WASHINGTON -- All through inaugural week, there is the quie sound of Washington's special interests at work, clinking glasses with the powers that be and toasting the new administration.
Bill Clinton and his new team may have condemned Washington's culture of easy access for big companies and powerful interests, but those same groups are now throwing dozens of receptions and parties for his inauguration, luring what they hope are VIPs from every corner of this city.
"RJR Nabisco requests the pleasure of your company for an inaugural reception," reads the invitation the tobacco giant recently sent to members of Congress, lobbyists and others. The company is holding the party at its Washington headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, which promises an excellent view of the inaugural parade.
Another cigarette maker, Philip Morris, is sponsoring an event at the National Gallery, with Sen. Wendell H. Ford as a guest of honor. The Kentucky Democrat, one of the tobacco industry's friends on Capitol Hill, is the chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies and also heads Senate Rules Committee.
RJR Nabisco and Philip Morris aren't alone, however. They're among the likes of Ford Motor Co., defense giant Textron, the Motion Picture Association of America and others that are supporting get-togethers all around town.
And then there's big labor. Unions were among Mr. Clinton's biggest supporters during the campaign and they're expected to be active this week. Congressional sources mention receptions by the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
The Manville Corp., which has paid billions of dollars to settle claims from its days as an asbestos maker, is holding a gala at the Watergate Hotel. Drug giant Merck, which has a lot at stake in the coming battle over health-care reform, is also opening its doors so guests can watch the parade and have "a very informal chance to socialize with some of the staff."
"You don't go there to drink and carouse," said Gary Hymel, chief lobbyist at Hill and Knowlton, the public relations giant. "It's business."
Mr. Hymel should know. A former aide to former House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, he's attended dozens of similar events through the years. "For companies along the parade route, it's an opportunity to bring people in from the cold," he said, "let them watch the parade and schmooze them, too."
Despite all the Clinton campaign rhetoric about stamping out politics as usual, he said, "The receptions go on no matter who is elected."
Although controversy has forced the cancellation of privately backed party in honor of Commerce Department nominee Ronald H. Brown and put a party for the brothers of Hillary
Clinton on hold, the limousines will still be backed up around the corner at dozens of other events.
President Dave Pullen, director of public affairs for Manville in Washington, doesn't see anything wrong in all the hoopla. "Everybody in the world is celebrating an incoming administration and Congress," he said, "and there is nothing wrong with being part of a public process."
Big companies and unions aren't the only special interests involved. Even journalists, normally prone to indignation and outrage at the mere sight of big Washington bashes, are getting into the act.
Reporters, members of Congress and members of the new administration will all be trading tips at a cocktail party Newsweek magazine is holding at the posh Willard Hotel tonight. And The New Republic magazine is having a party tonight in honor of occasional contributor and Vice President-elect Al Gore at the Warner Theater.
Like Mr. Pullen, Frank Mankiewicz, a former aide to Robert F. Kennedy and George S. McGovern and now a prominent Washington public-relations man for corporations, is skeptical about the charges of inside influence.
"I don't think anybody is corrupted by a glass of white wine and a midget pizza," he said. "That's not what's going on here."
Chuck Lewis isn't so sure. The executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, an ethics watchdog, maintains that private parties are "politics as usual."
"They all want to be in Bill Clinton's big tent, as close to the center pole as possible," he said. "They're buying access and influence and their phone calls will be returned."