A Washington Whistle-Blower Tells All

Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop at the Bridge View Center in Ottumwa, Iowa Photograph by Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

In January 2009, Ted Kaufman, a longtime senior aide to Vice President Joe Biden, was appointed to fill his former boss’s Delaware Senate seat. Jeff Connaughton, another ex-Biden staff member who had gone on to a lucrative lobbying career, went to work for Kaufman as his chief of staff.

Kaufman announced he would serve for only two years, until a special election was held. He would raise no money, kow-tow to no special interests, and generally take no prisoners in an experiment in principled legislating. Connaughton, who by his own description had made a lot of money as a corporate influence peddler, joined this idealistic mission, at least in part to salve a guilty conscience.

Together they had quite an adventure, tilting against windmills, drawing lots of favorable media notices, and accomplishing almost nothing of substance, because the U.S. Senate is no place for a tweedy Don Quixote, even if his Sancho Panza has an MBA from the University of Chicago, a law degree from Stanford, and a saddle bag full of other impressive credentials.

Now Connaughton has published a book describing the failed foray. The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins describes in painfully self-deprecating detail how entrenched financial interests and cynical politicians of both parties conspire to oppose attempts to rein in the financial services industry in the wake of the deregulatory policies put in place since the early 1980s.

Anyone interested in how Washington works will find The Payoff impossible to put down. (Disclosure: During his brief star turn, I wrote favorably about Kaufman; Connaughton facilitated that interaction.)

The reason to read this slender book, however, is probably not the main reason Connaughton wrote it. The Payoff does not break new ground on systemic money-politics corruption. Politicians with an eye on their campaign coffers are overly sympathetic to industry lobbyists who help fill the treasure chests. The revolving door ensures that Washington’s permanent class preserves this self-serving hustle from one generation to the next. Kaufman did his best but in the end lacked the legislative muscle to overcome powerful forces of greed and inertia. All familiar terrain.

What’s different and intriguing about Connaughton’s book is its spectacle of self-loathing. The author, who also worked as a lawyer on the White House staff of President Bill Clinton, has burned his bridges to Washington, the Democratic Party, and everything he once stood for. He has dropped a literary atom bomb on the comfortable professional and political circles that made him (by his own description) a millionaire lobbyist and, for a brief time, a sought-after cable-TV talking head.

Inspired to get involved in politics when he attended a Biden speech as a college student, the author writes: “I didn’t foresee how the political culture of profit and ambition would, 23 years later, affect Ted’s and my crusade to bring Wall Street to something approximating justice. I see it all now because a decade after I went to Washington, I, too, had become a highly ambitious Washington insider seeking personal gain while facilitating the status quo. In other words, I’d become a Professional Democrat, one of thousands who earn a lot of money in the private sector while positioning themselves for better jobs in future Democratic administrations.”

At the heart of the author’s bitter regret is his relationship with Biden, who, in Connaughton’s telling comes across as an empty suit, capable of vigorous glad-handing, but otherwise uninterested in public policy and deeply defensive about his lack of mental firepower. Connaughton attributes Biden’s famous tendency to gas on and on in speeches to this intellectual inferiority complex: In an attempt to show that he’s not dumb, his former staff member writes, Biden often says dumb things.

And he’s mean. In scene after scene, the author depicts Biden as self-involved and committed only to his own advancement. On one occasion, a young Connaughton ventured up to the first-class cabin, seeking his boss’s attention (and affection): ”Senator Biden, may I speak with you for a minute?” Barely glancing up, he said, ‘Just gimme what you got.’ So I handed him the briefing materials and returned to the back of the plane. Access denied.”

In the middle of a hard-fought campaign for the White House, reflections on the character and talents of Vice President Biden may seem beside the point. But in important ways, Biden and the people around him (such as Connaughton) exemplify the modern Democratic Party. Seeing them in this harsh light, even a light tinged with personal resentment, helps explain the party’s difficulties at the polls and in office.

Connaughton says he has sold his house in Georgetown and beat a “strategic retreat” to Savannah, Georgia, where his new neighbors share his disdain for Washington. They’re just impressed that he quit the place. Good thing, too, because he’s never going to work in the capital city again.

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