Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Washington Social Diary

The graves of Jack and Jackie Kennedy at Arlington Cemetery. Side by side forever, though she left Washington after he died.
On Men and Love In Washington
By Carol Joynt


In his excellent new memoir, “Counselor,” Ted Sorensen fills 550 pages with deep affection for and devotion to Jack Kennedy, his old boss, friend and collaborator. “For eleven years I loved him, respected him, and believed in him, and I still do.”

Writing the book helped keep Kennedy alive for him, but it also brought “a kind of closure after all this time. I have completed my service to him.” Sorensen is not the only male Kennedy acolyte to harbor those ardent feelings, but he is among the most eloquent communicators of what it was like to be in the orbit of JFK. As expressed by Sorensen, the love is tangible.
Sorensen interviewed Tuesday by Carol Joynt at The Q&A Cafe in Washington.
Nothing less than love infused the words that poured forth last week about Tim Russert. With few exceptions, the most passionate odes came from men, his buddies and closest colleagues, particularly Mike Barnicle, Chris Matthews, Al Hunt and Tom Brokaw. They did not hide their love for Russert, who died in one of the more honorable manly ways, not in the arms of a woman but on the job. A friend asked, “Is it just me, or did Russert have no women in his life? This whole week has been about Russert and men, with an occasional mention of Maureen.”

At Wagshal's, a popular deli near where Tim Russert worked and lived, his photo has been moved to a place of honor near the check out.
Of course Russert had women in his life (mother, sisters, wife, friends, colleagues), just as Sorensen and Kennedy had women in theirs, and as so many men of substance have women, but Washington is a man’s town the way London is a man’s town. (New York and Paris, for example, are women’s towns). Washington women have made progress, but they don’t rule. Men here, in their private and public goings on, prefer the company of other men, with the possible exception of the town’s most charismatic flirt, Vernon Jordan. But Vernon, too, is famous for his time spent with other famous men.

To me, what we have in the nation’s capital is the gayest population of straight men. Their affection for each other transcends capricious physical attraction for something more sturdy: the common bonds of career, ambition, shared battles and, as with Sorensen, a sort of Knights of the Roundtable fervor. Men loving men is not new here. Roosevelt had Louis Howe. Eisenhower had Sherman Adams. Bush “41” had James Baker. Jack Valenti famously said, "I sleep each night a little better… because Lyndon Johnson is my President." That’s love.

Attend almost any political event – lunch, dinner, casual, formal, fundraiser, gala – and it happens right before your eyes. The cocktails or reception part has the usual co-ed mingling, with occasional, restrained flirting, but then the men find each other and engage in their hardiest and most intimate conversations. Even at tables of 10 or 12 the men sit with men, and don’t appear to care whether there’s a woman to the left or right. They can talk endlessly. About what? A good joke to begin, the racier the better, or a mention of family, but soon on to the meat of it: politics, legislation, the day at the office, other men, who got screwed yesterday and today, and who’s gonna get screwed tomorrow. Observe them and you witness a kind of bliss. A woman gamely breaks into the pod or conversation and they welcome her, but the intensity is broken.

Sorensen with Kennedy.
Several years ago I gave a dance to welcome a new neighbor, Mike Murphy, the mastermind of some notable political campaigns. A guy’s guy, and smart, witty, and well connected; his work is his life. I merged his guest list with a portion of mine. The night started as a routine mixed party, but it evolved into its unique Washington self. Having the deejay was pointless. There was little dancing, except among women. What the men did was stand in clumps, blue blazers and khakis, contentedly talking to each other, one hand holding a cold beer and the other shoved in a pocket. What were they talking about? Politics, legislation, shared battles, and who got screwed and who’s gonna get screwed. Maybe some men and women found each other that night, but for the guys it was the last bit of business of the day.

I have a friend who recently left the White House after 7 ½ years of loyal service to the President. He loves George Bush, and he’ll tell you so. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he would lie down and die for the man, but maybe he would. The President and First Lady attended my friend’s small farewell party. The President looked sad, like a romance had ended. He spoke sincere and affectionate remarks about my friend and physically embraced him in a way that was notably tender and loving. Everyone in the room smiled at the embrace and understood the nature of it. Had the departing staffer been a woman, it wouldn’t have been the same.

“You don’t want to stay here,” Yolande Betbeze Fox advised when my husband died. “Move away, if you can. This is no town for women. Women dry up here.” Is that true? Well, it’s not entirely false. But it should be noted that Yolande, Miss America of 1951, feminist and political activist, didn’t follow her own advice. She has been a Georgetowner for decades. She owns the handsome N Street house that Jackie Kennedy moved to from the White House. But Jackie didn’t stay. She quickly got out of here, and for all kinds of reasons, including that she understood the nature of this place and knew it wouldn’t work for her.

Vernon Jordan at The Q&A Cafe.
Of course sex is part of the story, in the very absence of it. Political men view women as a risk. The town teams with young women who are blinded by the pinstripes. Please don’t take Monica Lewinsky as the standard. Talented women come here to land good jobs, loyally serve the country, and don’t want to be toxic. When the boss, or the colleague, or the client is a man, though, the social options for a woman are quickly narrowed. There’s the danger of “what it looks like” in the tete-a-tete late office hours, the business trips, a lunch or dinner, a too happy or chatty side by side at the reception. It’s compounded if the woman is attractive and unmarried. Just ask Vicki Iseman, the lobbyist whom the New York Times scandalized for her close relationship to John McCain. Would the story have been as sensational had Vicki been Victor? Yes, there’s Jack Abramoff, but he was playing a man’s game in a man’s world.

The simplest way for women to co-exist with the men in this town is to beat them at their own game: become as or more powerful. Then, on a limited basis, the field is almost even. But it’s not handed to them. Read Katharine Graham’s wonderful memoir, “Personal History,” to witness some of the slights she endured on her way to achieving parity. Pamela Harriman got herself equal treatment, too, but she played a man’s game better than most men.

Does this mean it’s hopeless for women in Washington? Hardly. But if it takes flirtation and flattery from men to get your engine started, best find another town, or have Vernon Jordan’s number on your speed dial. And Vernon, that’s written with respect … and love.
Tourists at the Kennedy gravesite; love passed down through the generations.
Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.