Messenger - Vol. 3, No. 1, Page 6
Fall 1993
Mr. Lewis goes to Washington, or Chuck Does D.C.

     Washington, D.C., 1990. At the National Press Club, Chuck Lewis,
Delaware '75, was as nervous as a first-time dad. His brainchild, the
Center for Public Integrity, was about to hold its first press conference.
     The material, he knew, was devastating: a 201-page expose of
Washington's "revolving door" racket, showing that since 1974, roughly half
the senior White House trade officials or their firms had gone on to
register as foreign agents. But would anyone turn up to hear it?
     Among the capital's press corps, he worried, the fledgling center
might sound like "a nut group, a Larouche group even." His future was on
the line.
     His past carried the day. For, it was almost certainly Lewis'
reputation as an investigative journalist-earned as assistant to Carl
Bernstein at The Washington Post, as an ABC News reporter and finally as a
producer with CBS' flagship program 60 Minutes-that brought out the crowds.
     And crowds there were. Thirty to 40 newspaper reporters. Reuters and
Associated Press. C-Span and CNN. The television show 20/20 featured the
study that night.
     Then, political Washington took heed. Bill Clinton, Ross Perot, Jerry
Brown and Pat Buchanan all cited the study in their presidential campaigns.
There was a General Accounting Office inquiry and a Justice Department
ruling. Twice, Lewis testified before the U.S. Senate. "Congratulations,"
offered historian and center adviser Arthur Schlesinger. "Obviously, your
idea works."
     Since that first press conference, the center has produced 12
similarly ambitious and probing analyses of government, most with an eye to
the ethics of public service.
     Lewis' idea, hatched after he left 60 Minutes in 1988, was to create
"a hybrid of political science and investigative journalism," a
"journalistic utopia" where committed writers could explore critical issues
without concern for the usual constraints of time and space. As a hybrid,
the center-variously labeled a "think tank with a twist," a "watchdog
group" or a "non-profit research group" by the press-has escaped
pigeon-holing, while establishing its own niche in the combative ecology of
     The organization is non-profit and non-partisan. Its modest
$400,000-a-year budget is funded by corporations, foundations, labor unions
and individuals, plus revenue from articles. Lewis won't take commissions
or assignments from sponsors, nor will he back away from stories that
offend them. Recently, he forfeited half his labor money (about 5 percent
of the total) when, against the wishes of a union president, he pursued
Commerce Secretary Ron Brown's conflicts of interest. Broadcaster and
author Bill Moyers, an admirer and backer of the center, accordingly
doubled the contribution of his Schumann Foundation.
     With its commitment to democratic integrity, the center inevitably
came to focus on lobbying and influence-peddling, and Lewis said he
relishes being in the vanguard of reaction against "legal corruption."
Until this year, he points out, major news organizations didn't even cover
lobbying, an "unbelievable" oversight since it is Washington's biggest
     The center's latest report is "The Trading Game: Inside Lobbying for
the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)." Soundbite journalism it
is not. Weighing in at over 100 densely documented pages, it might take you
more than 60 minutes to read. An edited version headlined the June 14 issue
of The Nation.
     In their report, Lewis and his associates- Margaret Ebrahim and a
staff of young interns-contend that Mexican interests have orchestrated
Washington's largest-ever foreign lobbying drive. By 1993, more than $30
million will have been spent to push the ratification of NAFTA, as much as
the previous three most expensive foreign campaigns put together, according
to the report. Among other things, this money employs 33 former U.S.
officials as "legislative mercenaries" on behalf of the agreement, Lewis
     The center, of course, takes no position on NAFTA. Lewis merely
insists that public interest-and government esteem-is better served if
treaties depend on merit rather than on money and mercenary manpower.
     Given his success thus far, Lewis is far from complacent about what
his work can achieve against entrenched insiderism: "Even with five more
centers," he reflects, "it would still be David and Goliath." Indeed, it is
sobering to hear this humorous and most idealistic of political observers
(his conversation, like his office, is dotted with quotations from the
founding fathers) giving the lowdown on D.C.
     * Lewis on the two parties: "In many ways, they're the same party now.
Or, there's only one party. It's called money. The parties don't stand for
anything any more. They stand for getting people elected and raising money
and helping people get access."
     * Lewis on the "mercenary culture" inside the I-495 beltway: "An
extraordinarily corrupt, venal group of people who are basically doing
whatever they want to do, with very little regulation."
     * Lewis on Washington in general: "It's depressing."
     So, how does he work in this tawdry town? "I pretend I don't live
here. I pretend I just got off the boat or just got in from Delaware."
     Lewis has a "deep affinity" for Delaware and his small-town roots. He
grew up on East Main Street in Newark. He worked part-time at the local
Chinese laundry and confesses to being "a bit of a high-achiever type" at
Newark High. "I still love driving up Main Street," he says. "I'll often
take friends and people from the center so they can see what a real Main
Street looks like." Lewis' great-grandfather, John E. Lewis, owned the Deer
Park Tavern in the 1880s, and Lewis' family recalls his grandmother taking
part in a turn-of-the-century sleigh race on the as-yet-unpaved Main
Street. His parents still live in Newark.
     But although the small-town connection obviously refreshes and perhaps
inspires his scrutiny of big-time operations, Chuck Lewis has no intention
of retiring quietly to the hinterlands. He's preparing a book on how
everyday folk-such as Lois Gibbs of the Love Canal scandal-can pursue
investigative projects; he's planning for the center to diversify into
video and film; and he's mulling the possibility of a national newsletter
to deliver high-quality "muckraking" at a grass-roots level. Trade analysts
estimate he could have 200,000 subscribers. Also, several groups have
contacted him about setting up centers for integrity outside the nation's
     Meanwhile, the press keeps pressing, with 10 to 20 queries a day.
Recently, Lewis has fallen into the unanticipated role of pundit, or broker
of honest information, which means guest appearances on CNN, C-Span, NPR.
     So keep your eye out for the little guy who's giving the big guy a
headache, and remember that in David and Goliath, the big guy with the
headache loses.
                                        -Steven O'Connor, Delaware '94 Ph.D.