Arlene, a fellow campaign worker who had taken a maternal interest in me, handed me an article from a magazine called Washingtonian. It was November 1992, we were closing up shop at our suburban Philadelphia headquarters, and I was about to move to D.C. I assumed the article was about the best place to buy shoe trees, etc., so I thanked her, politely took the story and put it on my towering pile of things I would never find time to read.
"No, read it," Arlene insisted. "It's about dating in Washington."
"You think I need help?" I joked.
"No," she said. "Especially not after I read that story. Jeez, you're going to be like a kid in a candy store."
I looked at the article more closely. "Sex and the Terminally Single Washington Woman," the headline declared. "He phones the office during dinner . . . He'll tell you everything about the toxic-waste bill . . . He likes to get it over with in time for 'Meet the Press' . . . And other sordid tales about Washington men."
"Sweet," I said. "In a town full of nerds, a guy doesn't need to be the Fonz. Richie Cunningham will be enough. Hell, Ralph Malph and Potsie Weber will be enough."
It's more than six years later, and Washington women--or at least Washington women who write for a living--are still whining about Washington men. Most recently, there was a column in George magazine by conservative pundette Ann Coulter with a headline that said, "When it comes to dating, Washington's young male Democrats and Republicans have a lot in common. They're dull, cheap and clueless."
And then, of course, we have the saga of poor Bryan Winter, as detailed recently in The Post's Style section and several other news outlets across the globe. Winter, in case you've been hibernating, is the D.C. cad whose curt e-mail rejection ended up being hyper-forwarded by some young woman and on to tens of thousands of her sympathetic sisters. (As an illustration of how widely Winter's brushoff was distributed, consider this: The writer who saw the e-mail and told the story on Salon.com lives in Paris.)
"Bryan" may or may not exist (he couldn't be found by reporters who tried to track him down for sociological snapshots of the current Zeitgeist), but his arrogant missive struck a nerve among single Washington women that is all too real.
So after years of hearing women complain in person and in print about D.C. men, I finally decided to explore the issue. And, fittingly, I have gone about it in the only way an ambitious D.C. man knows how: by convincing a Washington Post editor to let me write about it.
I should begin by saying that none of this fault-finding offends me the slightest bit. I'm not one of those guys frothing about the "anti-male" bias in Coulter's column, or in any of the others. But still, here we are, in 1999, conversing in the pages of a respectable publication about a debate that recalls nothing if not my seventh-grade complaint that "the girls in our class are all prudes!" (An argument that said a lot more about my pubescent methods of seduction than about them.)
I asked some female friends what they thought: Is this a lot of sound and fury about nothing, or is this city indeed cursed with an occupying force of men wearing pocket protectors and thinking our lives would be complete if only our New Republics had centerfolds?
Surely the super-cool, well-centered women I know wouldn't stoop to such lame, whiny stereotyping.
"The pool is smaller in D.C. than a lot of other cities, so there are few choices," says Jane, 31, a Web site designer who's dated at least one senator. "And I think there is a little bit of a 'big fish in small pond' problem, so some guys think they are a lot more desirable then they really are--but they'd be a dime a dozen in New York City, for example. Once I went on a date to the Palm with a guy who leaned over and laid a really nasty tongue kiss on me at the table. I bit his face and left the restaurant."
So we're obnoxious.
Catherine, 29, a computer consultant, says some D.C. men remind her of the Michael J. Fox character in "The American President," who tells his dates that "all plans are soft" until he confirms 45 minutes ahead of time. "It's sad," Catherine says, "but that really isn't so far off. In the interest of preserving our species, one can only hope that men in other cities have different priorities."
So we're self-centered.
Susan, 33, who works for a lobbying organization and just married a great guy who is decidedly a non-pol, says "men in D.C. are only worse if you date lawyers, or Hill workers, or anyone working in politics. But I never dated them, so I don't find the men worse than in any other city."
Whew! I was getting worried.
And Maggie, a 25-year-old VP of a polling firm, says that "everywhere there are guys who are immature, afraid of commitment, who don't know how to behave like gentlemen. At least, because of the industries here, there are more smart men (just like there are more smart women). The high girl-to-guy ratio means you have lots of smart, professional women looking for equally responsible, intelligent men, and those guys are out there, but there's more competition for them."
So, D.C. needs more of us?
With all those conflicting emotions and opinions, the only lesson I gleaned from that exercise is that I happen to know a lot of really cool women--which maybe says something in itself about this town's abundant supply.
So, ever the intrepid investigator, I tracked down Lisa DePaulo, the author of the Washingtonian article, who has since moved--first to Philly, then to Manhattan--and is still single.
Maybe she had wised up, I hoped, after experiencing either the cheesier terrain of the City of Brotherly Love, or the harsh lights and cheap life of New York, New York, the city so vice they named it twice.
No such luck. DePaulo, now a contributing editor at George, couldn't be sticking tighter to her original take. "The single life in New York is the best," she says. "I can tell you, in the Washington-Philly-New York City continuum, New York guys are fabulous. Philly guys are mediocre, but they're still better than Washington guys."
There are some decent guys in D.C., aren't there?
"They're too decent," DePaulo replies. "They need to loosen up and have some fun. I always tell my male friends, 'If you have any pulse at all, move to Washington, because you will clean up! The crop is so bad, if you have anything going for you whatsoever, the city will be a buffet!' "
After all these interviews with various female Washington daters, I just want to make sure that I have this straight: Our problem is that we're shy and insecure? Or is it that we're too confident, but for the wrong reasons?
I can't speak to the truth of these statements. (Though it seems to me that complaining about men who work in politics as being wonky and nerdy is not entirely unlike a man bemoaning the fact that all those supermodels he dates are superficial and have eating disorders.) But I think it's fair to say that some men are geeks, others are boors and still others are just fine, and no city has a premium on any of them.
Assuredly there's at least a kernel of truth in the Coulter and DePaulo gripes, or in the anecdotal symbolism of the Bryan Winter e-mail. I have "at least a pulse," in DePaulo's words, and have found dating in this city to be fairly easy. And sure, there are a lot of geeky men here, but to be perfectly frank, I'm always amazed at how much better-looking the women in New York City are than here. The difference is that I wouldn't devote 1,200 to 1,500 words to a rant on such a generalization in a political-style glossy magazine.
(By the way, be sure to look out for my forthcoming essay in the Weekly Standard on why the women of Fresno are better kissers than their counterparts in Chapel Hill, N.C. This will be followed up by an incisive commentary on NPR about how all the women in East Hampton have bad breath.)
But the issue of D.C. men being total drips is the one that's gotten a lot of air time of late, so I'm hardly going to dispute one woman's (or 1,000 women's) anecdotes. I'll even go one step further--I'll agree with it.
In the proper tradition of Washington men owning up to a problem early and honestly, I declare the following:
Washington men are the worst guys in the world. This is because we are [fill in adjective of choice]; every one of us is [again, fill in the adjective--it need not be consistent with the choice of the woman next to you, but it should have some vague connection to the concept that we're all dorks]; we should all be shipped off to a desert isle where our Internet connections would be unfathomably slow and our cable selection wouldn't include C-SPAN.
There. This premise has been established as not just conventional wisdom but undisputed fact--in The Washington Post Outlook section, no less. So it must be true. Perhaps now we can move on to a topic somewhat more worthy of ink--such as whether or not the girls in my seventh-grade class were prudes.
Jake Tapper is Washington correspondent for Salon.com.