FDR got a whole lot of stuff through Congress. It’s how Bill Clinton got NAFTA through.

Susan: President Johnson was very good at withholding projects from reluctant supporters.

Who has used patronage for good?

Marty: Locally, now, Bloomberg is moving a very reluctant New York City Council for some healthier things, like smoking and a ban on trans fats. In the big scope of things, Lyndon Johnson—civil rights, Medicaid and Medicare. We interviewed Jim Rowe for our first book. He was an aide to Franklin Roosevelt who said that the reason FDR created all these alphabet agencies was to circumvent civil-service laws in the existing departments. In brand-new independent agencies, he could fill them with whomever he wanted.

The downside, of course, we saw in Hurricane Katrina, where FEMA was a patronage job. We also saw the downside here in DC. Schools were the only thing the local officials controlled before home rule, and [former DC mayor] Marion Barry used them for years as a patronage dumping ground.

Patronage is like electricity—you can use it for good or bad, air conditioning or the electric chair.

Susan: Patronage is good if your cronies are competent. It can also be used for bad stuff. It’s very tempting, very corrupting.

Marty: We started looking at this in terms of jobs—that’s the traditional way. However, when we started talking with mayors, governors, and White House officials, one of the main signs of favor we discovered was a photo graph. Everyone wants that framed picture with the mayor, the governor, or the President—or, of course, a night in the Lincoln Bedroom.

There are two big things driving patronage—the soaring cost of campaigns and the soaring power of government. Political candidates need more money to run for office—they need big bucks, and they get that money from people who want big returns on that money. It’s big—Halliburton in Iraq—or small: the tens of thousands of small grants in discretionary spending. You can write your proposal in such a way as to ensure that only a certain person wins it.

Susan: Then there’s a third factor. People don’t care: I don’t know and I don’t care who does the wiring in a new government building. There are billions of dollars spent on computers, wiring, desks. People don’t care as long as it works. Most people don’t care about outsourcing in Iraq—who washes the clothes—and as a result, people can get away with billions. There were more private employees in Iraq than public employees.

When you write together, how does that work?

Marty: We divide the chapters and divide the research. Then we each write a first draft, then we edit each other, then we redo it six or seven times. By the final product, we’re not sure who has written what.

Susan: On our first book, we had a big door as a desk, with typewriters on either end.

Marty: When Susan started editing me, she came from academia—she was writing tiny, marginal notes. I come out of a newsroom, so I had a big red pencil and just tore through it. When I looked up, she wasn’t pleased. I realized there was more than a book at stake here. Now when we give back chapters, we always start with a lot of praise: “This is really brilliant, but if I can make one tiny suggestion . . . .”

Susan: We use the old copyeditor’s curse: Be nice to me or I’ll run it the way you wrote it.

The hard thing is balancing our tone. The worst thing that can be said in my profession is “Your writing sounds journalistic,” and in Marty’s world the worst thing someone can say is “Your story seems academic.”

Marty: Academic—dry, boring, irrelevant. Journalistic—superficial, anecdotal, no analysis.

Marty, you grew up in New York City with William Safire, the longtime Times political and language columnist. What was it like growing up with him?

He was the same then. He was very conservative. We grew up in the same building, went to the same school. I knew him since I was 14. He was a rarity in New York—a conservative Republican Jew. By and large, Jews idolized Roosevelt, who was President when we were growing up. But not Bill.

He was always very hard-working, always a lot of fun, always getting involved in words. He’d joke about grammar and politics.

Susan: You miss him a lot.

Marty: I do. I miss him enormously.

On Election Day growing up, we’d go out and distribute campaign literature. There was a brothel across the street from our house, and we would give campaign literature to ladies of the evening. We didn’t care—Democratic or Republican, we’d hand out anything.

That was your first patronage job.

Marty: That’s absolutely right—giving out pamphlets on 92nd Street. We were in it for the excitement.

When Ronald Reagan was elected President, Bill tried to get me a job as press secretary. Reagan’s politics weren’t my politics. I was born a liberal Democrat, I’ll die a liberal Democrat.

I’ve always said never give your heart to a politician. Give it to an artist, a musician, even a journalist. But a politician will break it every time. Tip O’Neill was the exception. Senator Paul Simon, too.

How did you get involved in Politico?

Marty: The Allbrittons wanted to buy just the Hill, but the asking price was $40 million and Robert figured for that price he could start his own paper. So via [attorney and literary agent] Bob Barnett, they approached me to just get it launched. I did the initial hiring, about 60 people. Now I understand the whole staff is 200 people.

The model for the Hill was we’ll hire young reporters, people with two years of experience, train them, work them, and then watch them get picked off by bigger organizations.

The Allbrittons didn’t want that many young, relatively inexperienced reporters. They wanted marquee reporters with marquee names, even though they knew that’d be expensive.

What have you learned about life?

Marty: It’s never too early to panic—always be prepared. And have a martini.

You can never overestimate someone’s insecurity.

You’ve got be generous.

Susan: Have a sense of humor.

Marty: Of course. Even though we’ve had some hard times, we’ve never lost our sense of humor. The day after our son, Charlie, died, a woman who had lost her son came to visit us and warned us, “You’ll never laugh again.” Oh?

This article appears in the September 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute,, and Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.