Flaunt What You've Got

By Ruth Marcus
Monday, December 5, 2005

It was the $1,260 thigh-high giraffe-print boots that started me thinking about Jack Abramoff, Benjamin Ladner and how Washington has changed.

I happened to notice the boots as I was flipping through the latest issue of DC, "The magazine of luxury lifestyle." Oversized, overstuffed with ads for oversized jewels and undersized clothes, DC is one of a trio of glossy magazines launched this year to appeal to the region's ultra-high-end market.

I don't expect -- possibly not even the people who put out DC expect -- to see anyone actually wearing these boots anytime soon. Rather, the boots -- and the $9,100 Louis Vuitton carpet bag with ostrich trim and the $1,900 mink throw featured in the same spread -- symbolize a growing Washington phenomenon: extreme wealth.

In the tripartite national division of labor, New York will always be more about money, Los Angeles about glamour, Washington about power. And Washington, of course, has always had its moneyed denizens. It attracted those who arrived with their fortunes, seeking the power that money could buy, and it produced some who made their fortunes here.

But if having money was just fine, flaunting it was bad form. Writing about her childhood as the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Washington, albeit one with a fortune made on Wall Street, Katharine Graham recalled: "There was such an aversion to talking about money or our wealth that, ironically, there was, in some odd ways, a fairly spartan quality to our lives."

What's different about Washington in this latest Gilded Age is the amount of money sloshing around this city -- this region, actually -- and the ostentatious display thereof. Consider: The number of households in the Washington area with more than $1 million in investable assets (that is, not including real estate) grew 9.6 percent between 2003 and 2004 alone, according to the demographic research firm Claritas. By contrast, total households in the region rose just 2.5 percent.

If the Old Washington path to real riches was real estate, the New Washington boasts multiple ways to that end. The region now features its own merchant bankers, its own high-tech moguls, its own entrepreneurial barons overseeing enterprises of indeterminate purpose but with endlessly flowing government contracts. Once, a life in law or lobbying was a reliable route to comfortable prosperity; now, as the stakes have gotten higher, so have the partnership draws. Seven-figure incomes are scarcely noteworthy.

And if you doubt that these folks are flaunting it, take a drive out along River Road into Maryland, or Georgetown Pike in Virginia, and look at the acres upon acres of elephantine monstrosities, turreted and Palladian windowed and mega-garaged. Or look at the magnificent quarter-mile arising in Chevy Chase, where Barneys, Jimmy Choo and Dior are replacing a dowdy suburban strip mall. Not exactly Sparta on the Potomac.

The result is a strange version of increasing income inequality, Washington-style: a growing gap between the haves and the have-powers. This doesn't excuse, but it may help explain, some of the capital's more repulsive recent episodes.

The wretched excesses of the former American University president and his wife, for instance, can be attributed in part to their constant proximity to wealthy donors and immersion in Washington's social scene. If everyone else is having their drivers take them to the luncheon with the ambassador's wife, how could Nancy Ladner drive her own car -- even if it was a black 2003 Infiniti Q45?

If everyone else has a private chef, why not have yours create a 13-course dinner to celebrate your son's engagement? Why not start with White Truffle & Porcini Egg Custard & American Sturgeon Caviar? Some of the Ladners' enablers on the university board probably didn't notice anything out of the ordinary about their conduct.

The same distorting glimpse of how the other half lives, I think, played a role in the still unfolding lobbying scandal. Jack Abramoff and his partner in greed, Michael Scanlon, collected $82 million between 2000 and 2004 -- and that was just from Indian tribes. Pitching the president of Gabon to sign him up as a lobbyist -- a mere $9 million could purchase a presidential meeting, Abramoff suggested -- the lobbyist confidently outlined his requirements: "if I am required to travel, it must be on the basis by which I travel anywhere, being in a private aircraft."

His relationships with members of Congress and their staffs made Abramoff a wealthy man. How must that have felt to those with their noses still pressed to the other side of the revolving door? Why, you can imagine them thinking, shouldn't they at least get a few rounds of golf at St. Andrews out of the deal? Certainly, members of Congress have always had the opportunity, if they were so inclined, to entertain and engorge themselves on lobbyists' tabs. But it's that much more tempting, I suspect, when the other person's wallet is so obviously overflowing.

I was finishing up this column -- how to get back to those boots? -- when the news broke about California Republican Randy Cunningham's plea to taking $2.4 million in bribes. And as I read through the court papers detailing the luxury graft -- the Louis Phillipe period commode (circa 1850), the Rolls, the yachts, the silver candelabras and Persian rugs -- I thought: This all sounds awfully familiar. If only the paper were glossier, it would read a lot, in fact, like DC magazine.

marcusr@washpost.com


© 2005 The Washington Post Company