Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Going, Going....Arrived

“A week is a year in politics.” It’s a trite catch phrase often uttered condescendingly by smarmy, insincere political types to anyone who’ll listen. I know. I say it all the time.

Well, 24 years is a couple lifetimes then, and the time in which I’ve known David Carmen, once a young, cheery organizer, now Washington uber-lobbyist. And, one of my oldest political friends.

I met Carmen in New York in the fall of ’83 – I was a young staff assistant at National Review Magazine, he was younger guy already in politics as an organizer. We had mutual friends at the magazine and he bought me breakfast in a New York deli on a quiet Sunday morning, at which we talked politics and journalism and Where We Were Going. To this day, as perhaps goofy as it sounds, it remains one of the key conversations I have had about the career I set out on.

Flash forward more than two decades and you have a dang good sense of where I was going and where I ended up – the cubicle farm in the Office of Whatever, Department of Redundancy. David? Well, I saw him recently at a monster blowout in downtown DC. This mega-bash was held in a former public library turned party mansion, the building awash in ghostly green lights on all sides, valet parking, a Beatles cover band, lavish trinkets, imported food served by fashion models, and 600 beautiful people.

It was David’s party – for his lobbying firm.

Carmen's rise is emblematic of how fortunes occur in politics. Now, ours is not a friendship where we’re slapping backs or chatting on about this and that seeing each other every two weeks. Rather, it’s two guys who’ve stayed in touch over a long, long time, never losing sight of one another.

Carmen’s made it in town the old-fashioned way -- on dint of personality, connections, good fortune, and oh yeah, innate talent. Navigating and hustling, sure. But what's most important? Producing. Getting clients what they want. It's as simple as that.

In New York, Carmen was an aide-de-camp for a guy named Lew Lehrman, who never won a political office, but who got attention galore, mainly because of Carmen. Lehrman ran against Mario Cuomo for governor of New York and lost, but he managed to stay in the GOP limelight and ran a grassroots group, Citizens for America, that continued to get him ink long after he should have.

Carmen left Lehrman and came to DC, armed with a self-described “nuclear rolodex” to build a government affairs business. At least that’s what he told the Washington Post Magazine, which put him on the cover as a as a guy who, yes, “came to town with a nuclear rolodex to build a government affairs business.”

Conversely, I leave New York, go to work on the Hill, go to Bush 41, go back to the Hill, come back to Bush 43 – I’m just marking time. Carmen, however, with this crazy ‘dex, is building a behemoth. Today, his firm has dozens and dozens of large clients in every field imaginable.

We meet for lunch occasionally – just to check in – and goodness knows we’ve changed since the deli in New York. It’s light conversation – sometimes I ask advice on stuff, sometimes he does the same. We could be Rotarians in Toledo, given our banter.

Then in the mail one day comes this invite from ole Carmen – whom I might add, has included me every year, in every party he’s had, even when I’ve been unemployed, or have not caught up with him in a while.

But life reaches these neat culminations in this town of towns, and so there I am on a Thursday night, outside this old marble library, the massive “Carmen Group” logo in eerie green searchlights, reflecting off the entire surrounding neighborhood.

Like all folks here, I’ve known hundreds of people in politics in Washington at various stages of ascent, stasis, and descent -- a week is a year is a life, remember? Rarely, however, do you get to see one individual go from the starting line and then break out of the pack. Carmen’s not at the finish line, either. But as to our conversation 24 years ago on where we were going, it’s obvious he knew where he was going – and has arrived.


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