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Doubling Down

By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 10, 2009; C01

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."

Why do we need them? "It's human nature," she says. "People just want to know. . . . It's a new administration in town, and people want to know them and feel like they're connected."

To a certain extent, power couples never go away. The names of yesterday's couples still float like motes through the musty politico-media celebrisphere. James Carville and Mary Matalin. The Dingells, John and Debbie. Republicans Susan Molinari and Bill Paxon, formerly of Congress. Monied Democrats Beth and Ron Dozoretz, not to be confused with monied Democrats Mark Penn and Nancy Jacobson. Andrea Mitchell and Alan Greenspan. Victoria Toensing and Joe DiGenova. Bob and Elizabeth Dole. Elaine Chao and Mitch McConnell.

And who can forget Bob and Georgette Mosbacher? (We did, until we searched in the clips for hits on "power couple.")

Sometimes, the designation ends when the partners split. Elizabeth Birch and Hilary Rosen, once called Washington's first same-sex power couple, are no longer a couple. Republican lobbyist Juleanna Glover, who almost singlehandedly revived the idea of a Washington hostess-to-know, still throws fine parties, but is now divorced from Jeffrey Weiss, also a lobbyist. (She's now with Dal LaMagna, a progressive activist.)

Some couples burn too brightly and leave town: Remember Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame? Some move on after decades, such as Bob Shrum and Marylouise Oates, who leave behind fond memories of their casual soirees and their nicknames, "Oatsie" and "Shrummy." (Although to this day, they deny being a power couple: "That was not us," Oates swears. "Shrummy did campaigns and I made a lot of meatloaf.")

Paths to Power

There are different breeds of power couples. Sometimes each person asserts a singular identity, with different social bases and circles of people that intersect like a Venn diagram, creating a multiplier effect. Into that category we'd put Richard Holbrooke -- the go-to diplomat for President Bill Clinton and now Obama -- and his wife, Kati Marton, the author (who, don't you know, used to be married to Peter Jennings). Jay Carney and Claire Shipman were once merely a media couple with individual perches -- at Time magazine and ABC News, respectively. Now Carney has gone to work for Veep Joe Biden, amplifying the partnership's collective juice.

Then there are top-liners like Eric Holder and Sharon Malone. He, of course, is the new attorney general; she's a longtime Washington OB-GYN and advocate for teen pregnancy prevention. In their nearly 20 years together, they have forged a formidable medical-legal and civic-social alliance.

Holder got to know Barack Obama four years ago at one of those fabled "Washington dinner parties" -- a gathering hosted by Ann Walker Marchant, chief executive of a PR firm and former Clinton aide, to welcome the new senator from Illinois. She seated Holder next to Obama: "This is what Ann does," Malone says. "She put them together because she thought they had a lot in common, and it turned out to be true." Holder later became candidate Obama's senior legal adviser.

And now for the bonus points: Eleven years ago, Malone had delivered Rahm Emanuel's eldest child. "Rahm's son was luck of the draw," she explains. "I happened to be on call that night," subbing for Emanuel's wife Amy's doctor. The doctor wasn't friends with them, but Holder, as a former Clinton deputy attorney general, knew Emanuel professionally, of course.

So we have to ask: Are Holder and Malone finally now a power couple?

"No, it sounds so 'ohhhh . . . get over yourself,' " she says, adding for good measure, "I said no."

Family Matters

Let's say you and your spouse both take important jobs in the Obama administration -- isn't that the very definition of a power couple? (Take a guess.)

"We don't consider ourselves to be that," says John Norris, newly arrived from Iowa to serve as chief of staff to Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture. "That isn't what trips our trigger."

Norris, 50, is married to Jackie Norris, 38, the chief of staff to Michelle Obama. They got engaged at the 2000 Democratic National Convention -- could there be more propitious launch into political coupledom? Later, as Iowa state director for Obama's campaign, Jackie Norris was crucial to delivering his first big win.

Now the Norrises have three young sons, including twins. Their life revolves around them, not "who's who at the zoo and what bars we can go to," as Jackie Norris put it. To the extent that power coupledom requires hitting the cocktail circuit -- the embassy parties, the charity galas, the book signings -- "I think we'll fall out of that pretty quickly," agrees John Norris. "My priority is to get home and play in the garden with my kids."

And in the new Washington landscape, it may raise one's stature to have kids: They expand your social circle and allow you to tap into the whole family-friendly "work-life balance" thing Michelle Obama always talks about. One insider recalls going to a function when the Obamas were staying at Blair House and noticing all these kids running around and playing on Wiis upstairs. (Children, like dogs and cats, have always made good conversation pieces.)

On the other hand, consider what White House Chief of Staff Emanuel recently told the New Yorker, in explaining his hesitation, as a father of three, to take the job: "No matter what every White House says -- 'We're going to be great, family-friendly' -- well, the only family we're going to be good for is the First Family. Everybody else is, like, really a distant second, O.K.?"

Some administration couples, with kids or not, almost certainly won't have time to do anything besides work themselves into exhaustion. Into this category we'd put Dan Pfeiffer, 33, and his wife, Sarah Feinberg, 31, both of whom toil in pressure-cooker jobs -- he as deputy White House communications director, she a senior adviser to Emanuel.

An acquaintance touted them as belonging at the "top of the list" of any story about power couples. They declined to comment. Via BlackBerry, of course.

Catering to the Crowd

Rule No. 3: To be a full-fledged power couple, you need a decent-size kitchen and/or the number of a good caterer. This is essential to staging one of those fabled dinner parties, which are usually held in a baroque-looking house somewhere on the Hill, Kalorama or Georgetown. But not always: Obama brings with him some young, urban cool; a nice downtown apartment will do.

Rufus Gifford, 34, and Jeremy Bernard, 44 -- leading candidates for Washington's new same-sex power couple -- just migrated from Los Angeles, where they raised millions of dollars for Obama. They landed a two-bedroom apartment in a trendy "green" building in Logan Circle.

"We had that conversation: Is it big enough to entertain," says Gifford, new finance director for the Democratic National Committee. "It's certainly more confined that we are used to, but we can fit a cocktail party for a couple dozen people."

Initiated to Washington ways as deputy treasurer for the Clinton '93 inaugural committee, Bernard has been appointed White House liaison to the National Endowment for the Humanities. He and Gifford have been together three years; they placed on Out magazine's 2008 list of the country's 50 most influential gays.

"We had a certain amount of juice out West, but we're newcomers here and we're going to have to work hard," says Gifford, a former entertainment industry executive. He and Bernard mainly knew the Obama Chicago crowd from a distance, by phone. Here, "we will have time to cement relationships, and to expand the circle . . . and see what makes this town tick."

(That's easy: access to power, a.k.a. juice.)

In the Wings

Rule No. 4: Today's fresh-faced kids in the administration will be tomorrow's power couples. They meet and mate in the hothouse of the campaign, improbably end up in Washington, awestruck, and proceed to marry among their own kind.

Consider this 2002 wedding announcement in the New York Times for Antony Blinken and Evan Ryan:

"Ms. Ryan and Mr. Blinken met in 1995 at the White House, where she was special assistant to Mrs. Clinton's chief of staff and he was a special assistant to the President and the senior director for speechwriting."

Now when people are asked to nominate new power couples, the names Tony and Evan inevitably come up. Both work for Biden: He as national security adviser, she as the veep's aide for intergovernmental affairs and public liaison.

Titles matter for tomorrow's power couples, but not too much. Even the lowly assistant press secretary who merits no office window can always say, "I worked in Washington for President Obama."

It's a chit to dine out on and a résumé-booster for life. Because you were there, in the mix, and you knew them. (Even if they didn't know you.)

Which brings us to Rule No. 5:

There is only one Washington power couple who really matter, and everybody knows it. They live at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

No wonder everyone else invokes Rule No. 1.

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