Shame is for Sissies

A lobbyist’s death ended a career that was unique in modern Washington.

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In the nation’s capital, where the appearance of virtue is always for sale to the highest bidder, politicians and lobbyists invariably claim some noble goal to justify even the most sordid transaction. But counterfeit idealism wasn’t the style of Edward J. von Kloberg III, 63, the flamboyant lobbyist for some of the world’s most notorious dictators, who killed himself in May. Despondent over a breakup, he leaped from the parapet of the Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome — just as the heroine does in his beloved Tosca — ending a career that was unique in modern Washington.

Unlike most of today’s influence peddlers, von Kloberg did the devil’s work with flair, pride, and, often, a certain candor (although the “von” was a made-up moniker he added because he thought it sounded classy). His motto was “Shame Is for Sissies,” his trademark the black cape he wore to embassy balls and society soirees. His clients were a rogues’ gallery of dictators and butchers: Saddam Hussein, Samuel K. Doe of Liberia, Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, the military regime of Burma, and Mobutu Sese Seko of the former Zaire (as well as Laurent Kabila, the equally murderous despot who overthrew him).

Part of von Kloberg’s legacy lives on among his former colleagues. “They suck in their breath and represent total shits and monsters,” says von Kloberg’s friend Diana McLellan, doyenne of the capital’s gossip columnists. “That’s what Washington is all about.” But, the former Washington Post writer points out, “They’re less candid about it. These people have discovered that if they scream loud enough that something is virtuous, the suckers will buy it. Ed didn’t bother with that.” In their hours lolling together by the Hilton Hotel pool, she recalls, “He would tell the truth and laugh about it. He knew some of these people were monsters.”

“It was a corner of the market that he had,” observes Kevin Chaffee, the social editor of the Washington Times, who knew him well. “Switzerland doesn’t need a von Kloberg.” He sometimes compared himself to a criminal defense lawyer representing those whom no one else will take on. When I interviewed him for a 1992 Spy magazine article that labeled him “Washington’s most shameless lobbyist,” von Kloberg boasted: “I don’t have any problem sleeping at night.” The article, “Publicists of the Damned,” highlighted his and other lobbyists’ work for mass murderers, and included a sting in which a German-born Spy staffer pretended to seek Washington representation for a fabricated neo-Nazi group, the German People’s Alliance. Von Kloberg was the only lobbyist who tried to land the contract. He curried favor with the “Alliance” by noting that the rise of David Duke indicated potential American support for its goals, which included ridding Germany of immigrants and “reclaiming” Poland. “Entirely possible,” von Kloberg reassured Spy. After the article appeared, he didn’t slink away, but showed up at the party for the magazine’s new Washington office wearing a trench helmet and gas mask. “I can take the flak,” he proclaimed. Unlike most powerful people in Washington, von Kloberg didn’t flee bad press, but reveled in it — and even used the negative articles to win new clients.

Those clients praised his effectiveness, and he did win some trade and other concessions for such villains as Ceausescu. He was a well-informed advocate who cultivated many reporters with insider tips, but some human rights advocates doubt how much he actually accomplished for what he called his “impossible” cases. “He represented pariahs, and he was a pariah himself,” says Holly Burkhalter, policy director for Physicians for Human Rights. “I don’t think he was able to offer much.” Von Kloberg’s practice officially ended in 2002 because of his health problems, and after that things went downhill fast: Sick with cancer, an inner-ear disease, and diabetes, he “went through millions,” says Chaffee. “He was basically destitute at the end.” Even so, the spin doctor kept up his own facade, pulling himself together to play the part of the bon vivant, as he did at a Dominican Embassy luncheon last December.

Today’s flacks are far more “gray” and businesslike than von Kloberg, foreign-policy columnist Georgie Anne Geyer notes. “He was the last of the swashbuckling characters.”

A few months before von Kloberg leaped from the parapet (with a note for his lover in one pocket and, in another, a magazine whose cover photo showed him standing next to George H. W. Bush), disgraced superlobbyist Jack Abramoff stood before a congressional committee investigating his ethics and took the Fifth. Von Kloberg was a stranger to such modesty. He lived without apology and died for love, and in both instances he was increasingly an anachronism in the world he helped create.

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You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

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