Washington used to look at Hollywood in horrified fascination: Drugs! Sex! Payola! Influence peddling and creative accounting.
The only thing that's changed is who's looking at whom.
Cocaine and sex on the Hill. Representatives taking midnight dunks with secretaries in the Tidal Basin. Secretaries who can't type, congressional couples consumed by passion on the Capitol steps . . . forbidden love, anonymous phone callers threatening domestic tranquility, a feud between politically ambitious families: Somewhere in there we went from newspaper headlines to press releases for TV's newest daytime drama, "Capitol" (2:30 on 9 and 11).
You had to figure it would only be so long before Washington became a sparkle in someone's lens. The only question was whether it would be a sitcom or a soap. (Can you see the planning stages for a comedy? "What about a presidential aide spitting Amaretto down the front of some young honey?" "Nah, too unbelievable.")
"DC is the only place where people have any fantasies left," says executive producer John Conboy. He lives in LA, so maybe he really believes that. "The power city of the world . . . you make mistakes, the stakes are higher."
Armed with this vision, in early March the cast and crew of "Capitol" came, saw, and captured on film. With footage of limos sweeping by monuments and all-purpose shots of the countryside, they went back to California to make a show about the excitement, the power, the glitter and glamour of . . . Washington. Quit looking around. They're talking about US.
Hollywood's version of McLean is Jeffersonia, a town whose most prominent families are the McCandlesses (good guys) and the Cleggs (bad guys). A feud between the two families started a century ago, and at the point the show picked up, young Tyler McCandless wants a seat in Congress just like his arch enemy Sam Clegg's. And Tyler loves Julie Clegg but so does Tyler's younger brother Wally, who sticks out from his ambitious family like a Republican at a Democratic convention. Mama Clegg is malicious and manipulative, and daughter Brenda is following in her wicked steps, etc., etc.
So tickled was CBS with their Dallas-on-the-Potomac that it used "Dallas" to lead in "Capitol's" special prime-time premiere in late March. After one week, "Capitol" was ranked 14th of the 27 daytime shows, and has held more or less at 11th since, the best a new daytime show has ever done.
"'Capitol'," says Conboy, isn't supposedto be a documentary. It's entertainment, a story not of the decisions that affect millions but of the people who make the decisions.
"We only see the public view of our politicians," says Conboy. "We don't see the private pain, the angst . . ."
"The show does take artistic license," says Constance Towers, who lived in Mexico for a year with husband John Gavin, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. She's the beautiful (aren't all politicians' wives?) mother of the all-American McCandless family. "But I do think politics is tremendously glamorous, interesting. It's so vital, so colorful."
Well, maybe. But what is daily red tape for Washingtonians reflects rose in the visitors' lenses. The man over there, standing in the exhaust of the Metrobus; that frumpy Congressional aide with the overstuffed briefcase, just out of the Library of Congress where he's been looking up court orders all day -- that's politics.
"The stars are here," says Kimberly Beck-Hilton (lovely/honest/sweet Julie Clegg) of her native California. "But in Washington, the politicians are the stars."
Ed Nelson plays one of the stars, Senator Denning, whom Nelson calls "Edward Kennedy without the personal problems. Senator Denning is not an intellect with no charisma. He has both, and integrity." Nelson, one-time Washington resident, has convictions: "Politics is a great honor to be bestowed on people with high integrity." On the other hand: "I have disgust for most politicians," says Bill Beyers, who plays Wally, the anti-politician. "Most of it is who you know and who you did."
You can't say Conboy doesn't know how to pick 'em.
All in all, politics and Washington end up getting quite the sudsing.You might not recognize us. A song played on one episode says, "You might find on your way to the top that love got lost in the city of dreams." Well, that's showbiz. So is the talk: "This is blackmail city!" "It's the public's right to know." "If this will endanger the nation, then I won't go through with it."
And special watches that buzz senators, and legislative assistants in love with aspiring representatives, and TV reporters who aim by hook or by crook to be First Lady, and secret missions . . . but you know how life is here in glamorous Washington. If it's not your spouse sleeping with a lobbyist it's your daughter shacking up with a Democrat, or a subcommittee shelving your bill till next session, or the Congressman sleeping with his page. Just don't turn the channel. On the next station, it may all be real.