Women in the Senate: Flushed with progress

Al Kamen
Columnist June 12, 2013

Sometimes, when a glass ceiling cracks, it’s time to call in a construction crew. Such is the case in the Senate, where a historic number of female senators has meant traffic jams in the ladies’ room off the Senate floor. Now renovations are underway to make room.

Once the work is completed (after the August recess, the women are being told), they’ll have a nicer and more spacious facility befitting their number, which is 20 — a fifth of the Senate.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

“We’re even going to have a window,” enthused Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).

Of course, in this case, a john isn’t just a john — it’s a symbol. After the elections last year, the crowded ladies’ room became a running joke among the female senators, a visible indication that they had outgrown the small digs that had sufficed for years.

“It’s a really positive sign of how things have changed here,” Shaheen said of the construction dust.

For the moment, the project is causing a little inconvenience. During last night’s vote on the farm bill, we spotted Sen. Heidi Heitkamp hopping onto an elevator. The North Dakota Democrat told us she was in search of the alternate loo the women must use until the new one’s ready. Heitkamp good-naturedly bemoaned that as a freshman newcomer to the labyrinthine halls of the Capitol, she’s still learning her way around.

“Just when I get to know where I’m going, I have to find somewhere new,” she said.

Not quite Emily Post

If you notice folks around Foggy Bottom practicing their posture by balancing books on their heads, that might be a homework assignment: “Charm school,” the term given to the crash-course program for potential ambassadors, is in session at the State Department.

A handful of would-be diplomats and their spouses are getting schooled in the finer points of their new jobs. The curriculum typically includes training in the responsibilities and authorities of an ambassador, how to run an embassy, the structure of the State Department, and how to handle the media. Security, we hear, is increasingly being emphasized.

It’s unclear how large the current class is, but we understand it’s made up of both nominated candidates and those whose announcements are imminent.

One former ambassador says “charm school” is a misnomer for a rigorously educational and informational session. “Trust me, it’s not about china and teacups,” the graduate said. “It’s about the belly of the beast. It’s ‘Here’s how it all works.’ ”

Much of the training at these group sessions focuses on legalese, including what authority an ambassador has, how to interact with U.S. military overseas and how to handle a budget. One of the biggest challenges for private-sector types, we hear, is learning how to decode the alphabet soup of the State Department.

“I don’t care how good you think you are,” one ambassador told us, it’s indispensable. “First, they tell you how to eat,” he said, meaning “you better have at least half your dinner guests be local leaders or you’ll be paying out of your own pocket.”

Similarly, “you have to have two liquor cabinets,” one for you and friends and one for dignitaries, and you have to return the leftover booze to the proper cabinet.

“Don’t ever, ever, let your wife use the car,” he said. “She can only be in it when you’re in it.”

Finally, “they teach you what to do if you’re taken hostage,” he said. “If they [the bad guys] are masked, they may not kill you, because you can’t identify them,” he said. “If they’re not masked, figure out some way to get out of there.”

Once it’s over, it’s not yet time for “Pomp and Circumstance.” Training is ongoing, including country-specific briefings on customs, politics and economics.

And while there may be no workshops on elocution or silverware usage, some of the advice at the government’s most exclusive finishing school is about how to present oneself. In “Vera and the Ambassador,” in which Donald Blinken and his wife, Vera, recount his 1990s stint as ambassador to Hungary, Blinken (father of current deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken) describes a media-training session in which a speech coach subjected him to on-screen mock interviews. She “praised my performance but told me to bring a lot of glue to Hungary — ‘to glue your hands together.’ ”

A new beginning

It helps to have a sense of humor when you’re about to take on what might be the least-cushy diplomatic post in the world. Deborah Jones, the new ambassador to Libya — who is succeeding Chris Stevens, who was killed in the embassy attacks in Benghazi last year — managed to do just that.

During her Tuesday swearing-in ceremony, Jones, a career diplomat, likened such events to weddings. “Your first is elaborate and large,” she told the crowd. “Your second, a small gathering before the justice of the peace — wiser and more sober about the nature of the journey you are about to embark.”

But she said the “hoopla” was needed in this case. “Our State Department family needed it,” she added. “It is the weddings, with their optimism and promise of new life, that get us through the moments of grief that life invariably presents, the grief we now associate with Libya and the loss of our colleagues.”

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop
. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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