The Life Anne Wexler Lived

Anne Wexler, in 1980. (Photo courtesy of the New York Times)

Last August, “06880” honored the life of Anne Wexler.  In the 1960s, the Westport housewife moved from the Zoning Board of Appeals to bigger things:  first the statewide Gene McCarthy presidential campaign, then national politics.  Wexler helped rewrite the Democrats’ delegate selection process, leading directly to the 1972 nomination of George McGovern.

Wexler next became a Jimmy Carter confidante.  After leaving the White House, she turned into a Washington lobbyist.

Last week, in its annual “The Lives They Lived” look at important and/or overlooked people who died during the year, the New York Times Magazine profiled Anne Wexler.  Writer Matt Bai focused on her lobbying days.  His even-handed look begins:

At the dawn of the 1960s, Anne Wexler was living an idyllic life, in a “Mad Men” sort of way.  The daughter of a prominent Manhattan architect, she had graduated from Skidmore, married an ophthalmologist and given birth to two sons.  She kept a neat house in Westport and lunched with the ladies.  “I had all the Jewish princess stuff” is how she later described it.

But the news from places like Montgomery and Saigon kept washing up like a wave on her manicured front lawn.  More than anything else, it was the escalation of the war she detested that pulled her into politics, first as the manager of local campaigns and then as a key organizer of Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 crusade.  She wasn’t a feminist in the confrontational sense — Betty Friedan was a friend, never a mentor — but Wexler soon became a role model for younger women who were bent on remaking a male-dominated Democratic Party.  Older and more worldly than they were, Wexler seemed instinctively to know how the game was played.

Bai spends the bulk of his piece discussing Wexler’s lobbying career.  He writes:

Up to that point, the lobbying business was primarily divided by partisan boundaries; Democratic firms had access to Democratic lawmakers and Republicans to Republicans, which meant that a lobbyist’s business relied on the fortunes of his party.  Putting aside the ideological convictions that transformed her life, Wexler would team up with Nancy Clark Reynolds, a close friend of Reagan’s, to create a firm that not only would be led by women — “We’re going to be underestimated, and it’ll work every time,” Wexler told her new partner — but that could also reach any level of government, no matter who was in charge.

As the lobbying business grew into a $3 billion industry, Wexler’s name became synonymous with a new generation of elite “superlobbyists,” lawyers and political operatives whose influence on Capitol Hill made them far wealthier than many of the politicians they manipulated.

Bai notes that lobbying was disliked by the liberals who had long loved Wexler:

Wexler always rejected the idea that she had betrayed the principles of her activist heyday.  Rather, she portrayed her lobbying work as an extension of the public-service ideal, even as her firm’s client list expanded to include the likes of Anheuser-Busch, General Motors and Aetna.  “Government officials are not comfortable making these complicated decisions by themselves,” Wexler explained to a Time reporter in 1986.

It had the hollow ring of rationalization.  Wexler sold the company to Hill & Knowlton, the public-relations giant, in 1990 but continued to run it.  Ultimately, the woman who once led the fight for Gene McCarthy happily added a new partner’s name to the door: Bob Walker, the former Republican congressman and one of Newt Gingrich’s chief acolytes.

When Wexler died, Bai says, her passing was not universally mourned:

Wexler’s death, after a return of cancer she first beat back more than 20 years earlier, was met with tributes from many of the capital’s leading liberals — and with scorn from a few.  “What might Anne Wexler have accomplished for causes she really believed in,” the writer Michael Kinsley asked in a column in The Washington Post, “if she hadn’t spent the last three decades of her life taking on any cause that walked in the door with a checkbook in hand?”

Fair or not, Kinsley’s critique neglected the larger context. Wexler’s career was, in fact, the story of a generation.  The young idealists of both the McGovernite left and the Goldwater right had arrived in Washington vowing to reform it, but by the time Anne Wexler died, they had become, instead, their own kind of establishment — a ruling class of consultants and lobbyists and celebrity pundits every bit as immovable as the machine bosses and Brahmin lawyers of another era.  As Wexler herself might have pointed out, she didn’t do anything her male contemporaries hadn’t done.  She was simply better at it.

We are always told not to speak ill of the dead.  Yet politicians have always been different.  Anne Wexler — the peace advocate — was definitely a politician.

2 responses to “The Life Anne Wexler Lived

  1. Eric Buchroeder

    No slight to Ms. Wexler, whose story is awesome. But until lobbying on behalf of powerful clients is eliminated, those who labor in that space will always be tainted by association with those who have corrupted the political system in this country.

    What is needed is more individual participation in the political process and less (or even better, NO) participation by lobbyists.

    I think Ms. Wexler was a great and gifted woman who became a lobbyist, not the other way around. I’m not sure she needed to, but as they say, you gotta make a buck, but not off the system in my opinion.

    Still, as an old Westporter its neat to be able to say I remember Ms. Wexler when she was “just a housewife” and “Ms” hadn’t been invented yet.

  2. Jonathan Steinberg

    Remarkable, Dan!

    I can’t say I’ve read every one of your blogs, but this one has to be among the best. Your thoughtful retrospective on Anne’s career eloquently offers a perspective on an era — all with the perfect Westport connection. I usually don’t get profundity this early in the AM!

    Who says you’re just an amazing soccer coach?

    Happy New Year! I look forward to starting my dady with 06880 every day in 2010!

    — Jonathan