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In Washington, That Letdown Feeling

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Crisis as Ritual (Sally Quinn, Washington Post Magazine, Feb. 22)

By Sally Quinn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 2, 1998; Page E01

"This beautiful capital," President Clinton said in his first inaugural address, "is often a place of intrigue and calculation. Powerful people maneuver for position and worry endlessly about who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down, forgetting those people whose toil and sweat sends us here and pays our way." With that, the new president sent a clear challenge to an already suspicious Washington Establishment.

And now, five years later, here was Clinton's trusted adviser Rahm Emanuel, finishing up a speech at a fund-raiser to fight spina bifida before a gathering that could only be described as Establishment Washington.

"There are a lot of people in America who look at what we do here in Washington with nothing but cynicism," said Emanuel. "Heck, there are a lot of people in Washington who look at us with nothing but cynicism." But, he went on, "there are good people here. Decent people on both sides of the political aisle and on both sides of the reporter's notebook."

Emanuel, unlike the president, had become part of the Washington Establishment. "This is one of those extraordinary moments," he said at the fund-raiser, "when we come together as a community here in Washington -- setting aside personal, political and professional differences."

Actually, it wasn't extraordinary. When Establishment Washingtonians of all persuasions gather to support their own, they are not unlike any other small community in the country.

On this evening, the roster included Cabinet members Madeleine Albright and Donna Shalala, Republicans Sen. John McCain and Rep. Bob Livingston, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, PBS's Jim Lehrer and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, all behaving like the pals that they are. On display was a side of Washington that most people in this country never see. For all their apparent public differences, the people in the room that night were coming together with genuine affection and emotion to support their friends -- the Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt and his wife, CNN's Judy Woodruff, whose son Jeffrey has spina bifida.

But this particular community happens to be in the nation's capital. And the people in it are the so-called Beltway Insiders -- the high-level members of Congress, policymakers, lawyers, military brass, diplomats and journalists who have a proprietary interest in Washington and identify with it.

They call the capital city their "town."

And their town has been turned upside down.

With some exceptions, the Washington Establishment is outraged by the president's behavior in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The polls show that a majority of Americans do not share that outrage. Around the nation, people are disgusted but want to move on; in Washington, despite Clinton's gains with the budget and the Mideast peace talks, people want some formal acknowledgment that the president's behavior has been unacceptable. They want this, they say, not just for the sake of the community, but for the sake of the country and the presidency as well.

In addition to the polls and surveys, this disconnect between the Washington Establishment and the rest of the country is evident on TV and radio talk shows and in interviews and conversations with more than 100 Washingtonians for this article. The din about the scandal has subsided in the news as politicians and journalists fan out across the country before tomorrow's elections. But in Washington, interest remains high. The reasons are varied, and they intertwine.

1. THIS IS THEIR HOME. This is where they spend their lives, raise their families, participate in community activities, take pride in their surroundings. They feel Washington has been brought into disrepute by the actions of the president.

"It's much more personal here," says pollster Geoff Garin. "This is an affront to their world. It affects the dignity of the place where they live and work. . . . Clinton's behavior is unacceptable. If they did this at the local Elks Club hall in some other community it would be a big cause for concern."

"He came in here and he trashed the place," says Washington Post columnist David Broder, "and it's not his place."

"This is a company town," says retired senator Howard Baker, once Ronald Reagan's chief of staff. "We're up close and personal. The White House is the center around which our city revolves."

Bill Galston, former deputy domestic policy adviser to Clinton and now a professor at the University of Maryland, says of the scandal that "most people in Washington believe that most people in Washington are honorable and are trying to do the right thing. The basic thought is that to concede that this is normal and that everybody does it is to undermine a lifetime commitment to honorable public service."

"Everybody doesn't do it," says Jerry Rafshoon, Jimmy Carter's former communications director. "The president himself has said it was wrong."

Pollster Garin, president of Peter Hart Research Associates, says that the disconnect is not unlike the difference between the way men and women view the scandal. Just as many men are angry that Clinton's actions inspire the reaction "All men are like that," Washingtonians can't abide it that the rest of the country might think everyone here cheats and lies and abuses his subordinates the way the president has.

"This is a community in all kinds of ways," says ABC correspondent Cokie Roberts, whose parents both served in Congress. She is concerned that people outside Washington have a distorted view of those who live here. "The notion that we are some rarefied beings who breathe toxic air is ridiculous. . . . When something happens everybody gathers around. . . . It's a community of good people involved in a worthwhile pursuit. We think being a worthwhile public servant or journalist matters."

"This is our town," says Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the first Democrat to forcefully condemn the president's behavior. "We spend our lives involved in talking about, dealing with, working in government. It has reminded everybody what matters to them. You are embarrassed about what Bill Clinton's behavior says about the White House, the presidency, the government in general."

And many are offended that the principles that brought them to Washington in the first place are now seen to be unfashionable or illegitimate.

Muffie Cabot, who as Muffie Brandon served as social secretary to President and Nancy Reagan, regards the scene with despair. "This is a demoralized little village," she says. "People have come from all over the country to serve a higher calling and look what happened. They're so disillusioned. The emperor has no clothes. Watergate was pretty scary, but it wasn't quite as sordid as this."

"People felt a reverent attitude toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," says Tish Baldrige, who once worked there as Jacqueline Kennedy's social secretary and has been a frequent visitor since. "Now it's gone, now it's sleaze and dirt. We all feel terribly let down. It's very emotional. We want there to be standards. We're used to standards. When you think back to other presidents, they all had a lot of class. That's nonexistent now. It's sad for people in the White House. . . . I've never seen such bad morale in my life. They're not proud of their chief."

NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell adds a touch of neighborly concern. "We all know people who have been terribly damaged personally by this," she says. "Young White House aides who have been saddled by legal bills, longtime Clinton friends. . . . There is a small-town quality to the grief that is being felt, an overwhelming sadness at the waste of the nation's time and attention, at the opportunities lost."

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss sees this scandal not only from a historical perspective but from a resident's. "There's never been a sex scandal affecting a president while in office," he says. "In a distilled way, the sense of centeredness, stability and order depends on who is in the White House and what's going on there. When everything is turned upside down it affects our psyche more than someone who might be farming in Wyoming."

Lloyd Cutler, former White House counsel to Presidents Carter and Clinton and considered one of the few "wise men" left in Washington, gives yet another reason why people take the scandal more seriously here. "This is an excitement to us, a feeling of being in on it, and whichever part of the Washington milieu we come from, we want to play a part. That's why we're here."

2. THE LYING OFFENDS THEM. For both politicians and journalists, trust is the coin of the realm. Without trust, the system breaks down.

"We have our own set of village rules," says David Gergen, editor at large at U.S. News & World Report, who worked for both the Reagan and Clinton White House. "Sex did not violate those rules. The deep and searing violation took place when he not only lied to the country, but co-opted his friends and lied to them. That is one on which people choke.

"We all live together, we have a sense of community, there's a small-town quality here. We all understand we do certain things, we make certain compromises. But when you have gone over the line, you won't bring others into it. That is a cardinal rule of the village. You don't foul the nest."

"This is a contractual city," says Chris Matthews, who once was a top aide to the late Speaker of the House Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill. "There are no factories here. What we make are deals. It's a city based on bonds made and kept." The president, he went on, "has broken and shattered contracts publicly and shamefully. He violates the trust at the highest level of politics. Matthews, now a Washington columnist for the San Francisco Examiner and host of CNBC's "Hardball," also says, "There has to be a functional trust by reporters of the person they're covering. Clinton lies knowing that you know he's lying. It's brutal and it subjugates the person who's being lied to. I resent deeply being constantly lied to."

Republican Alan Simpson, a longtime Washington insider now teaching at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government in Boston, still identifies with his colleagues in this situation. "There is only one question here," says the former senator. "Did he raise his right hand and lie about it and then lie again? Lying under oath -- that to me is all there is. Did this man, whether he is head of the hardware store or the president or applying for a game and fishing license, raise his hand and say, 'This is the truth'?"

Certainly Clinton is not the first president to lie. But the scope and circumstances of his lying enrage Establishment Washington.

"His behavior," says Lieberman, "is so over the edge. What is troubling is the deceit, the failure to own up to it. Before this is over the truth must be told."

Retiring Rep. Paul McHale was the first Democrat to call for Clinton's resignation. "When the president spoke last January I believed him," says McHale, of Pennsylvania. "I didn't think he would have the audacity, the lack of integrity to mislead the American people . . . but then he pervasively lied under oath. He was blatantly, intentionally untruthful. I would not accept as president of the United States a man who has lied under oath."

Democrats find themselves in a dicey position regarding the president, and most declined to speak about the issue at all. McHale says of his friend and colleague House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, "Dick has party loyalties and personal convictions. His personal convictions are more critical [about Clinton] than he was able to state in public."

And the wife of a Democratic senator who declined to comment spoke on condition of anonymity. "We take the issue of perjury seriously here," she said. Her husband, she said, thinks the president "lacks character and commitment. He's very clear about it."

During the last year, the nation's journalistic community has suffered through a series of credibility crises: Mike Barnicle's and Patricia Smith's disgrace and departure from the Boston Globe, two CNN producers involved in the network's discredited sarin report, and compulsive fabricator Stephen Glass of the New Republic.

Washington's insider press corps has shown little pity for any of them. The feeling toward the president is similar.

"The judgment is harsher in Washington," says The Post's Broder. "We don't like being lied to."

3. ESTABLISHMENT WASHINGTON REVERES THE OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENCY. If Washington is a tribe, then the president is the tribal chief. He cannot be seen to dishonor the tribe.

Ken Duberstein was President Bush's chief of staff. "Every time I went into the Oval office I put on a coat and tie," he says. "Ronald Reagan put on a coat and tie, even on weekends. Reagan used to say this was not his office, it was the president's office, it was the people's office. He was only the temporary occupant."

For Roger Wilkins, history professor at George Mason University, "the White House is the holiest of America's secular shrines." Wilkins sees the president's conduct as "a betrayal of the ideals we have for the metaphysical office and the physical office" of the presidency. "For this man to say that his conduct of exploitation of this girl is private in a place we revere, a place we pay for, a place we own is not only absurd, it's condescending and insulting."

Former Democratic senator Sam Nunn, long a powerful player on the Washington scene, feels it is impossible to lead without trust. "People say that moral authority is not needed . . . but the trust factor is the single most important factor of leadership whether it be for a minister, a CEO, a senator or a president."

Democrats as well as Republicans are very angry at the president, says retiring Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, who emphasizes what he sees as a lack of respect for the office of president. "I'm angry at him," he says. "I'd like to kick his butt across the White House lawn."

Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin knows something about the office and "the authority, the esteem, the respect in which the presidency is held. When you take the precious resource of a president's ability to mobilize people and employ that resource into a campaign of deception . . . when you lie to the country, you are using your authority to undermine the presidency."

4. THEY UNDERSTAND THE CONSEQUENCES. Even as the president wins budget victories and conducts Middle East diplomacy, insider Washington feels that the scandal will ultimately take its toll on programs and policies.

Presidential lawyer Bob Bennett told a revealing anecdote to an audience at the National Press Club recently. One day, he said, he had had four substantial conversations with the president about the Paula Jones case. At one point, he said, "I had to cut it short and the president said, 'Yeah, I've got to get back to Saddam Hussein.' And I said, 'My God, this is lunacy that I'm taking his time on this stuff.' "

This is only bound to get worse. In an atmosphere of impeachment hearings, says former Clinton senior adviser George Stephanopoulos, now an ABC commentator, "you can't create a debate about a lot of things, you can't put other issues before the country, you can't manage a crisis, you can't negotiate."

NBC's Mitchell, who is married to Fed Chairman Greenspan, agrees. "There's no way any president going through this process can be able to focus," she says, "whether on Kosovo or the economic crisis. It's just a tragedy for everyone."

"Americans will be hurt by his reckless behavior," says Rep. McHale. "We might have enacted into law a patients' health care rights bill, campaign finance reform, comprehensive tobacco legislation. The president was not engaged on these issues. You can't do Paula Jones, the lawyers, tobacco and Monica all at once. Compartmentalization is a nice idea but not a reality."

"It's a canard to say that this is a private matter," says Wall Street Journal columnist Al Hunt. "It's had a profound effect on governance."

Historian Stephen Ambrose, who wrote a biography of Richard Nixon, says that Nixon was totally distracted during the last months of the Watergate scandal. He estimates that Nixon spent 95 percent of his time on it. And he estimates that Clinton does the same, though he says that Clinton is "amazing at how he can go out in public and focus on what is at hand." But 95 percent of his time is still a good guess, he says, because "everything depends on it."

"Ambrose is right on both scores," says Howard Baker. "But the difference between Clinton and Nixon is that Nixon resigned because he couldn't stand it. Clinton is not cut from the same cloth. He can compartmentalize. I drive by the White House at night and think, 'What in the world are they doing right now? How do they function?' I would be destroyed."

For Baker, the most serious consequence of the scandal is "the diminished capability for the U.S. to lead by moral example . . . the impact on Kosovo and Iraq. I can just see Saddam Hussein licking his chops seeing that the U.S. is less willing to respond."

Washington insiders are particularly appalled by the president's recklessness, given the fact that he was already facing the Jones lawsuit. "What angers people here," says political writer Elizabeth Drew, is that "he was on notice. There are two different kinds of judgments -- one, how terrible and two, how stupid. Even if this doesn't warrant throwing him out of office, there are too many people who are bothered by it morally and there are others who want to take the opportunity to exploit his vulnerability. The result is an awful lot of wreckage and damage."

Robert Reich, who was Clinton's labor secretary in his first term, can't understand how Clinton could have taken such a risk. "In retrospect," he says, "the pattern becomes clear. It makes the recklessness less understandable. Given the danger this has posed to his presidency, you'd think he'd take extra precautions against this compulsion. It makes his apology less credible. If this is a pattern, why should anybody believe it will change?

"We have a seriously crippled president for the next two years," says Reich. "He'll have a few good moments, he'll go through the motions, there will be adoring crowds, he'll use his bully pulpit and maybe he will have something he can call a victory. But essentially it's over."

For reasons they cannot understand, Washington insiders come across to the public as judgmental puritans, shocked and horrified by the president's sexual misconduct. While most people have gossiped about the salacious details as the scandal unfolded, they say this was not what has outraged them. Of all those interviewed, not one mentioned sex or adultery as a matter of concern. "Sex," says Gergen, "is acceptable as long as it's discreet." As Wilkins puts it, with a chuckle, "God knows, most people in Washington have led robust sexual lives."

Similarly, independent counsel Ken Starr is not seen by many Washington insiders as an out-of-control prudish crusader. Starr is a Washington insider, too. He has lived and worked here for years. He had a reputation as a fair and honest judge. He has many friends in both parties. Their wives are friendly with one another and their children go to the same schools. He is seen as someone who is operating under a legal statute, with a mandate from the attorney general and a three-judge panel, although there are some lawyers here who have questioned some of Starr's most aggressive tactics.

Finally, as for Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp, they are seen as essentially irrelevant in terms of the issues of concern here.

Privately, many in Establishment Washington would like to see Bill Clinton resign and spare the country, the presidency and the city any more humiliation.

But if Clinton won't resign, what do they want instead?

Many say the impeachment inquiry should go forth in some fashion, if only to clarify and explain the offenses and to let the system work. The system is important here.

Yet a Senate vote to oust Clinton or some form of censure appears to make them nervous, mainly because they fear it would weaken the office.

"We don't want to hang him," says Gergen. "There's a sense that we all want to clear this up. And there's a maddening frustration that the political system doesn't have a set of penalties for this kind of activity."

"The founding fathers let us down," adds Beschloss.

"He shouldn't get by with it," says Baker. "The question is, what can the Senate do short of removal?"

Certainly the Washington insiders have their own interests at heart. Whenever a new president comes to town, he will be courted assiduously by those whose livelihoods depend on access to power. But over the years of the Clinton White House, that interest in being close to the administration has diminished, particularly after the Lewinsky story broke in January. Then, after Aug. 17, many people's self-interest was overtaken by their disgust and outrage.

Even those who have to deal with or publicly support the administration do so grudgingly. They say that regardless of whether his fortunes improve, Bill Clinton has essentially lost the Washington Establishment for good.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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