Monday, August 9, 2010

Washington Social Diary

Michelle Obama and daughter Sasha arrive at the Malaga airport. AP.
by Carol Joynt

Rule one in this town is: get elected. Rule two is: get re-elected. Those two rules, courtesy of James Carville, define Washington this August. The rich and social (and, yes, the First Lady, too) may be off gallivanting in playgrounds by the sea, but for the city’s number one industry, politics, its town halls, county fairs, local diners and fundraisers. For those with their professional hearts in Washington, who want a seat in Congress, or want to keep their seat in Congress, the focus is solely the November 2 mid-term elections. Everything else can wait.

Which is why insiders scratch their heads about Rep. Charles Rangel, facing 13 charges of ethics violations, a tarnished man in a tough game of survival. His friends and colleagues don’t understand why he’s pushing them up against the wall with his planned birthday celebration this week at the Plaza Hotel. He’s forcing them to make a public choice – “in” or “out” – and, so far, it’s a gamble he’s losing. Except for those for whom he’s done great favors, people are running away from the invite like a house on fire. It prompts the question, why doesn’t he cancel, or at least postpone until November 5th? Greed, perhaps, and hubris; the desperate last grabs of a career spiraling down.

Rep. Charles Rangel in photo from the New York Daily News.
I called my friend and NYSD contributor, Ned Brown, who spends at least part of every week immersed in the complicated workings of Capitol Hill. I understand Washington inside and out, but Ned is an expert at deconstructing the Hill’s laundry – dry cleaned or dirty. My first question was, “How did Rangel let this saga reach the stage of an embarrassing birthday party story – naming names – on the front page of The New York Times?”

Ned cited a friend who is an upstate Congressman, a freshman, and a product of the new school of politics:

“This Congressman believes Rangel is putting his own reputation before the interests of his Democratic colleagues, many of whom will have very tough races. He’s not the only member of Congress, or member from the New York delegation, who has expressed similar judgments on the Rangel situation. There is the wise adage that if ‘you do not change with the world, the world will change you.’ He’s in a tough spot.”

A tough spot of his own making. Ned, who said he finds the whole episode sad, added, “Rangel comes from an old school of loyalty – help your friends (meaning fellow politicians), and you will be rewarded with growing political power, respect and often, money. The old-style politicians don’t see anything wrong with a little rental assistance on your apartments, helpful financing on a Caribbean home, or using your official position to raise money for a personal cause. They see it as paying your dues, and you will be justly rewarded. It happened on both sides of the aisle in the past.”

The world changed on Charlie Rangel, and he didn’t notice.
Security detail traveling with the First Lady and her party in Spain. AP.
Face it, too often your worst fears about Washington politicians are true: they run for office for power, money and sex, to compensate for not making the football team or landing a date with the head cheerleader. They also don’t think the rules apply to them, no matter how many colleagues before them march down the walk of shame on the evening news or into an ethics committee hearing. Unfortunately, in spite of every preceding and notorious transgression by a colleague, and the career kill that followed, as you read this there’s a Capitol Hill office holder who’s trying to bypass some ethics rule or who is cheating on his wife. Certainly not all, but even if it's only one or two it's fair for taxpayers to wonder if any of them pay attention to anything or anyone but themselves.

Americans, especially right now, don’t suffer Washington fools gladly. We elect/hire legislators not to be sensational, or greedy, but to pass laws that make us a stronger society, to keep us safe and to, most of all, spend our money wisely. I hear you laughing. Fair enough.

The other sensational distraction from Washington’s summer heat was First Lady Michelle Obama’s trip to Spain with her daughter, Sasha, and an entourage of friends and security. They are back home now, but to me it sounded like a good summer trip, the kind many women take – or wish they could take – with their daughters and friends. But local right wing radio talkers had their knickers up in a bunch, yelping loudly about the costs to taxpayers. Interesting that they didn’t make the same noise when former First Lady Laura Bush took off on holidays with her daughters and friends, which she did, and with security in tow.
Mrs. Obama and Secret Service agents, in Spain. AP.
There are those who foam at the mouth about the First Family, although they tend to omit relevant facts. Like, for example, that the Obamas were paying their own personal expenses, as were their friends. Under those circumstances, if they can afford it they have a right to do as they please. Is it politically problematic? Yes. But that’s the choice they make. As for the security detail, like it or not, that is out of the First Family’s control.

Obviously in Washington we have a different view of presidential security. It’s a way of life. Most who live here have had to cool their jets – on foot or in their car – while the police close down a thoroughfare for a Presidential or Vice Presidential motorcade. We are accustomed to giving up personal information and to walking through body scanners to be in the same room with the top tier of officialdom.

If the President and First Lady go to a restaurant or to a private home or a cultural event, whole blocks get shut down. It’s a nuisance but we cope. Can the President change it? No. Some of us have friends in the Secret Service, including in the presidential detail. Do these highly trained professionals also wish the clock could be turned back to simpler times, when First Families were freer to move around the planet? Yes. Will that happen? No.
Sasha Obama in the sea of Marbella, Spain.
For better insight into the security aspects of the First Family, and Michelle Obama’s trip in particular, I contacted an expert, Ron Kessler, who wrote the book, The President’s Secret Service. I asked him for the facts on the Secret Service detail in Spain. He answered to the point, and added some more interesting information:

“Nothing remarkable about the trip to Marbella, Spain,” he said. Closing off a section of a beach so the First Lady’s group could swim was not her call but a Secret Service decision, he said, adding they would have had boats in the water as well to augment the security.

Barbara and Jenna Bush.
“By the way, the Secret Service has found that Obama's kids are among the best-behaved offspring of presidential children,” Kessler said. “In contrast, Jenna and Barbara Bush gave agents a hard time. Jenna would even run red lights sometimes to try to evade her agents.”

On a chilling note, though, he added, “Threats against Obama have increased as much as 400% compared with President Bush, prompting creation of a secret Presidential Threat Task Force within the FBI. Much of the increase has been from racists, but they are not connected with any political movement or even interested in politics: They are just plain bigots who do not like the idea of a black president.”

I wonder, though, if the extreme fringe, the “birthers” and tea party faction, haven’t stirred the pot. Their hostility toward Obama often is personal and threatening.

Remember, politics is in virtually every reaction to events, whether its noise about Charlie Rangel or noise about the First Lady’s trip to Spain. Again, it’s about getting elected and getting re-elected and who stands as the figureheads for the two parties. For the Democrats it’s obviously President Obama, whose popularity polls have dropped to a level where he’s viewed as fallible, even by his fans.

For the Republicans, the party leaders are Sarah Palin, with Newt Gingrich as backup, supported by a discordant chorus of conservative pundits.

The President last summer on Martha's Vineyard, from the Chicago Sun Times.
The President did celebrate his 49th birthday last week, and in a couple of ways. One was a dinner in Chicago with Oprah Winfrey and other friends. The “official” party, a barbecue, was held yesterday at the White House with Michelle and Sasha, back from Spain, and daughter Malia, back from sleep-away camp, and more family and friends.

In a couple weeks the Obamas will take a holiday together on Martha’s Vineyard, as they did last year. No doubt there will be noise about that trip, too.

There was some debate about why President Obama didn’t go to Spain with Michelle and Sasha. Was there a problem in the marriage? Goodness. The less dramatic truth is that staying home was a smart move with the mid-terms on the horizon (remember? get elected, get re-elected), and besides, he had actual work to do.

Among other business, there was the confirmation vote for Elena Kagan’s appointment to the Supreme Court. Also, he must find a replacement for Christina Romer, the head of his Council of Economic Advisers, who resigned last week for what the White House called family reasons. Whatever the official reason for her departure, apparently Romer was tired of butting heads with Larry Summers, head of the Administration’s National Economic Council. They both deny a rift but in Washington those kinds of denials certify the rumors are true.
The Obamas and friends during a bike ride on Martha's Vineyard last summer. Courtesy Zimbio.
Last and least, we finally had the premiere of “The Real Housewives of Washington, DC.” The competing “official” premiere parties were anticlimactic. One was hosted by Bravo network, producers of the “Housewives” franchise, at a downtown hotel, and another hosted by the Michaele and Tareq Salahi, at a gay nightclub. While the Bravo hype is that the cast run with the city’s top tier, and even though Congress was in session, and many White House staff were in town, none of the parties featured A-list elected officials, White House appointees or authentic socialites. According to a friend who attended the Bravo party, there were no so-called “power players,” only “hairdressers and party PR girls.”

Despite claims that the DC show is about the real Washington, there was no proof of that in the first episode. The show was a hodgepodge of self-involved women cut down to unflattering stereotypes: vapid, hyper, racist, bitchy and sloshed. But back to the rules of success in Washington: get elected, get re-elected. They achieved the first goal when they got cast in the show. Now they face the bigger hurdle – ratings that will win them re-election, a second season. According to Robert Seidman of “TV By The Numbers,” who sifted through the Nielsen particulate, the first show did “just OK.”

Seidman made a good point that goes back to the delicate relationship between the American public and the nation’s capital: “If I’m Bravo I’d have some anxiety about whether now is a good time for the Washington political scene to resonate  broadly.”
Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C.

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