Pearls. Canapés. Botox and Bold Type—The “Heathers” and “Harveys” RULE!
(INSTALLMENT TWO OF A TWO PART SERIES—THE NY / D.C. POWER PLAY)
“Daddy...what's a Tidal Basin?”
That was the question I asked my father in the Autumn of the year that Richard Nixon mixed his last pitcher of Manhattans and flew away like some ungainly, wounded duck .
Why would an eleven-year-old kid ask his father a question like that?
Because the big news story at the time was all about the powerful Congressman Wilbur Mills' getting busted by the D.C. Police one night near Washington's Tidal Basin with a bodacious stripper alliteratively, and perfectly named Fanne Foxe. Who I might add, jumped into this mythical “Tidal Basin” to escape Five-O's clutches after a scuffle with a drunken Mills in his limousine.
The married Mills's getting caught out there so publicly was just another ugly incident in a scandal-rocked D.C. that year, but I just had to know—to quench my dirt-detail curiosity—just what the hell a Tidal Basin actually was.
“Well...I assume it's got something to do with the water in the area or something, but I'm not sure. You know what?” Daddy said, “Let's find out.”
With that, he called his friend Leon who lived in D.C. and worked for the city, and asked him. “Hey Lee—I know this is a weird question, but _____ wants to know...you know about the whatchacallit--the Tidal Basin down there? Yeah, uh...what is it exactly? Uh-huh. Uh-huh! Hmmmm. Hey, I'm a' let you tell the boy himself. Here son, talk to your Uncle Leon.”
And Leon just broke it down. “There's a river down here, the Potomac--”
“The one they say George Washington threw a silver dollar across.”, I replied.
“Yeah.”, Leon replied. “Right. Whatever they say. Anyway, the Tidal Basin's like a ...little dam that controls the water level down here, 'cause we got parts of the city above sea level and some parts that's below it. And when the tide changes, you know...goes up and down? The Tidal Basin helps keep things in check. That's why they built it. Okay? You got it, little man?”
“Okay.” Leon replied. “Now put your Daddy back on.”
I did, and I heard Leon ask my father why I wanted to know about the Tidal Basin. My father told him. “He just wanted to know what the place was where Wilbur Mills got jammed up.” Daddy waited a beat and followed up with a chuckle, “What the hell was he doing in the Goddamn Tidal Basin in the first place?”
I heard Leon, as clear as a bell on the other end of the line loudly laugh out the words “Fucking up. That's what.”
I bring this up because it highlights something about what Washington D.C. has LONG been about. In my pre-teen and much of my teen years, the little place its connected denizens reverently consider “The Village”, was little more than a writhing, Medusa-head of poisonous scandals. And me, a geeky, news-obsessed kid from Harlem was not alone in my deep interest in the seemingly once-a-fortnight release of fresh ugliness.
It had gotten to the point where the scandal culture was being commented on in the hit songs of the day. Lamont Dozier's “Fish Ain't Bitin'” was all about Watergate and mistrust of a corrupt government. Stevie Wonder's “You Haven't Done Nothin'” tackled the same—directly and with even more venom. Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes “Wake Up Everybody” checked off the event in Teddy's trail-out vamp. You could even buy LPs of the Watergate testimony at your local record store. My parents and lots of other kids' parents sure did.
We had seen in the span of three toilet-swirling years, the leak of the incriminating Pentagon Papers, and the fall of the Vice-President Spiro Agnew. The nation's Attorney General was brought up on charges of obstructing justice and would later be convicted of conspiracy. A...”Saturday Night Massacre” had taken place in D.C. where the President panicked and fired damn near everybody investigating his criminality. We learned about the CIA's unconstitutional intelligence abuses and their direct implication in gross misdeeds against the people. A mass of highly-placed Presidential aides had been indicted and convicted...and of course, the President himself had been forced to resign in abject shame.
The country breathed and sweat Beltway sleaze every single day for years. The greater land beyond the Beltway was just an annex of its rotting capital, where all news seemed to emanate from. We had become for all intents and purposes, The United States of Scandal-erica.
If you were of age to comprehend then, you remember the madness. If you weren't...go ask somebody who was, and watch 'em go “Wheeeeeeeeeeew!’ once they start telling you about it.
FLASH FORWARD FIFTEEN YEARS—The Mid 90's.
A friend who knew of my Watergate history penchant and shared in it as well, sent me a copy of a then-new biography of Ben Bradlee, the editor of the administration-breaking Washington Post of those halcyon years. You may remember the movie portrayal of Bradlee by Jason Robards in “All The President's Men—alongside Redford's and Hoffmann's Woodward and Bernstein respectively. Those three men and the roles they played in breaking the government-shaking Watergate story moved a lot of people towards journalism as a career. That's how influential they were. It also turned these men into “stars” in their own rights. Bradlee was a hero to many, so that bio of his was a particularly hot one to read.
I read it and was mesmerized by his life story—that of an old-school newspaperman, a WW2 veteran of Guadalcanal, Saipan and other Pacific war-theater hell holes. Jet-setting as a press attaché in post-war Paris! All of this before ever managing a second of the era of Watergate drama. Macho, gruff, smarts and derring-do—his life story was a 20th century American masculinity fable writ large.
But the segment that stood out as odd in the book—wrench-in-the-gears clunky and plain, old incongruous was the brief chapter and a half handling his extramarital affair with the Post's D.C. “party” writer Sally Quinn. Where much of the book was detailed and rather self-effacing, this stretch dealing with his falling out of love with his wife and in with Quinn, was sketchy and vague. What I will always remember about it though, is the picture of Quinn from the early 70's that ran in the book. It was of a then early-thirtied Quinn in the Post's newsroom. She playfully looked at the lens, big, Jackie-O glasses on her face, framed by a mane of silken, blonde hair—with her mouth puckered in an exaggerated “mmmmwaaah!” kiss for the snapper of the pic.
This was not your Dorothy Kilgallen type.
She was a cutie. A “hottie” actually, in the still staid environs of a newspaper's city room. She was 20 years Bradlee's junior, and a comer in the biz at the time, doing her “artcles” at the Post, doing a morning (failed) gig on CBS, and evidently doing Ben Bradlee as well. I didn't really begrudge him “hittin' that” as I just chalked the dalliance up to my youthful and still pretty chauvinistic view of a powerful man's simple quenching of his considerable appetites. Dr. King had done it. Adam Clayton Powell, too. But they'd done so much! And hey, Bradlee was the man at the tiller for the Watergate exposé. Plus, he did wind up eventually marrying the kiss-blowing, newsroom hottie.
I kind of gave him a pass. Many of us did.
FLASH FORWARD THREE YEARS—The Clinton Impeachment.
It was an odd experience being in Washington D.C. during the raw winter of 1998-99 when the Clinton Impeachment buzz was at its peak. I got there during the third week of December, and stayed through the holidays until early January. Why? I was the “significant other” of an opera singer and had a month of vacation time to burn off. She was in town for a series of concerts and wanted me there with her.
A pretty diva is a hard person to say no to. And I didn't.
While she was in rehearsal most days, I found myself cooling my heels all over town. I went to the Frederick Douglass Home in Anacostia, or hung out many afternoons at Wilson's Soul Food on the Howard University campus. Checked out the Smithsonian, too. But mostly, I found myself padding about a monstrous apartment an out-of-town opera singer let my diva stay in while he was out of the country on an overseas gig. That's how they do the accommodations thing in opera circles. You either get an out-of-town singer's place (they always are), or a local opera patron puts you up at their toney digs. I was hanging a lot in that big duplex or at a patron's home to schmooze on the diva girlfriend's behalf—but the one thing that was a constant during a large part of that heel-cooling was hearing NPR's gavel-to-gavel, coverage of the soap-opera-esque impeachment hearings and trial.
It was in a word, surreal. It's one thing to hear about a major Washington scandal from hundreds or thousands of miles away, but to be there as it goes from zygote, to in-utero fetus, to a squalling, teething and undiapered, wildly shitting infant is a whole other animal entirely. Everywhere I went, and as it was so dominant—where I was staying too—all I heard was that coverage, presented in high-brinksmanship style by NPR with capsule bios of who was speaking when. You came to choose sides—who to boo, and who to hiss. Fist-pumps for Sheila Jackson-Lee and Barney Frank, a gruff elbow-swat and thrusted fuck-finger for the unctuous Hutchinson brothers. I was at a patron's house when during the NPR capsule bio for James Sensenbrenner the on-air personality mentioned his being an heir to the Kimberley-Clark paper fortune. But during the hearing recess call-ins, a listener bluntly elaborated on it, mentioning Sensenbrenner's being the “Kotex” heir. I chuckled internally at the revelation, but gasp and swoon! That patron I was with was soooooo upset about that rough description of the man's fortune that she was immediately on the phone a minute later, huffing and puffing madly to a peer about the brutal audio infraction.
“Why would they say something like that?”
Something like...the truth? Oh, well.
I remember being in a sub shop in a Columbia Heights when the announcement of the House's voting “yes” on impeachment came down. Two middle-aged Black men looking up at the stereo speaker as the news came over said in monotone unison, “Bullllllll-shit.”
There was a dichotomy. The city's Black majority population—at least the folks I found myself with, were dismissive of the whole impeachment exercise. It was as those two men described it—“Bullllllll-shit.” Not worth discussing as serious...until you actually started discussing it, and people 'round the way were of one mind about it—“This is a waste.”, and “Railroaded!” were two lines I heard a lot.
It was also the first time I'd heard the phrase “Playa Hater” used heavily as a part of street vernacular. Clinton's enemies were all apparently... “Playa Haters”. At the dowmtown dance club D.C. Live, a mammoth, multi-floored disco in an old department store shell, The Notorious B.I.G.'s “Playa Hater” was dedicated that New Year Eve's night to all the “suckas out there hatin' on the President”. A loud whoop rose from an enthusiastic, agreeing crowd of revelers.
Now, cross-town, where the new-money, Kennedy Center doyennes cooled their sensible heels, they didn't like discussing the scandal at all. They listened to the coverage, but did so without comment generally. Just shakes of heavily-lacquered hair and lots of baleful sighs. It was a walking death for these women, mostly. An un-discussible blighting of the fragile “all-that-they-held-dear”. The one thing I do remember them being a bit wound up about was the week that Joe Lieberman jail-shanked Clinton and sided with the GOP.
“I thought they were friends!”, one fur-collared harrumpher harrumphed.
Strange time, indeed.
FLASH FORWARD TO NOW—Potential Clinton Redux
Sometimes you know...you have to have lived a great, big 'ol chunk of life, with all of its various experiences to be able to grasp a single situation you may come across late in that life. And then, when you think back on it...a lot of small, seemingly unconnected moments link together in an explanatory chain when you look hard at that confusing “single situation”. But miracle of miracles, you find yourself able to analyze those smaller moments better—separately as individual events, and then as interconnected points along a continuum that add up to a greater sum.
I look now at the huffy and defensive reactions from within the Beltway today to the possibility of another Clinton presidency, as well as their general peckishness these days at anything that upsets their carefully balanced PR applecart of nouveau mannered-ness and so-called propriety—and I laugh my “at-home-in-Anacostia” ass right on off.
Because all that I've seen before, and experienced about “The Village” before, gives utter lie to this newfound “Well, I never-ism”.
Not only have they, but they've done far, far worse. Let's go back to that little run-down of the town's scandaleriffic heyday:
“We had seen in the span of three toilet-swirling years, the leak of the incriminating Pentagon Papers, and the fall of the Vice-President Spiro Agnew. The nation's Attorney General was brought up on charges of obstructing justice and would later be convicted of conspiracy. A “Saturday Night Massacre” had taken place in D.C. where the President panicked and fired damn near everybody investigating his criminality. We learned about the CIA's unconstitutional intelligence abuses and their direct implication in gross misdeeds against the people. A mass of highly-placed Presidential aides had been indicted and convicted...and of course, the President himself had been forced to resign in abject shame.”.
I left out the spectacles of the AG's wife Martha Mitchell—the Thorazined “Deep Throat” of the gossip set, putting everybody's shit in the street at the height of Watergate-a-rama, and the release of the crude, damning Nixon tapes where we found out about his seething hatred of Jews...and Blacks...and anybody his paranoia led him to believe did, would, or potentially could cross him.
How can today's fur-collared members of the smart set even compare the age of Clinton One, and its relatively mild set of scandals—most of 'em utterly manufactured, to that republic-shuddering, constitution-shredding, total government crisis of '72 through '76?
We pivoted from a Disney-fied, candy-coated D.C. fairy-land where the mid-day TV soap-operas were pre-empted for coverage of the wedding of the President's daughter Tricia—as if it were some royal fantasy come true...to the train-wreck spectacle not long after that of said President on TV, sweating and railing “I am not a crook!”, as all of his friends and flunkies later wound up pre-empting mid-day TV soap operas themselves...with coverage of their trials before the House and Senate.
D.C. was a joke. A long, nasty Aristocrats-quality joke, peppered with lots of groan-inducing, mini set-pieces.
“What did the President know and when did he know it?”
“Dirty Tricks Squad”
“Tidal Basin Bombshell”
“I do not recollect“/“I cannot recall”/“Expletive Deleted”
But somehow, a lied-about, messy blow-job and the hypocritical furor over it trumps that partial laundry listing of unbroken, almost daily slime? Apparently so, according to the grievously offended in. D.C. who would whine like this
“This is our town,” says Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the first Democrat to forcefully condemn the president's behavior. “We spend our lives involved in talking about, dealing with, working in government. It has reminded everybody what matters to them. You are embarrassed about what Bill Clinton's behavior says about the White House, the presidency, the government in general.”
Muffie Cabot, who as Muffie Brandon (ed. from LM: MUFFIE?!) served as social secretary to President and Nancy Reagan, regards the scene with despair. “This is a demoralized little village,” she says. “People have come from all over the country to serve a higher calling and look what happened. They're so disillusioned. The emperor has no clothes. Watergate was pretty scary, but it wasn't quite as sordid as this.”
“He came in here and he trashed the place,” says Washington Post columnist David Broder, “and it's not his place.“
“We all live together, we have a sense of community, there's a small-town quality here. We all understand we do certain things, we make certain compromises. But when you have gone over the line, you won't bring others into it. That is a cardinal rule of the village. You don't foul the nest.”
All of this spluttering, Harriet Olesen dudgeon is a real hoot when you look at who its main purveyors is.
The compiler of all that (and more) bile against Bill Clinton is none other than the now-all-growed-up, no talent newsroom hottie who did exactly what Monica Lewisnky did to one of the most powerful married men in Washingtoon, D.C., Ben Bradlee.
I'm talking about the aforementioned Sally Fucking (and I do mean fucking) Quinn. It was she, in the Washington Post in the month before I got down there and rubbed against her pals' liver-spotted shoulders, who wrote that now-especially screamingly laughable hit-piece.
A mere twenty years before, she was the young woman chafing her knees on cheap Beltway industrial carpeting for a married D.C. power-broker. She was there during the years-long hell of Watergate, and Wilbur Mills, and the tawdry Elizabeth Ray/Wayne Hays scandal. (Hays had ironically driven Harlem's beloved Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. from Congress on a trumped-up corruption charge almost ten years before) The self-righteous, spastically-clawing debu-cat was there in town when Newt Gingrich cheated on his wife and officially ditched her while she underwent a chemo treatment, and when House Speaker Bob Livingston who so excoriated Clinton over Lewinsky and howled for his resignation would one month later (and I was in town and had a blast when the story broke) have to step down as he was revealed to have macked about while married, too.
Quinn was there for all of it, and participated in it, but...as D.C.'s social/power elite was changing generationally, a vacuum was forming. The old guard gate-keepers and party-tossers and society matrons were dying off. Many had been driven into the shadows, uncomfortable with the ostentatious glee they once celebrated in. That new, forced austerity would bounce back a bit under the Reagan/Old Hollywood regime's ascension, but it was the last gasp of that generation. The breech would re-open and into it would step, a new guard, and a new generation. The wives of that new generation would lead the “Village's” return to the Camelot they remembered from old Life and Look clippings and newsreel packages via the fearsome power of the canapé, tiramisu, and mighty champagne-glass pyramid. This “New Power Generation” consisted of society wives like NBC's Andrea Mitchell—the “better” half of Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, Maureen Orth—life-partner of the snippy, pumpkin-headed pundit Tim Russert, Sheri Annis—spouse of the execrable media watchpup Howard Kurtz. And of course...Mrs. Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee herself—Sally Quinn.
Time for a mordant chuckle. Here's something that didn't make the cut for Bradlee's bio. It's the rundown of how The Flighty Quinn got her job at The Post:
Quinn began as a reporter for the Washington Post with very little experience: reportedly called by Ben Bradlee after a report of her pajama party (ed. LM— A pajama party? WTF'ing F?) in celebration of the election to congress of Barry Goldwater, Jr., the job interview included the following exchange:
"Can you show me something you've written?" asked Managing Editor Benjamin Bradlee. "I've never written anything," admitted Quinn. Pause. "Well," said Bradlee, "nobody's perfect”.
Cute, isn't it? And really quite telling. You've got to give Quinn credit. She didn't just fuck the married guy. She took him away for herself. She got the job. And she tore after the validation via social prestige like a meth-ed up pit bull loose in a butcher store. From mere courtesan to Chief Justice of the court of opinion in record time!
She became “Queen of the NEW Village” and worked hard at re-establishing that internal, party-centric power-elite that had so eroded over the years. Sparks fairly flew as the Hors d'oevre trays clattered with world-rebuilding activity. Hard work, not because of Clinton, mind you—but in reality because of all the awful and ugly scandals that had come to define the city over the previous two decades. Quinn was to be Head-“Heather” of this ascendant boomer-elite set—never mind her actual tarnished D.C. pedigree. That was years ago, and as noted—she'd gotten her man—unlike Monica, some added prestige, and even gotten the beautiful, historic Laird-Dunlop House in Georgetown. And lord, but homegirl knew how to throw a bangin' jam. In spite of her original sin in access to power, she was “In Like Flynn”...or Quinn as it were.
A nasty side-effect of that ascension to power was that anyone who didn't genuflect to her newfound royal heatherness was a fucking Philistine to be slain with an ass-kisser's jawbone.
Thus began the new age of Party-sanship. It seems that when the Clintons came to “The Village”, they weren't necessarily all about knocking back highballs with “Muffie” and “Tish” and “Mo” and “Sally”. They didn't do it, and not enough of the people they brought into D.C. did either. They built their own treehouse. Their own club. This sacrilege could not be countenanced.
According to society sources, Sally invited Hillary to a luncheon when the Clintons came to town in 1993. Sally stocked her guest list with her best buddies and prepared to usher the first lady into the capital's social whirl. Apparently, Hillary didn't accept. Miffed, Sally wrote a catty piece in the Post about Mrs. Clinton. Hillary made sure that Quinn rarely made it into the White House dinners or social events.
In return, Sally started talking trash about Hillary to her buddies, and her animus became a staple of the social scene. "There's just something about her that pisses people off," Quinn is quoted as saying in a New Yorker article about Hillary.
“They will not be ignored!”
With that, the “war” was on. These people, who scratched and clawed and swallowed all manner of viscous bodily fluids to get where they were did not appreciate being a bypassed rung on the D,C. power ladder. Relegate them to the societal dustbin? Render their phoney-baloney status to just that? All they got was a “harrumph” from the Clintons and the wonk wave that swept into town...and they didn't like it. Outsiders and worst of all, hillbillies—had come into their midst and didn't fall down on their knees before them Horrors! And worse, they instead set out to charm the rabble in places like Anacostia and too many dusky cities beyond. So for that shunned, wounded elite, it would be a two-pronged attack—the ink-stained and “Sunday Talk” husbands would attack through their biased punditry, and the wives would complete the pincers move with their iron-fisted control of the social set in town.
And that's what you see now. The keening of Matthews, and Russert and their wives again in Vanity Fair in recent months. It is a big, fat, leaden shot across the bows for all who now aspire to power in “their town”.
Attention must be paid.
Dues to them as well, thank you.
Because though the world changes around them, as it de-centralizes from archaic little hubs like “The Village”, they've worked too hard, and invested in way too many ball gowns, and rhinestone encrusted masks, tuxes, and tea sets to let it all just...go like that.
But what is this place, really?
Is it the twin-setted and J.Press-ed soiree central...or is it a figment? A hopelessly internalized, delusionary “Camelot Of The Mind”? This “shining” city is a land where a racist President Woodrow Wilson lay physically and mentally enfeebled for months on end while a compliant press looked the other way as his wife and others ran the country by proxy—deceiving us all. It is where FDR, and Eisenhower, and Kennedy and Johnson all took on lovers for years at a time and neglected their wives as the society set curtsy-ed, Brandy Alexander-ed and appetizer-nibbled the salaciousness away.
This “shining” city.
It is where Nixon drank himself into dangerous afternoon rages and verbally and emotionally abused his wife. It is a place where Congressmen routinely hid their mistresses in plain sight on the government payroll as typewriter-challenged aides and assistants.
Call it a “Camelot of the Mind”, because what else would you call a city where the population is majority Black, and poor because it is starved of necessary revenue by its wealthiest residents and workers? A “Camelot of the Mind” because the city's biggest “business”—The Federal Government pays not a dime in property tax on the 30% of District real estate it owns, and thus leaves the city proper to be financed primarily by the poor and middle class.
A poor and middle class who are not allowed to be represented in Congress by any precious “Villagers”.
A city surveyed and laid out in large part by a brilliant, freed Black man, Benjamin Banneker in 1791, and so heavily “melanated” census-wise that it is known as variously as “Dark Country” and “Chocolate City”, but you'd never know it if you went by the exclusionary “Villagers” who claim the best of it as their personal patrician playground.
This “shining” city.
A fiction. A daydream. A mindfuck—needed to make the “Villagers” feel better about themselves. A psychically gated community, sealed off by a fear of everyone outside finding out that the residents of it lie, and cheat and steal and fuck just like everybody else—in spite of their precious, elitist status. And God forbid an outsider...a Jed and Jethro and Granny should come to “town” and move in, upsetting all the apoplectic Drysdales, and worse—charming the oughtta-know-better Miss Hathaways. Bespoiling the air with their vittle-smells, and critters and rough accents. Smells, critters and accents the real city they live in understands, and the greater country around said city easily embraces.
Look upon them again...these “Villagers”.
All fur, frozen smiles, flattened foreheads, frosted tips, and of course, freshened cocktails.
Sometimes I think of the phrase, “The Village”, and the 2004 M. Night Shyamalan movie of the same name, “The Village” comes to mind. Ninety-five percent of that film takes place in an insular, rigid, Victorian-era enclave, where the residents live in abject terror of what lies beyond the woods cocooning their community as well as the creatures of the woods itself.
If you don't want to know how the movie ends, please stop here.
For you, the brave, O. Henry-addicted souls who have gone forward, let it be known that Shyamalan's “The Village” ends with the “reveal” that this archaic hamlet is actually just a bunch of time-warped crazies who've effectively sealed themselves off from modern 21st Century America.
But then...you knew that about them already. Didn't you?
Thoreau said, “A town is saved, not more by the righteous men in it than by the woods and swamps that surround it”.
Nice sentiment, that. How about we see that Thoreau...and maybe raise it one P-Funk...and a Gil-Scott Heron?