When the history of political Washington at the turn of the millennium is written, its publisher, eager to boost sales, naturally will want a fetching illustration for the dust jacket. It is herewith suggested that the hands-down perfect picture--one that tells everything anyone needs to know about the culture of what insiders like to call "this town"--appeared in this newspaper's Reliable Source column last week.
The picture showed two jowly, porcine, besuited men grinning at each other, and with jolly good reason. They are Haley Barbour and Tommy Boggs, described by The Reliable Source as "super-lobbyists," and they were announcing their joint venture, a restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue called the Caucus Room, a red-meat emporium that "will also serve up power, influence, loopholes, money and all the other ingredients that make American Democracy great," as The Source put it.
Barbour and Boggs view their undertaking more charitably. "I think this town has been so hostile for the last few years," Boggs said, "and the restaurant is a place where people can meet and socialize and take some of the sting out of the public war going on between the parties." Barbour called it "the kind of place where you can put the grind behind you."
Which is to say that the menu at the Caucus Room won't be surf 'n' turf but baloney and tripe. This isn't a place for the parties to set aside their differences--Barbour is at least nominally a Republican, Boggs at least nominally a Democrat--but for all assembled to slop at the public trough. Never has there been more telling proof of the wisdom of the cynical counsel given to Woodward and Bernstein as they pursued their Watergate inquiries: "Follow the money."
The Caucus Room, when it opens its doors next summer, will be the watering hole for the new powers that be in American politics: the money men, and the occasional money woman as well. These are, as John B. Judis writes in a forthcoming book called "The Paradox of American Democracy," the "political consultants, media experts, pollsters and public relations flacks, none of whom are accountable to voters," who cluster in posh offices on K Street and do the dirty work of the fat-cat political contributors, "who through loopholes in the porous campaign laws hold the balance of power in elections and popular referenda."
Only a few years ago words such as those would have had a conspiracy-theory ring, but today they are simple truth. The influence peddlers and spin doctors are so completely in control that not merely do they wield power, they flaunt it. The power crowd used to gather at places like Duke Zeibert's or the Monocle, where locker room macho bonhomie was as much the order of business as dealmaking. But the Caucus Room makes no bones about it; the very name of the place implies, and with good reason, that the real business of Washington is done not in the caucus rooms of the Capitol but in the private places where the new power elite--if "elite" is the word for it--meets and greets.
Not merely does the name of the place rub it in, so does its short list of minority investors: Ed Mathias of the Carlyle Group, the self-described "private global investment firm, based in Washington, D.C.," specializing in aerospace, defense, health care and other business of interest to power brokers hereabouts; Terry McAuliffe, the Democrats' super-fund-raiser, the fellow who personally guaranteed the loan on the Clintons' New York house until the unseemliness of the deal became too blatant for even the Clintons; and C. Boyden Gray, the White House counsel to Bush pere who subsequently spun through the eternally revolving door and became lobbyist par excellence for corporations, trade associations and others among the neediest cases.
The image of bipartisan chumminess that the Caucus Room aims to present is a fraud. The old tradition that permitted politicians to set aside their differences and raise a glass together--to "put the grind behind you"--has nothing to do with present realities. The only differences among those who will gather at the Caucus Room involve the ways in which influence can be peddled and connections exploited; ideology, party loyalty, personal convictions, constituents' needs--none of these old-fashioned ingredients in the political mix is in the least relevant to the business of the Caucus Room.
Amazingly, though, outside the Beltway people finally seem to be catching on to what's happening here. It's too early to tell what will happen to the presidential candidacies of John McCain and Bill Bradley--neither is exactly the Second Coming--but the response in New Hampshire to their attacks on "soft money" and other deceits of political fund-raising is, or looks to be, promising. Now as always it would be a mistake to read too much into the political sentiments of New Hampshire, that most atypical of states, and it should be borne in mind that campaign finance is so arcane and byzantine as to be beyond the ken--and thus the interest--of all but the cognoscenti.
Still, there is a sliver of hope that the public is beginning to grasp the central reality of today's politics: The country is run by forces accountable to no one except themselves. No doubt it will stay that way for some time to come. But nothing is forever. Duke Zeibert's bit the dust and so in time, God willing, will the Caucus Room.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.