Henry Daniel, or HD, as he prefers to be called, had developed a foible for solving problems. Not math, physics or any of the hard sciences, but human problems, like delving into their interactions and see how they can be managed. This was a tortuous path, one he arrived at through searing personal experience. Sired in a mixed marriage, his father came from Jamaica, himself the poor son of a Haitian political expatriate; his mother from a New England affluent white family; that family had a mixed descent of light Irish and dark Sicilian blood. He endured a lot of unpleasant ribbing at the hands of schoolmates, frenemies, as well as relatives and strangers. When he was little, he had a very light complexion. Some folks called him then, “high yellow.” As he was getting older, his hue changed to a darker complexion and he had heard the expression, “melanzana,” eggplant, during a visit to Sicily where to his amazement there were quite a few natives like him dating back from eons.
In addition to his skin tone, he stuttered. That was a cause of anguish because his classmates were relentless in their teasing. Initially this made him timid and he would remain mute so he could avoid the embarrassment of others laughing at him. Between the skin color jokes and the speech issue, he had enough to be miserable. How he turned an obstacle on its head made him a better human being. His parents were clever and helped him face his issues head-on. They made him understand that some humans took an unhealthy pleasure to hurl verbal rocks at others. Not uncommonly they themselves felt insecure. Things were not always what they seemed, he learned.
Little by little, he was gaining confidence and became interested in matters of the mind, behavior, and he found history to be a good help as reference. His parents highly encouraged this effort. He took lessons to improve and then conquer his speech impairment. The matter of racial animus was somewhat harder to handle. Along the way, he became fascinated by some historical figures’ behavior being so contrarian to their official stances. His mother taught him that no less than Thomas Jefferson who railed against the intellect and the worth of black folks found happiness in a lifelong relationship with a mixed-race woman. Closer to us, Strom Thurmond an avowed segregationist senator from North Carolina, fathered a mixed-race daughter.
His father taught him about historical figures of great renown in the black community who were of mixed-race origin. This was to supplant criticism from some black friends who would insinuate he “wasn’t black enough.” For example, Frederick Douglass, considered among history’s greatest orators, and his runner-up, E.B. Dubois, were both of mixed-race origin. He learned not to feel uncomfortable about his origins, his skin pigmentation, his roots. He used self-deprecation as healing tool. He casually referred to himself and the variegated veneer of his heritage as “mud.” Such a spontaneous and descriptive epithet coming from him often thaws a glacial situation or an awkward moment. He could just as casually invoke the metaphor of syncopation, made famous by jazz music, to burnish his life’s perspective. “I use a weak spot as a pivot for reaching strength,” he would claim, without an iota of pedantry. He was good at solving problems, but as a human, he was not perfect. He remained self-conscious of two irritants in his life: poor penmanship and feet with a pungent odor. He managed both as well as he could, avoiding writing anything by hand as much as possible, “I don’t want to submit you to the torture of reading my hieroglyphics,” he would warn people in a light-hearted manner about it. A keen observer of humans, he came up with this successful formula and kept using it. He noted three types of reaction to that warning. As an arcane word, many didn’t understand its meaning. Some of them would be in awe but a bit embarrassed to admit to it. Others would spontaneously ask about its meaning and make an occasional sly remark about him using a fancy term. And, of course, some did get it. Usually, people acquiesced either out of simple courtesy, sympathy or were just pleased with his wit and graciously went along. As for the feet, he tried his best to keep them dry and tactfully avoided removing his socks even in intimate moments.
From his position as a guinea pig for solving social dilemma, he morphed into an aficionado of the human mind and behavior. His ability at problem solving blossomed at each step of his work experience. He had a cosmopolitan view of the world. He straddled both social strata. He felt comfortable at a formal dinner at the mansion of a family friend and at ease getting some jerk pork at a food stand when visiting his father’s country. He benefited from attending some of the best schools growing up in New England. He obtained a degree in Psychology in college. Fresh out of school, wanting to fly on his own, ready to conquer the world, he landed a job with big pharma as a drug rep. This wetting of the feet turned out to be a good training ground for his successive positions. That was during the heydays around the turn of the century when quite a bit of money was being spent lavishly on physicians to influence their prescribing habits.
He learned very quickly that the way to a physician’s desk was through befriending the front office staff. Charming the staff through a combination of cajoling, compliments and the ever so successful practice of offering perks and spoils. He was constantly bringing doughnuts, bagels or lunch to different offices. That worked wonders and earned him preferential treatment. Like having the opportunity of spending time with the physician to make the case of his medications over the competition’s. In these halcyon days, coffee mugs, fancy pens, theater tickets, premium seats at ballgames were part of the largesse used to influence a decision maker. As a result, HD was able to fill his quota and earn some nice bonuses. He was the poster boy of a successful drug rep. He looked the part also. Always nattily attired, with a ready smile, always finding the right word to splay to massage one’s ego.
The lesson he learned in that position was a simple but complicated truth. Interactions in solicitation panned out to the extent that one was deft at buttressing the other’s ego, fulfill needs and create incentives. The opportunity to fulfill a need on both sides was a fundamental part of the equation called commerce. Big pharma needed to sell its products. The rep’s bonus was tied to his ability to nudge the doc to write scripts for his meds. The doc in turn by having a chummy relationship with the rep was likely to give him the nod, all things being equal. Perks along the way made the decision somewhat easier. Having a heavy prescriber reach the status of a paid consultant for big pharma was a coup for HD. The return on the generous investment by big pharma assured that HD’s star would be noticed on the company’s radar. The more heavy prescribers he had in his territory, the better he looked to his boss and the more money he made. He was handling meds for hypertension in an urban area and the number of prescriptions he helped generate was going through the roof. He was well liked at the offices he was soliciting. He was smart enough not to mix business with pleasure. He wouldn’t date any of the staff members at offices in his territory. He had a reputation of having a field day with female reps, however. He would never confirm or deny the rumors, “I don’t believe in kiss and tell,” would be his equivocal, pithy response. What was obvious was they did like him. “A hunk,” some would say, to which in a tongue-in-cheek manner, he would respond, “Who, me?” A good fella, he was. He always kept on top of his assignments. He always impressed his manager and other higher-ups at company meetings.
In a conflation of hard work, stroke of luck, and what some suspected to be family connections, he went on a fast track and he ascended to be territory manager after 5 years of diligence. That was a plum job, usually reserved for members of the good-old-boys network. He trained other reps under his tutelage and his income was growing commensurately with their progress. However, a couple of years later, big pharma made a U-turn and stopped being so generous. In a process called retrenchment, scores of employees were let go. HD lost his position. At a crossroads, he decided to enroll in an intelligence program with the federal government after reading a want ad in the paper. An inveterate single, he devoted himself to this new career. After a rigorous two-year training, he received his first assignment at a post in Africa. His cover was as a rep for a Canadian software company offering firewall security for computer network and cyberspace. Entering the world of cloak-and-dagger, he used the leverage he had gained in his previous position to attract clients and make inroads with government contracts.
The players were different, but the rules of the game remained unchanged. He courted officials, gained their confidence and along the way recruited assets. The front company did benefit from his mastery of individual interactions. Just as before, he earned kudos at each assignment.10 years into the trade, he received an assignment at headquarters, close to Washington, DC. His local chief as a parting advice told him, “If I were you, I would make some contacts there and end up working as a lobbyist. You are well suited for this type of job. And boy do they pay well!” “From your mouth to God’s ear,” HD replied. That reminded him of his days working for big pharma; the stakes in lobbying were a whole lot higher. He therefore made it his business to survey the landscape of Washington, DC, while stationed there. He needed to know about the social norms, the power brokers and their hangouts. Just as importantly, he needed to have a good understanding of the players in the underground vice trade; money and power always attract this service that works well in the shadow. He wanted to be prepared and be fluent in the nuances of the terrain since the ultimate calling was to influence behavior based on identified needs.
He did a stint of two years and quit. Through family connections, his own networking, he landed a job with a lobbying firm. His starting salary was three times his last one as a spook. HD’s portfolio was intriguing. His intelligence background would become very handy and as such his assignment was to help create a profile on interested parties: likes and dislikes, vices, habits, debts, liaisons, open as well as, if not especially, secret ones. As he saw it, he would continue to do the same type of work at a far higher remuneration. Instead of peddling medications, he was now involved in peddling influence, a rarefied environment. The similarity of the two jobs ends with the peddling. The former was an open secret. Software detailing prescribing patterns of physicians were reviewed openly. Decisions were made based on hard data that can be shared. Lobbying world was a whole different ballgame.
In its essence, it’s an interface between two parties who are not supposed to be in direct contact but can’t help to do just that. In the real world what is and what ought to be, are not synonymous. Laws passed, rules written have serious repercussions for businesses’ and industries’ bottom line. Businessmen can’t afford the luxury of government officials as foes, that’s a no-brainer. It’s also an eternal natural edict with enormous economic consequences. Meeting members of government, all of its branches, on friendly turf is the name of the game.
On the surface, industry or any concerned party is supposed to be able to make a case before a lawmaker, government official who is to decide with impartiality, taking into accounts all different factors. Lawmakers have also their own needs. They want to run political campaigns, an expensive proposition. Lobbying means finessing a way to meld these two needs with the veneer of plausible deniability. Deny quid pro when in fact every action is taken with the tacit understanding of a quid pro quo. All the ethical rules and entreaties will not change this paradigm. The most that can happen is to design ever more creative ways to make the flow of the money go from the spring to the estuary.
HD was joining an effort of blurring the lines of ethics, to satisfy vested interests on both parts. An effort relying on discretion as its mantra, best accomplished away from prying eyes, attentive ears. Being a people’s person, HD was itching to get into action, of the one-on-one type. He worked best talking and convincing folks. The tricks and technical wizardry he learned at the academy were means that complemented but would never supplant human contact. He got his wish on an assignment to convince a council in the New England area to authorize the construction of a shopping center near a bucolic park with rolling hills and a pristine river.
The council was made of six members, evenly split among Republicans, Democrats and Independents, four men and two women, one black man, the rest whites. HD’s assignment was simple and concise. He was to find a way to make the proposition a palatable construct to a motley crew, all the while to have as many stakeholders buy in. This was a challenge alright but one that would allow him to prove his mettle. It would also have him marshal his gray matter’s smarts to elaborate an ingenious plan.
HD spent the next week ensconced in the company’s resource center to build a dossier on the project. From his vantage, he had to synchronize all the moving parts. He read the local papers to get a feel for the mood of the locals about issues that mattered to them. Letters to the editor, Op-Eds, all types of bylines added their flavor to the mix. Analytics such as income distribution, economic activities, places of worships, benevolent associations, etc. were all looked at. He then focused on each council member to create a profile and find a point of entry for solicitation in the subtlest manner. Of course, the political angle was the low-hanging fruit. Two of the council members were facing an election. A campaign contribution was in order. Another council member’s church was in the midst of renovation from flood damage and was actively raising funds. One member was an atheist and renown environmentalist. This would be a significant stumbling block. The last member doubled as mayor of a small hamlet facing a downturn of its economy due to globalization. It used to have a shoe manufacturing capacity that was crippled once the company decided to move it overseas for cheap labor.
A local polarization existed among environmentalists and those willing to go forward with development. The scope of his work would have to involve the skeptics in and out of government. At the same time, the project itself would have to include enough features to avoid a cleavage with the local ecology; it should incorporate the idea of man living in harmony with his environment. He wanted to showcase the fact that man didn’t live by ideas alone but needed to put bread on the table. Pragmatism was necessary for survival. Little by little, an outline of the master plan was forming in his head. He had to see the architectural team to discuss the ecology-friendly bent it needed to have to assuage sure to come opposition. He also needed to have a scholarly assessment of the economic windfall of having the mall at that location. Tax ratable increases to fill the coffers of localities ought to be a potent argument. Jobs created and related services spawned had to be part of the narrative. Content as well as delivery would be competing for maximum impact. PR would have to be at the forefront of this endeavor. He figured he would have to come up with catchy sound bites redolent of the simplicity and attractiveness of “Yes we can,” to encapsulate the project. The question is, will he pull it off?
(to be continued)
Reynald Altéma, MD