Doubling Down

By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A new administration, a new opportunity to anoint new Washington power couples. (It's just what we do around here.)

But identifying them proves a bit harder than we thought. Rule No. 1 about power couples: They deny that they are power couples.

"I'm sort of intensely uncomfortable with the term; I'm not quite sure what it means," says Bob Bauer, President Obama's personal counsel and the Democratic Party's new lawyer, who was described by Politico as having "new, unmatched legal power."

His wife is Anita Dunn, an Obama campaign veteran who passed up a White House job and now reigns as the town's resident political consultant-strategist-genius. She seemingly has worked for every Democrat who ever lived, back to the Carter days. Newsweek, which we think should know, listed the couple among the new "D.C. powers."

Not so, says Dunn: "The idea of power couples is a very retro idea. We don't really have them among us now."

Interesting theory. But it contravenes Rule No. 2:

Washington must have power couples. It needs them, or at least the idea of them.

Because Washington, despite being the seat of democracy and all that, is fundamentally a place of pecking-order distinctions. There are striations in levels of access and power; major and minor signifiers. Does your government position afford you a shiny black Suburban (or two, or more) and a security detail, or just a reserved spot in your agency's garage? Small things convey prestige, unfettered passage, no second look from the Secret Service. Are you "hard-pinned" or "tin-pinned" when traveling with POTUS?

Badges and clearance levels matter: How far above "secret" are you? Were you "read into" the program?

Power couples, especially, make good subjects for envy. Outsiders might see them as charmed, somehow. They are the people who aggregate all the connections, the juice, the access. They drop the right names; they have a good place to entertain. They are deemed politically or socially important because somebody (usually us, the media) points out that they are politically or socially important.

Non-insiders want to be them: If only you could only get on their radar, on the list, maybe you'd be able to leach away some of their juice, too.

"People are drawn to them," says Ann Stock, who was a White House social secretary in the Clinton administration. "The biggest thing that power couples do is that they're conveners of people. They bring people to them, but they also radiate information out to others. That's the magnetism of it."

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