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THE WAGES OF QUINN! Sally Quinn describes the price (certain) presidents pay if they don’t play well with the locals: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, JANUARY 28, 2010

Connectivity is powerful: Did you ever notice that you clean the house a great deal more when you can’t get on-line? Well after last night, the dust gods can safely plot their return to our sprawling campus!

Final point: Never say this to a tech whiz: “Why did it happen?” The problem: He’ll start to explain.

Obama, Alito, Scarborough: Starting today, the world will cluck, muse, fuss and fume about What Justice Alito Did. (“Not true,” the Justice seemed to say, as Obama commented on last week’s “Citizens United” decision.) For pundits, the incident will make a lovely time-killer, driven by conflict and personality—and fueled by loops of videotape. These are the trivial social dramas around which our discourse now turns.

Then, there’s the larger dysfunction. We were struck by Joe Scarborough’s handling of the topic at question on today’s Morning Joe. At present, we have no tape or transcript of what he said—but Scarborough took Alito’s side in this relatively pointless social drama, even as he presumed to know what Alito’s specific objection had been. According to Scarborough, the president vastly misstated the facts when he said, “With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that, I believe, will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections. I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities.”

Obama’s statement was absurd and untruthful, Scarborough said, since there is a separate provision in election law banning foreign corporations from spending in our campaigns. (Again, no transcript is available.) But this is what the Washington Post’s Robert Barnes writes about the issue today on the paper’s web site:

BARNES: The court's 5 to 4 decision, in which Alito was in the majority, said it did not have to address the question of electoral spending by foreign corporations, because the law being considered did not differentiate between domestic and foreign corporations. But Democrats have seized on the issue as a way to highlight legislation in response to the court's ruling. There are restrictions on foreign participation in U.S. elections that were not part of the case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

Last Saturday, Dan Eggen offered this account of the matter in a Post news report:

EGGEN (1/23/10): Democrats are also eyeing restrictions on U.S. companies that are subsidiaries of foreign-owned corporations; they believe the public will be outraged by the possibility of foreign influence in U.S. election campaigns. The high court's majority opinion avoided addressing possible implications for foreign-owned firms, which are barred from direct participation in U.S. elections but can use their American subsidiaries to form political action committees.

The subsidiaries now appear free to spend as much as they wish on ads targeting specific U.S. election candidates, and critics said the opinion could be applied even more broadly.

"Do you really want the Chinese or any other country to be able to spend money on our elections?" [Rep. Chris] Van Hollen asked.

For our money, Scarborough seemed to give a rather one-sided account of this particular issue. (After mind-reading Alito’s specific objection.) Surprise! Neither Mika nor anyone else jumped in to suggest as much.

Alito will star on cable this week, seeming to mouth the words, “Not true.” But how well will the merits of this matter get fleshed out in these discussions? Just a guess: Americans will be able to choose their facts, depending on which programs they watch. Overall, a great deal of heat will get dispensed, perhaps not a great deal of light.

Obama will be gruesomely wrong on some shows, Alito on most of the others. All shows will play lots of tape. Sadly, this will force one progressive news channel to stop playing its well-worn tape of Hannah Giles’ fetching round keister.

The tape shows Giles’s keister as Giles walks up stairs. “Progressive” producers adore it.

THE WAGES OF QUINN [permalink]: In late November, the Washington Post introduced a new feature in its “Style” section—a weekly column, headlined “The Party,” written by Sally Quinn. Right at the start of her opening column, Quinn gave a general idea what the column would be about:

QUINN (11/23/09): A number of years ago I wrote a book about entertaining called “The Party: A Guide to Adventurous Entertaining.” I didn't really have any grandiose theme in mind, I just had a lot of delicious anecdotes and some advice I had picked up over time from covering parties for The Washington Post, going to a lot of them and giving them myself.

It wasn't until I sat down to write the dedication that I had an epiphany about the point of the book. It was to my parents "who taught me that entertaining is really about generosity of spirit.”

There’s nothing “wrong” with writing a column about the best ways to entertain. (For links to all these columns to date, you can just click here.) But yesterday’s column offered an insider-eye view of a great deal of recent history—history stretching all the way back to the Kennedy era.

This is our country’s political history as recalled by a major DC insider. Whether Quinn’s presentations are right or wrong, they’re so remarkable that we thought they deserved a review.

In yesterday’s column, Quinn explains how certain presidents came to harm in DC in the past fifty years. Is she right or wrong in her assessments? That’s hard for us to know. But this is the way a very highly-placed observer understands Insider Washington’s behavior toward these presidents.

In Quinn’s vew, new administrations should make an attempt to socialize with “native Washingtonians.” (By that, she clearly means upper-class, insider natives.) What happens to the fools who don’t? Let’s start with President Carter:

Quinn recalls Carter-era socializing issues in a brief, fleeting passage. But this passage includes a stunning bit of political analysis—analysis which may well be accurate:

QUINN (1/28/10): Though well liked, the Fords were not in office long enough to create an imprint of their own. When Jimmy Carter arrived in Washington, he and Rosalynn and many of their advisers were decidedly not interested in the locals and made it known. That chill was such a mistake that Teddy Kennedy felt free to challenge Carter, which doomed Carter's reelection.

Did Ronald Reagan reach the White House, in part, because the Carters “were decidedly not interested in the locals and made it known?” Did the ensuring social rift embolden Challenger Kennedy? We have no way of knowing, though we’d certainly say it’s possible. Here’s Quinn’s account of the social dynamics affecting the next Dem prez:

QUINN: The Clintons brought in a whole new crowd, many of them young and arrogant and clique-ish, which created such a competitive social atmosphere that the environment became toxic. In the beginning, advised by bipartisan fixer David Gergen, the Clintons hosted a series of small dinners for the chattering classes; these petered out as the first couple didn't find them useful (or fun). Ironically, President Clinton had given a toast at Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham's welcoming dinner for him shortly after he was elected. He talked about Washington being a place that was obsessed by "who's in and who's out, who's up and who's down." It was as though he were predicting his own tenure: A lot of enemies were made. When the Monica Lewinsky affair turned into a debacle, during his second term, Clinton was impeached partly because of the ill will toward him in the city. After that, the Clintons went underground and very few from the administration were seen out and about.

In Quinn’s account, Clinton was impeached “partly because of the ill will toward him in the city”—ill will which stemmed in part from an enemy-making toast and from the “clique-ishness” of his young, arrogant crowd.

Is it even remotely possible that this could be true? Consider:

In November 1998, Quinn wrote a lengthy, very important account of the views of “Establishment Washington” on the eve of Clinton’s impeachment (click here). She recorded the “outrage and disgust” these insiders were feeling toward Clinton because of the Lewinsky affair—and she stressed, several times, that the public as a whole did not share this sense of outrage. We’re sure Quinn was right in that report. (We discuss it toward the end of Chapter 1 at our incomparable companion site, How he got there.) We can think of no reason why she couldn’t be right in this passage from yesterday’s column.

Quinn is personally sympathetic to the Obamas. But in this passage, she may be shedding some light on a recent inane, but rather dangerous, flap-doodle:

QUINN: When Obama was elected, people began singing "Happy Days Are Here Again." Expectations were over the top. It would be only hours before we would all be dancing on tables. They were beautiful and glamorous, hip and fun. They were the new Kennedys, and Washington would come alive again. They would set a new social tone. Young people would be out every night, partying, mixing and mingling. Members of Congress, who had been sleeping on sofas in their offices and in group houses because their families lived back in the home districts, would start accepting invitations again instead of working for 18 hours, three days a week, and then going home for four.

It was all a Camelot fantasy. Obama inherited the helm of the Titanic. Many of those he brought in were from past administrations. A lot of his crowd came in from Chicago and stuck together. People are working around the clock, and too exhausted and overextended to go out. The Obamas rarely entertain, except for large events. They are raising two young children and, understandably, prefer to stay home most nights with them, enjoying a family dinner and helping with homework. They have said that going out is such a huge production (sharpshooters, ambulances, decoy limos, motorcades, etc.) that it's almost not worth it. They have hosted only one state dinner. That, unfortunately (aside from the gate-crashers), was used to reward White House staffers instead of being an opportunity to bring in the best and the brightest from around the country.

Given the disastrous circumstances in which Obama took office, try to ignore the sheer inanity of those “expectations.” (“It would be only hours before we would all be dancing on tables...They were the new Kennedys, and Washington would come alive again.”) But: Do readers recall all the hissing and spitting aimed at social secretary Desiree Rogers in the wake of that one state dinner—hissing and spitting by the likes of the ever-ludicrous Maureen Dowd? Here again, we see a line of complaint which lurked in Dowd’s ridiculous columns. Obama’s crowd came in from Chicago, Quinn says. Once in DC, they stuck together. And alas! Obama used his one state dinner to reward these rank outsiders!

In the aftermath of that dinner, Rogers became Target One. Inane as such ludicrous episodes are, such episodes are also quite dangerous.

Let’s review: Carter got a primary challenge in part because he failed to mingle. Clinton got impeached in part for roughly the same offense. Obama has made social errors too—errors which bubbled up in weird complaints in the aftermath of that dinner. Beyond that, Quinn doesn’t mention the giant price which was paid in the wake of the Clinton impeachment—the seamless transfer of insider loathing from President Clinton to Candidate Gore. Carter was challenged—and Clinton was impeached. Gore was hunted down for two years. According to the logic of Quinn’s piece, all these prices were paid—by your nation—due to the failure to kiss local keister at Insider Washington parties.

Please note another striking point about the Quinn social history. Please note the failure of any Republican president (at least since Nixon) to pay a price for this sort of thing. In Quinn’s account, Presidents Reagan and Bush 41 failed to conduct themselves properly too. But she mentions no specific price being paid for this bad misconduct:

QUINN: The Reagans, at first, tried to engage local Washington, with a dinner for insiders at the exclusive F Street Club, and hosted many state dinners. In the end, though, they drifted toward importing glamorous friends from New York and California, especially in the Iran-contra slog of the second term. The first Bush White House came in with a small coterie of friends and kept to them; no second term (see also, The Carters).

That’s it! Why wasn’t Reagan impeached, like Clinton? Quinn doesn’t say. Ditto with President Bush 43, who slept when he should have mingled:

QUINN: By the time George W. Bush arrived, despite the bitterness about the way the 2000 election had turned out, Washington social life was ready for renewal but found none. The Bushes almost never went out and the president was in bed by 9:30, even when they entertained, which was rare.

What price was paid by this sleepiest president? None is mentioned—though Quinn does manage to make us think that Insider Washington was very upset about the way Campaign 2000 turned out.

This is stunning political history; we’d be slow to suggest that it’s wrong. Again: Quinn’s account of Establishment Washington on the eve of impeachment is a deeply important piece of Clinton/Gore era history. In yesterday long, off-handed piece, Quinn fleshed more history out.