Kathryn Allamong Jacob

 

On her book King of the Lobby: The Life and Times of Sam Ward,Man-About-Washington in the Gilded Age

Cover Interview of May 07, 2010

A close-up

By the early 1870s, Sam Ward was becoming known as the “King of the Lobby.”  While there was a dash of hyperbole in the title, Sam loved it.  To his sister Julia Ward Howe, he boasted that he was a sort of Figaro: “Tutti mie chiedono, tutti mi vogliono,…sono il factotum della citta. [Everybody calls me, everybody wants me, I am the factotum of the city.]”

But what exactly did Sam do for his clients?  How did he, as he put it, “corral my congressional elephants”?  In chapter four, pages 73 to 85, the key to Sam Ward’s success, what set him apart from other lobbyists, is revealed.  Sam’s secret weapon was food.

Sam knew a recipe for success when he tasted it.  Tinkering with the ingredients that had showed promise before the war, Sam used dinners and diplomacy as his preferred means to his ends.  When Sam told Julia that “tutti mi vogliono,” what most of them really wanted was a seat at one of his dinners.  Sam’s note about his “Congressional elephants” ended, “… call at the New York Hotel on Monday at 10 a.m., when you will find me at breakfast, and I will unfold to you my plan de campagne.”  Sam’s special plan de campagne often began with pâté de campagne and champagne, with a client footing the bill.

Whether in consultation with a restaurant’s chef or his own, Sam took great care in composing every meal from his intimate lobby dinners to the grand banquets he orchestrated.  The menu was, after all, he declared, “the plan of campaign, dependent upon the numbers of the enemy who will be reduced to capitulation by the projected banquet.”  While Sam chose the menu, he deferred to his clients, whether the Secretary of the Treasury, European financiers, or American manufacturers, when drawing up the guest lists for his lobbying dinners.  If their interests were financial, Sam would make sure that key members of the appropriate House and Senate committees received invitations.  Mining and mineral rights?  That was another group of players. Which members were alone in Washington and lonely?  Who was most persuasive and who most easily persuaded?  Who was leaning one way and who another?  Who might like to sit next to whom?  All of these factors went into the mix when selecting guests.

Once he had determined his tablemates, Sam concentrated on orchestrating the talk around the table.  Good conversation was as essential as good food and wine, Sam believed, to the success of the evening: “It is with the succession of courses as with the sparkling wit that enlivens the repast.  The airy nothings, the mots, the repartees and spontaneous flashes of wit and humor that crackle like so many electric sparks, are as unrecoverable as the lost patterns of a kaleidoscope.”  Sam used stories from his variegated life like condiments at his table.  He could salt dinner conversation with all sorts of tales: one of his favorites was about the time he improvised a weir to catch salmon in the hills of California.

The results of Sam’s great care in composing and conducting his dinners?  “Ambrosial nights,” gushed one guest.  An evening at Sam’s was, enthused another guest, “the climax of civilization.”  “Nothing was ever served on Sam’s table,” claimed society reporter Emily Briggs, “that was half as delicious as himself.”  He captivated Lillie de Lindencrone-Hegermann, the beautiful Boston-born wife of the Danish Minister.  Sam Ward was, she wrote to her mother, the “diner-out par excellence…the King of the Lobby par preference….”