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Portraits in Power
Edited by Timothy Noah
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Now, in a collection of profiles with the richness of short fiction, Williams limns the personalities that dominated politics and the media during the final years of the twentieth century. In these pages, Clark Clifford grieves “in his laborious baritone” a bank scandal’s blow to his re-pu-taaaaaay-shun. Lee Atwater likens himself to Ulysses and pleads, “Tah me to the mast!” Patricia Duff sheds “precipitous tears” over her divorce from Ronald Perelman, resembling afterwards “a garden refreshed by spring rain.”
Reputation illuminates our recent past through expertly drawn portraits of powerful — and messily human — figures.
Once again, for Will and Alice.
Should they whisper false of you,
Never trouble to deny;
Should the words they say be true,
Weep and storm and swear they lie.
Never trouble to deny;
Should the words they say be true,
Weep and storm and swear they lie.
In November 2005 I published a collection of writings by my wife, Marjorie Williams. Marjorie, a Washington-based journalist for Vanity Fair and the Washington Post, had died ten months earlier, at age forty-seven, after a three-year battle with liver cancer. Immediately following her death I was flooded with requests from friends and admirers to make available an anthology of Marjorie’s profiles and essays. I started editing the book one month after the funeral; it provided, among other benefits, a vessel for my grief. Assuming this would be my only chance to collect Marjorie’s work, I initially prepared a plump “best-of” omnibus. Wiser heads pointed out that little demand existed for a seven-hundred-page anthology celebrating a writer who, though much loved inside the capital and among fellow journalists, was little known to the book-buying public. Reluctantly, I trimmed the manuscript down to more manageable length and hoped circumstances might afford the chance to publish a successor volume. The Woman at the Washington Zoo (the title came from a favorite poem of Marjorie’s by Randall Jarrell) proved a success, both critically and commercially, beyond—well, perhaps not beyond my wildest imaginings—but certainly beyond my earthbound expectations, creating the opportunity I’d wished for to collect and publish the rest of Marjorie’s best.
Before The Woman at the Washington Zoo appeared, Marjorie was known chiefly as a writer of incisive political profiles. When Peter Osnos of PublicAffairs first approached me about putting out an anthology, the book he had in mind probably didn’t much resemble what I turned in three months later. Zoo purported to be a wry anthropological skewering of official Washington, but closer inspection revealed it to be a memoir in disguise. The first half contained some of the sharpest profiles Marjorie had written, but these were overshadowed in the second half by a handful of exquisite personal essays, two of them previously unpublished. Readers were affected most deeply by “Hit by Lightning,” Marjorie’s bracingly candid narrative essay about discovering, and coming to terms with, her terminal disease. (A slightly shorter version published in Vanity Fair immediately prior to Zoo’s publication won Marjorie a posthumous National Magazine Award and later was reprinted in Houghton Mifflin’s The Best American Essays 2006.) Other essays explored Marjorie’s richly complex feelings about getting and staying married, giving herself over to motherhood, and her own mother’s death. The frank intimacy of these writings lent Zoo an intensely personal tone that tended to obscure the cooler intelligence on display in the profiles.
Reputation is a very different sort of book. It consists entirely of profiles (apart from the prologue). The mood is more playful, and Marjorie’s wicked humor is more abundantly in evidence. In the title story, Marjorie observes that in the time it takes Clark Clifford to pronounce the word re-pu-taaaaaay-shun, “you could run downstairs to buy a paper and back.” In “The Story of a Good Girl,” Marjorie quotes an old-school New York Times editor griping about the corporate sensitivity seminars introduced by publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.: “I’ve been hugged by people I don’t even want to shake hands with.” In “Here Comes the Groom,” Marjorie finds Larry King, in person, “unexpectedly pink.”
This new collection provides ample opportunity to marvel at Marjorie’s eye for novelistic detail. In “The Game,” Jim Baker’s smile is “what the dental hygienist asks you to emulate when she wants to get at your back molars.” In “The Story of a Bad Boy,” Lee Atwater, who squirms madly while he’s talking, “sits much stiller when he listens, his brow puckered into a pit that could grip a small marble.” Another wonder is Marjorie’s ear for dialogue. In “Before the Fall,” Charles J. Kelly is the “number-one white booster” for a Colin Powell presidency. (The time was 1995, during the if-you-blinked-you-missed-it Powell boomlet.) Kelly is no doubt sincere in his admiration for Powell, but he gives himself away when he tells Marjorie that a black man in the White House would convey the message, “Kwitcherbitchin. If I can do it, you can do it. Don’t run around talking about how the world owes you a living.”
In Washington, the worst thing they can call you is a human being. Marjorie delighted in getting past her subject’s white-marble edifice, pushing aside the freeze-dried human-interest morsels tossed out by some press aide to throw her off the scent, and identifying real flesh and bone. In some cases, what she found was even chillier than the bland mask of eminence. In “Mother’s Milk,” Terry McAuliffe flees the hospital room where his wife is about to give birth so he can attend a party the Washington Post is throwing for its gossip columnist. In “The Story of a Bad Boy,” George H. W. Bush tells a key operative in his 1980 presidential campaign, “I do want you to understand that, if I win, we don’t want any people like you in the government.” These portraits possess not only the rhetorical flair but also the moral complexity more typically associated with classic short fiction.
What ties them together is a sense of a particular American moment. Readers glimpsed this aspect of Marjorie’s writing in Zoo. Although I chose the profiles in that book to represent timeless Washington archetypes rather than the spirit of the specific dozen years when they were written, Marjorie’s gift is not so easily pigeonholed. Those pieces also conveyed a sense of how Washingtonians, in a style characteristic of the late twentieth century, muddied the distinction between doing good and doing well. In Marjorie’s obituary, Washington Post writer David Von Drehle (now with Time) compared her body of work to Plutarch’s Lives. This volume attempts, as unpretentiously as I can manage, to follow that train of thought. Less grandly, one might compare Reputation to Seven Men, Max Beerbohm’s humorous collection of late-nineteenth-century character sketches, with the significant difference that Beerbohm’s representative Britons were fictional, whereas Marjorie’s representative Americans are real.
If, as the novelist L. P. Hartley wrote, the past is a foreign country, then the near past is more like Canada than Bhutan. The challenge is to look beyond overwhelming similarities to the world we inhabit and tease out subtle differences. Marjorie’s active years as a newspaper and magazine writer began in 1987 and ended in 2001. This was an era that historians are only beginning to distinguish from our own. Sean Wilentz of Princeton recently christened it the “Age of Reagan,”1 designating the starting point at 1974 and the end point at 2008 (which may be wishful thinking). In Wilentz’s view, President Ronald Reagan (or at least the idea of Reagan) dominated this stretch of American history in the same way that president Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal legacy dominated the four decades that preceded it. The time period covered in Reputation is the decade following Reagan’s presidency, but Reagan’s presence is pervasive. Various people profiled in this book came to Washington because of Reagan’s 1980 election—George H. W. Bush, of course, and Jim Baker, but also (for divergent reasons) Lawrence Walsh, Mary Matalin, and Laura Ingraham. Two others—Lee Atwater and Colin Powell—were ushered onto the national stage when they joined the Reagan White House. Clark Clifford and Patricia Duff had little regard for Reagan—Clifford tagged him an “amiable dunce,” and Duff worked for Democratic candidates throughout his presidency—but their lives, too, were shaped by Reagan’s policies. Clifford benefited financially from the lax regulation of banks; Duff, less directly, achieved wealth through the lax regulation of corporate mergers (because it made her future husband, Ron Perelman, a billionaire). Both Cinderella stories end unhappily, providing, perhaps, a stern lesson about the Reagan era’s fevered money culture.
A rival definition of the era described in this book, set forth by Washington think-tanker Derek Chollet and George Washington University political scientist James Goldgeier, is that the 1990s were an interwar period not unlike the 1920s, bracketed in this instance by the end of the Cold War and the start of America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.2 Such epochs are defined less by what occurred during them than by lingering memories of what happened before and a failure to anticipate what would happen after. Nostalgia for or disgust with the Reagan presidency (see, respectively, Ingraham and Walsh) might be two examples of the temptation to look backward. Frivolity (the softball-pitching King) is one crime of which interwar eras typically stand accused; a fixation on money (Clifford, Duff, McAuliffe) is another. The Janus-like structure of Reputation, I’m pleased to observe, fits neatly with Chollet and Goldgeier’s interwar template. The book begins with Clark Clifford, aging symbol of a bygone probity that was always an illusion, and ends with Colin Powell, whose halo will be dented by the second Iraq war—but whose brief potential to become the first black president foreshadows the candidacy of Barack Obama. The profiles in between follow no chronological order, which somehow fits, too. (And, no, Anna Quindlen does not dwell within Washington’s orbit; she’s included here to illustrate where feminism stood during this period—a function also performed, somewhat differently, by the profile of Laura Ingraham. It’s also a great piece.)
Our understanding of fin de siècle Washington is not, at this moment, fixed. Marjorie herself was no historian in the retrospective sense; she was a writer of present history. It was her habit, whenever possible, to show rather than tell. And so I leave it, finally, to Marjorie to set the scene in the prologue that follows.
Welcome to Washington
“Washington City is the poorest place in the United States from which to judge the temper of the nation,” wrote a columnist named Frank Carpenter in 1882. “Its citizens have a different outlook on life than those of the individual states, and the atmosphere is artificial and enervating.”
Two centuries after the city’s founding, Carpenter’s observation makes a good starting point for a tour of the capital’s soul. For Washington is a much-maligned city, butt of a thousand campaign slurs and target of resentment by the legions of Americans who feel estranged from their government. And no one dumps on the city more than the people who live here. This is not, we tell ourselves guiltily, the real America. The population is too transient, we say, too obsessively focused on government. The city is provincial, we add: the theater is still second-rate at best, the food—despite the ethnic enclave and a small if growing number of inspired restaurants—a pale shade of the diversity that New York or Chicago can offer. As for women’s fashion . . . well, isn’t Washington one of the best markets in the country for Talbots, home of the grosgrain hair band, the plaid skirt, and the boiled-wool jacket?
The wise defender of Washington knows that you will get nowhere by trying to refute the common criticisms; you must begin by embracing them. To love Washington is to champion its amateur status as a city.
Washington is unfashionable, and God bless it. Despite the grandly conceived boulevards and circles, laid out by Pierre L’Enfant in 1791, the city feels more suburban than urban—in design, in atmosphere, in ethos. It is still a one-industry town, although it is true that one of the major changes of the 1980s was that Washington developed a sizable business culture for the first time, powered by a real estate boom and the area’s growing popularity as a headquarters for such corporate giants as Mobil and General Dynamics. But the exception proves the rule: these companies moved here to be close to the policy makers. In Washington, the government and its satellites—the media, the lobbyists, the policy jocks—blot out all else. It is a very small world. This, above all, is what natives feel duty bound to decry about the city. Secretly, it is what they love most.
Gore Vidal wrote, correctly, of the “calculated dowdiness” of old-line Washington society—a description that still applies to the city’s most prominent citizens. From Katharine Graham, with her boarding-school-headmistress coif and the dull-brown Mercedes that pilots her to and from the Washington Post; to House Speaker Tom Foley, who can be seen at the “social” Safeway (the supermarket branch that serves Georgetown) pushing his shopping cart past the paper-towel bargains; to Miss Manners (a.k.a. Judith Martin), who presides over lunch at the stodgy Cosmos Club in her timeless Gibson Girl bun, this is a town of the comfortably, proudly un-chic.3
When Washington does feint in the direction of trendiness, it comes across like a man in midlife crisis sporting bell-bottoms and a bolo tie. Consider the latest success on the restaurant scene, Red Sage, an import from Santa Fe. The food is wonderful, but the decor—rumored to have cost close to $3 million—is ruthlessly Southwestern, with barbed wire appearing as a motif in everything from the chandeliers to the swizzle sticks.
Though Washingtonians have flocked to try out Red Sage—President Clinton took Hillary here for Valentine’s Day—it remains blatantly unassimilated. If it disappeared tomorrow, the waters would close over it instantly. No true Washingtonian would mourn it as a trusted part of city life—not the way they mourn Mel Krupin’s, which closed its doors in 1988. A pricey upscale deli with forgettable food, Mel’s was a place where you would run into bureau chiefs and publishers, former ambassadors and current White House aides.4
Washington’s priorities are simply different from those of other cities. Although there are a great many six-figure salaries here, the super-rich are almost absent, and along with them the need for plumage. Washington is less about money than—exactly as the flabby clichés insist—about power. Its credit system is proximity; its currency, information.
There are two distinct Washingtons—the local city and the national capital. The former is the actual community made up of the District of Columbia and its booming suburbs. It is one of America’s youngest great cities, and one of its most paradoxical stories of urban success and failure. Supported by the steady engine of federal spending, greater Washington has become the richest metropolitan area in America, measured by education level and household income. Washington is also the murder capital of the country, measured on a per capita basis.5
Race relations follow the same pattern. The area is home to a huge proportion of middle- and upper-income blacks, but the city itself retains a depressing level of informal segregation. Washington proper is a mecca for African Americans, with a thriving black culture, but white Washingtonians know little about this side of the city. Unlike the federal government, the city is largely black-run, from Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton down through the top ranks of city government and the majority of the city council.
To the hordes who are drawn to the city by ambition, however, it is Washington’s other life—its role as the national capital—that has the most vivid reality. This split personality is the continuing legacy of Washington’s birth, for it was a capital before it was a city, selected by George Washington in 1791 on behalf of a bickering Congress. Only after the location was chosen, for its ambidextrous appeal to both the North and the South, was Pierre L’Enfant commissioned to make it real.
How far apart the two Washingtons lie was rather poignantly suggested in 1990, when federal authorities set up an undercover drug purchase in Lafayette Park, just across the street from the White House, in order to provide a prop—a seized bag of crack cocaine—for a televised speech by president George H. W. Bush. (The president intended to hold up the bag of crack and intone sadly that drugs were sold everywhere—even across the street from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.) Alas, when the order went forth to find the evidence, it turned out that crack arrests were unknown in the heavily policed blocks surrounding the president’s home. In the end, someone had to be induced to sell crack across the street from the White House. When the Drug Enforcement Administration instructed its mark, a local dealer, that the buy would take place in Lafayette Park, he said, “Uh, where?”
Across the street from the White House, the agents explained.
“Where the fuck is the White House?” asked the dealer, who had grown up in southeast D.C.
To the city’s striving political class, of course, the White House is and always will be the center of the universe. This state of mind is summed up, for me, by the view from the Presidential Suite of the Hay-Adams Hotel, where Bill Clinton spent his first night in Washington as president-elect. If you gaze out the south-facing window in the sitting room, across petite Lafayette Park, the White House is a thing of marzipan, improbably near and intimate in scale. To the initiated, Washington is a place where power seems just this seductively close at hand.
I spent my wedding night in the same suite at the Hay-Adams and keep a rich memory of it. I like to imagine that late at night, after meeting with the outgoing president, fending off the press, and dining with a few dozen ambitious strangers, Bill and Hillary turned out all the lights and stole over to the window in their bathrobes to assimilate at last the awesome turn in their lives.
The fables of power in Washington are, of course, 95 percent hooey; the truth is far more prosaic. Policy is made by a thousand tiny engines. A cabinet secretary has social firepower, but it’s the analysts who report to the deputy assistant secretaries who are really writing the rules, along with certain staff members on certain Senate and House subcommittees—the men and women who live for the day the Post will describe them as “key staffers.” And they aren’t out at Hollywood’s idea of a Glittering Washington Party; they’re back at their scrungy government-issue desks, scarfing down a Domino’s pizza over another late-night assignment.
These foot soldiers have far more social cachet under the policy-smitten Clinton regime than they ever had under Republican rule. But some things never change. Under either party, late-night revelry is unknown to “official” Washington. (It’s been suggested that one reason sex scandals have such an explosive impact on Washington is that there is so little sex going on here in the first place.) Yet features editors have recently been running article after article about young Clintonites who party at dives such as Chief Ike’s Mambo Room. The trend is curious: Where else but Washington would the sudden appearance of young people hanging out in bars make the newspaper, not to mention the paper of record, the New York Times?
Washingtonians love to build up a mythology of how their private lives mingle with the common, public life. Remember when the Kennedys were just that nice young couple who lived around the corner on N Street in Georgetown? As often as not, these memories are decisively improved by the passage of time. But there is the rare communal moment, like the time visiting Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ordered his limousine to a halt so that he could shake hands at one of downtown’s busiest intersections. Lobbyists in $300 loafers could be seen glowing and gawping just like the secretaries on their lunch breaks and the bicycle messengers on their rounds.6
A different kind of myth obscures Washington’s charm for the casual visitor, who may find that the city’s most renowned features are some of its most overrated. The cherry blossoms may be beautiful, yes; but the area around the Tidal Basin is always mobbed while they are in flower, and the glory lasts for only a few days before the scene disintegrates into what looks like bare trees banked in patches of wadded Kleenex. (Far better to spend an afternoon in the gardens of Georgetown’s glorious Dumbarton Oaks.) The Museum of American History at the Smithsonian surprises you with the feel of a crowded attic. (Try, instead, a Sunday afternoon at the Phillips Collection.) The Washington Monument is the biggest bust of all. Walks to the top are prohibited because of all the graffiti left by climbers past, so you must first endure a long, long wait for the massive elevator, which finally disgorges its passengers beneath a ring of tiny windows made of blurry Plexiglas.7
Of the city’s monuments and public spaces, the best are those that have been transformed by the visible use others have made of them. The Mall, which forms the great spine of L’Enfant’s original plan for the city, is in fact a rather dull, naked rectangle—until you reach the Reflecting Pool and your mind’s eye summons the sea of humanity that crowded around it to hear Martin Luther King Jr. describe his dream. This is why the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the single mandatory stop on any visitor’s trip. The sense of action there, of being embraced by a live event, is unexpectedly powerful—especially for the visitor who pays attention to the tributes left daily by mothers and buddies and sons and strangers at the foot of the black granite wall.
By far the largest part of Washington’s charm, however, lies in the ease of life in the city. Though few Washingtonians would be caught dead admitting it, this place has a grace that we love and need.
Washington is probably the cleanest big city in America, formed as it was without heavy industry; with its strict zoning, it is also one of the most open, physically. (Those who hate it here tend to be those who love the muscular, modern architecture of New York and Chicago.) Large parts of the city proper are more suburban than urban, wreathed in the green that advertises one of the country’s best gardening climates.
The mix of city and suburb is at its most pleasant in Cleveland Park—now defined as an in-town neighborhood but high enough up a hill, some three miles northwest of the White House, that it was a summer retreat in Grover Cleveland’s era. A two-block stretch of Newark Street, lined with clapboard houses so large they have the gravity of small hotels, summarizes all that is generous about life in Washington.
Washington’s most well-known address, Georgetown, retains its slightly self-conscious beauty—but a gathering tension between its insular residents and its rowdy visitors is, for the first time in this neighborhood’s long history, marking it with controversy. Home-owners here have always considered their neighborhood to be a “Brigadoon,” with its quaint old shops: Scheele’s Market since 1891; Martin’s Tavern since 1933; the Francis Scott Key Book Shop since 1939.8 Once each spring residents even throw open their impeccable doors to the public for the famous Georgetown House Tour. Yet their ire has been raised by the twentysomethings who crowd M and Wisconsin Streets on weekends.
Perhaps the most stunning place in the city is Rock Creek Park—a dramatic defile, a forest, really, that stretches from the Potomac straight up through the city to Maryland. A leafy parkway takes a driver all the way from the Lincoln Memorial, past Cleveland Park and Shepherd Park, and finally across the Maryland state line, with only two stoplights along the way.
A change of administration—especially a change like the recent one, when a new party as well as a new president moves into the White House—sets off a mad scramble for status. With this administration, though, the status grab was shoved aside by President Clinton’s rocky start,9 and by the president himself, whose populist rhetoric and conspicuous common-man preferences made him hard to read. In fact, six months into the Clinton era, the administration’s style—particularly its idea of status—is still evolving. While the First Couple, for instance, chose to send Chelsea to Sidwell Friends School, the city’s school for children of political gentry, they have eschewed most of the other trappings of “elitist” life. Too busy with the national health care plan, Hillary has yet to change the White House china (although she did change her name back to Rodham Clinton after the election). And while her husband makes occasional appearances at the city’s popular restaurants, such as Galileo, he has also ordered the White House mess to stay up as late as he does.
This is an administration that is frenzied (Clinton is late to nearly every appointment) and folksy (one advisor, at the urging of vice president Al Gore, actually flashed his Texas Longhorn boxer shorts in front of the president, seated at his Oval Office desk). Onlookers, both locally and nationally, still find the passions of the president paradoxical, yet charming. He may be building a jogging track in the White House backyard, but his penchant for McDonald’s (just around the corner) has not faded. His bedside table is stacked with both mysteries (The Search for Temperance Moon by Douglas C. Jones) and intellectual nonfiction (Preparing for the Twenty-first Century by Paul Kennedy).
Yes, transplanted Arkansans have replaced many of the high-spending Republicans as figures in the city, and the “Mack” McLartys make quite a different statement from the Robert Mosbachers.10 But perhaps the most interesting dance to watch is the courtship between the new, imported powers and the leaders of Washington society.
- On Sale
- Oct 20, 2008
- Page Count
- 320 pages