When my husband, Ben Bradlee, stepped down as executive editor of The Washington Post 13 years ago, a well-known movie director took me aside in New York. "You can't let Ben do this," he said. "Don't you realize that all over Washington people will be scratching your names out of their little black book?"
"Anyone who would scratch our names out of their little black book," I replied, "is not in mine to begin with."
It was true. The only person who stopped calling, after two or three calls a week for 20 years, was Jesse Jackson. Somehow, we managed.
Harry Truman famously said, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." That couldn't be less true. The fact is you have to have good friends in order to survive.
Of course it's human nature to want to cozy up to power. That's what this city is all about. And if you're a player, you want to be where the action is.
So it's only natural that six days before a presidential election people are looking around and examining their places in the hierarchy. They are wondering whether they will maintain their status, upgrade it or lose it altogether. These can be desperate times.
For those who have never been through this process, or even for those who have but don't remember how stressful things can get, here are a few simple rules to help keep things in perspective.
Rule Number 1:
Never, never, never count anyone out, unless you have seen the body with a stake through the heart. Because they always come back. Don Rumsfeld is a perfect example. He has had more incarnations than anyone in this city. Whoever thought he would be back again as secretary of defense? All those years he was out there running a business in Chicago and sending Christmas cards to his friends in Washington, nobody ever suspected he would return in the same job and be more powerful than ever at age 71.
Most of the people on the 9/11 commission had left town or been counted out. All of a sudden they were in the news every day and being courted again. Bob Kerrey and Jamie Gorelick were just two who found renewed interest among Washingtonians.
See how desperately people have begun trying to renew their relationships with John and Teresa Kerry and those close to them -- after initially dismissing his run for the presidency as laughable? Notice how people have quietly begun counting out Colin Powell, since he has made it known that he would not go for another term as secretary of state even if President Bush wins? Big mistake. Colin Powell is still going to matter.
Rule Number 2:
If you decide to stay here once you've lost power or lost access to it, make sure you're staying for the right reasons. Does Washington seem like home to you? Do you have a circle of friends you can count on? People who come here in positions of power -- and most people come from somewhere else -- tend to hang around, waiting for another chance. It's not called Potomac Fever for nothing.
After the legendary newsman David Brinkley retired, he and his wife decided to leave Washington. They had seen what happened to so many who stayed behind, and they didn't want that to happen to them. But they were the exception.
Look around at all the TV talking heads who started off in some administration or other. Look at the law firms and lobbyist groups, the think tanks and consulting firms and foundations. They're all staging grounds and holding positions for people who have had a taste of power and are just waiting their turn for another go. But without friends here you will make yourself crazy if you're just part of a shadow government waiting to get back in power. Besides, it shows. The old pros can spot it on you a mile away.
Rule Number 3:
It's actually more comfortable being on the outside than on the inside. Of course having access to the White House and the president can be exhilarating. But in the end, it's exhausting, frustrating and deeply stressful. You're constantly jockeying for position, watching your back and taking flak for the positions, actions and, most of all, mistakes of your side. You never know who your friends are and when or if you will fall out of favor.
On the outside, you have the advantage of relaxing and watching the carnage. Bodies start being thrown over the cliff, blood is in the water, arrogance turns into humiliation. You, on the other hand, can sleep at night and you get to spend time with your family (really).
A liberal Democrat for Kerry recently allowed as how he expected Bush to win by a narrow margin, but was consoling himself: "At least," he said, "I won't have to go through the agony of watching my close friends and Kerry supporters behaving badly over the next four years." A Republican lawyer said the same thing. It never fails. Those you think you like, respect and admire suddenly turn into fawning sycophants when confronted by the prospect of having access to power.
Rule Number 4:
Only invite the people you really like, whether they are in or out of power. For one thing you'll have more fun and your home will become known as a "safe" house. This is not a CIA term. This is a Washington social expression for a house where you're not likely to run into people you can't stand. But more importantly, it's never a good idea to invite just a "job" to dinner. If you do that on a regular basis you will be seen for what you are, an opportunist. Especially as the election draws near, hang out with your friends.
The big casualty in the scramble for power in the last few months before an election is entertaining. This is the dead period. Except for book parties there's hardly anything going on. That's because people don't want to waste their time, energy or money entertaining people who may be on their way out in a matter of weeks. Some people make the mistake of trying to entertain both those in power and those seeking power together. This just gives the impression of being on the make and trying to have it both ways. The experienced ones lie low and wait for a more opportune time, say, Nov. 3.
Rule Number 5:
Once you have made a commitment, stick with your candidate through ups and downs. People respect those who are loyal. Everyone knows who the mercenaries and the users are. This has been a particularly scary year for Democrats who have had a primary to go through as well as a general election. The Republicans are more secure. They have always known whose coattails to ride on this one.
John McCain, for instance, though a friend of John Kerry's and a fellow Vietnam veteran, has not wavered in his support of President Bush since he endorsed him. Even if Kerry wins, McCain will have done the right thing. Everyone knows where he stands.
Unlike McCain, there have been many in the Kerry camp who have vacillated when things looked bad. Only this summer, several close to Kerry were complaining to friends that they couldn't get their calls returned by the candidate and that "nobody on the campaign" would listen to them. Translated, this means they thought Kerry was going to lose. These are the same people who are now taking credit for how well Kerry did in the debates.
Rule Number 6:
The people who last, who remain socially and politically viable in Washington, are those who have confidence in their own social standing despite the prevailing political winds. It used to be, when the old grandes dames of Washington were still alive, a few women could determine the hierarchy simply by whom they invited. They were to social power what the president was to political power -- more, in fact, since presidents by definition are short-timers. The longest they can last is eight years, and usually the last four are lived in ignominy, since things always go wrong.
Unfortunately, those in power have a tendency to take their power for granted. They treat other people badly. They can be overbearing and contemptuous. They fail to reciprocate. Too often they forget that they are being given a pass because of their jobs, their busy schedules, their official budgets. Then they're out, the invitations dry up and they are shocked and devastated. It's like the old song, "Where Did Everyone Go?"
In the end, the only people who ultimately survive in Washington are those who have made friends and kept and cherished them over the years. There is nobody here who has not been down and out sometime, and it's then that the values of those friends are tested.
Oh, and don't forget . . . those here whose friends either desert them or stick with them have very long memories.