In his bestseller "Inside U.S.A.," the hugely readable journalist John Gunther described America as it was in the last year of World War II. He interviewed hundreds of politicians, businessmen and journalists, but only four men rated a separate chapter -- three politicians and Henry J. Kaiser, the California construction magnate who built dams and ships and manufactured concrete and steel and aluminum.
Kaiser was, Gunther wrote, "tough, creative, packed with ideas and energy, above all a man who likes to make things." But he was also, he noted, a "link of enterprise by government, since government was on his side."
That was putting it mildly. Kaiser hired Tommy Corcoran, a brilliant former aide to Franklin Roosevelt, to open doors and got a $645 million contract to build ships and $28 million financing to manufacture magnesium. Corcoran, according to the first-rate biography by longtime Democratic staffer David McKean, got $200,000 in fees. Believe it or not, that was a lot of money in Washington in the 1940s.
Government spent a lot of money in World War II -- and mostly spent it well. Kaiser delivered on his contracts and even managed to build ships out of concrete, most of which did not sink. But, as always happens when government is shoveling out money, lobbyists thrived.
Fast forward to the present day. Lobbyists, reports the Center for Responsive Politics, had a record 2009 in Barack Obama's Washington. Despite candidate Obama's promises to shun them, they raked in $3,470,000,000. Somewhere up there, Tommy Corcoran is chuckling.
Last week, amid Washington's blizzards, Obama was asked about the $17 million bonus awarded to JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and the $9 million bonus for Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein.
"I know both these guys; they are very savvy businessmen," he said. "I, like most of the American people, don't begrudge people success or wealth." So much for campaign-trail denunciations of "fat cat" bankers and bloated bonuses.