From The Washington Post Magazine
Crisis as Ritual
When the Alarm Sounds, Washington's Establishment Knows Just Where To Stand
By Sally Quinn
When Vernon Jordan stood in front of the cameras in late January to declare that at no time did he encourage Monica Lewinsky to lie, most of the country observed a solemn and resolute man defending his reputation before a horde of unruly and scandal-hungry journalists. But those who knew Jordan well -- much of the Washington press corps and nearly everyone in the capital's establishment -- also noticed, at times, a slight smile on his face, and the fact that his eyes, if not exactly twinkling, were bright.
When Jordan looked out from the lectern that day, what he saw was in fact not a mob of rabid reporters, but a collection of friends and colleagues, people with whom he had dined and socialized and transacted business for many years. And Jordan understood as well as they did that this was the beginning of a highly formalized Washington dance, one that begins with any serious or salacious political scandal. They had all been through this many times before.
In a sense, the quality or the nature or the details of these scandals is not what's important to those participating in the dance. What matters to them is the scandal's impact on the capital's permanent institutions and permanent classes -- the city's establishment, its power elite -- all of which Vernon Jordan happens to embody.
When a scandal of this sort breaks, it can be divisive for the establishment, because people can be forced to choose sides and some may be caught up in expensive and serious legal proceedings. But scandals can also be cohesive, in part because the elite rallies to preserve its institutions against interlopers who might corrode or undermine them, and in part because everyone understands exactly how to behave, what role to play, what position to take.
This is what makes it difficult for an outsider, watching the Monica Lewinsky scandal unfold on television, to fully understand what is happening -- what those in the power elite do or say in public, for the cameras or in print, may have absolutely zero relation to what they really think and feel. In fact, it rarely does.
Many Washington insiders, from Capitol Hill, to the media, to the legal community, to Clinton loyalists, to officials from former administrations, believe privately that Bill Clinton had some sort of sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky and lied about it. Many of them will say privately that they feel that he has lowered the standard of the presidency to a new level. Whatever the public at large might think about the insiders' informal consensus -- and judging from the polls, they hold that consensus in contempt -- it is not something that surfaces at all during the ritualized public or media commentary.
What occurs during these sorts of scandals is akin to the Virginia reel, a formal, stylized and postured dance popular during the time of the American Revolution. In the reel, couples faced each other in parallel lines and worked their way up the lines until it was their turn on the dance floor. There was a clear progression to the head of the line -- each couple had their moment, with everyone watching to see how well they performed. It was completely staged -- no surprises, no spontaneity.
So it goes as various parts of the Washington establishment take up their positions for the scandal dance, assume their roles and separate themselves from one another.
The scene at the State of the Union address in late January was the quintessential Washington ritual. The public saw the president being enthusiastically received by the entire government: the Supreme Court, the Cabinet, the Senate, the House. Shouts of approval, standing ovations over and over, interruptions of applause, the first lady smiling in the balcony, the speaker of the House appearing to approve -- you might have thought that President Clinton had just won a war. But this, of course, was nothing but a show. Knowing what so many of these people really think about the president, one almost expected the entire company to stand up, face the cameras and take a bow after the speech was finished, so accomplished and polished a performance it was. Sen. John McCain was right when he remarked that anyone who would expect anything else doesn't know Washington.
Another example: The Lewinsky story "broke" as if it were a bolt from the blue, but the fact that Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff had been working on a piece about Lewinsky was known among journalists for months before the story was reported. This is routinely true in Washington, not only about facts that are known here and not reported, but also about opinions that, if made known, could affect public perception in the rest of the country.
At a black tie dinner at the British Embassy not long after the Lewinsky scandal broke, you could sense the distinction Washington makes between one of its own -- Vernon Jordan -- and the president he serves, who is not of this town and who will be gone in less than three years, if not sooner. Thrown by the stylish new ambassador and his wife, Christopher and Catherine Meyer, the party drew Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Mrs. Clinton's adviser Melanne Verveer, among others. Of course, the topic of the hour was the latest scandal, and whether the president would survive it. Quietly, everyone was talking about it, but always out of range of those who were closely connected to the president and the first lady.
The dinner provided a chance for elite Washington to get its first glimpse of Jordan after his press conference. And Jordan was his ebullient self, responding to the overly hearty greetings and jokes of his friends with his usual good humor. The wagons had circled. Positions had been taken. That same day, Albright had emerged from the White House after meeting with the president and had declared that she believed Clinton was telling the truth.
On Capitol Hill, they know the dance steps, too. Those in Congress are set apart from the rest of Washington both physically and psychologically. They are insiders representing outsiders. Many were relieved to be out of session when the scandal broke. Senators and House members are dependent on the mood of the voters. They needed to see the polls. The emerging predicament was especially difficult for the Democrats, many of whom, in private, hold no brief for Bill Clinton. They would have hated to see a Democrat fail, but many of them also believe they would have a better shot at the congressional elections in November if Al Gore were in the White House. As the scandal broke, everyone on the Hill stayed solemn in public. The fate of the nation and all of that.
Then there's the press. Ah, the press. Many in the media have grown cynical since Watergate, in part because of the lies and cynicism and coverups that are routinely encountered when reporting about politics in Washington. Some feel betrayed by how the system works, and this affects how they see things. Yet they know that the public despises the messenger, so the public position of so many journalists has to be one of solemnity, almost equal to that of the politicians. Soul-searching and intense, harsh self-examination are also part of the reel they dance. Gravity was the mood of the day when the story first broke. The colors that commentators wore on television were somber. No bright pinks and oranges for the women -- everyone was in grays, navys, blacks and browns. (Hillary Clinton was the exception. She was wearing shocking pinks or buttercup yellows. But she had a different message to send.)
The men wore dark suits, white shirts and funereal ties. This was no time for the appearance of gaiety. But their public colors belie the extraordinary black humor that they revel in behind the scenes. They often feel as conflicted as those on the Hill. Many came to Washington feeling just as idealistic and patriotic as those in Congress about government and the presidency. Disillusioned by those in office, their goal now is simply pursuit of the story. And pursuit of the story is fun. You just can't say that out loud.
The Lewinsky story is electrifying to them. This one has the thrill of the chase. Everyone wants to get to the truth. And they want to get to it first. Washington journalists have not been as energized over a story since Watergate.
Washington women are another matter. They meet at luncheons and teas sometimes to discuss the scandal, other times to avoid it. At a lunch with Republican women a few weeks ago, some simply dismissed Bill Clinton as "that man" with the same degree of contempt the president voiced when he referred to Lewinsky as "that woman." When a Bible discussion group that included several political wives met at a Washington embassy recently, a theme of the conversation was the way Lewinsky was being vilified, and many of the women expressed real concern for her. One of the women present recounted the biblical story of David and Bathsheba. King David seduced Bathsheba and she left her husband for him. But God chastised David -- and not Bathsheba. The message of the story, the woman retelling it explained, is that he who holds the power also holds the responsibility -- a man in power has the responsibility to protect, and to avoid causing harm to, those who serve under him.
Washington women are used to these scandals, used to the winking and the snickering, used to the prevailing "boys will be boys" mentality. Many of them in public life have suffered through rumors and gossip and even legitimate news about their own husbands or the husbands of friends. But they are particularly outraged at the notion that this is a man's town and that men are forgiven transgressions that would never be tolerated in a woman politician or senior official. Many women found the downplaying of the Dick Morris affair -- the relegation of it to dinner party jokes -- especially sickening.
One of the most astonishing events after the Lewinsky scandal broke was a tea hosted by Ann Jordan (the wife of Vernon Jordan), Ellie Trowbridge and Buffy Cafritz, in honor of Capricia Marshall, Hillary Clinton's social secretary. Most of the Washington establishment women were there. Although the occasion was ostensibly to honor Marshall, in the circumstances, it was really to honor Ann Jordan, one of the most popular and beloved women in town. Ellie Trowbridge toasted Marshall for what Hemingway once called "grace under pressure," but the remark was really more apt as a description of Ann Jordan. Perhaps out of deference to her, perhaps out of respect for everyone's place in the Virginia reel, "it" was not discussed openly. Everyone was extremely polite and deferential to everyone else, and the cucumber sandwiches were the hottest draw of the afternoon.
Finally, of course, there is the president and the first lady. As with other residents of the White House before them, because of the relatively short time they stay in Washington, and because they have so little intimate contact with the establishment community, they often don't understand their role in the dance. From the point of view of many who are entrenched in Washington, Hillary and Bill Clinton are not seen -- nor are many presidents -- as actually part of the city. They are viewed as having some sort of alien status, as being outsiders. Some in the permanent Washington establishment even view presidents and those they bring with them as being like occupying armies, rather than as welcome participants in the process of government.
There are always those in each administration who stay, and who then become part of the establishment, but presidents never stay.
Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George Bush were of Washington, having lived and worked here for years before they assumed the office of the presidency. Therefore they were initially accepted as part of the community. George Bush was especially welcomed by the establishment. It was, briefly, as though an actual member of the community was in the White House. But even he, as did the others, became distanced after a few years. The White House gate often acts as a psychological barrier between the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the people in the establishment whose support he most needs to succeed.
The role of friendship is always tricky in these scandals. The Nixon scandals destroyed many friendships among Republicans. The Lewinsky scandal has the potential to do the same among Democrats. Everyone in the establishment is aware of that. People try to be particularly nice to one another. They send flowers and presents and make phone calls to solidify their friendships and to reassure themselves that this is only another scandal and that this, too, shall pass.
Besides. You never know.
The line most often heard inside establishment Washington after the scandal broke was this: "I think Al Gore is a truly decent man. And I just adore Tipper."
Sally Quinn is a Washington author and journalist.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company