[Paleopsych] NYT: New to Capitol Hill? 10 Tips to Avoid Ruin
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Sun Feb 6 16:22:41 UTC 2005
The New York Times > Fashion & Style > New to Capitol Hill? 10 Tips to
By ELISABETH BUMILLER
THE start of every presidential term brings to Washington eager new
cabinet officers and members of Congress who take the wrong elevators,
get lost in the hallways and pop off to reporters. But such faux pas -
Senator Ken Salazar, a freshman Democrat from Colorado, says he has
not yet found the Senate dining room and is eating ham sandwiches in
the public cafeteria - are hardly the worst of it.
As everyone knows, Washington is shadowed by the specters of grand
scandals past: Richard M. Nixon and Watergate, Oliver North and
Iran-Contra, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. More recently Bernard
B. Kerik, President Bush's short-lived nominee for homeland security
secretary, jettisoned himself for his troubles with a nanny and then
turned out to have a Manhattan love nest, a serious no-no in
Washington. Unlike New York, the nation's capital has always had a
Puritan streak and remains a curious mix of raging ambition and
So now that the president's State of the Union address has signaled
the official start of the year, here are 10 rules, culled from those
who have learned the hard way, for avoiding social, political and
legal disaster in Washington.
1. Don't get up in the middle of dinner and announce that you have to
run off to do "Larry King Live."
Well-mannered Washingtonians tell hostesses that they will drop by
before or after their appearances on nightly programs like Mr. King's.
"You should tell your hostess ahead of time," said Sally Quinn, the
Washington writer and hostess who is married to Benjamin C. Bradlee,
former executive editor of The Washington Post, and the author of a
book on entertaining. Otherwise, Ms. Quinn said, there will be a
gaping hole at the dinner table. (Mr. King's interview show is on CNN
at 9 p.m.) For dinner on big occasions like election night, guests can
graze in the shows' green rooms, the lavishly catered holding areas
that have evolved into the new Washington dinner parties.
2. Don't use the expression "Do you know who I am?"
The answer from the young woman looking for your lost ticket at the
charity dinner check-in table may well be an embarrassing no. Also,
the question is generally not effective, unless your goal is
frightening her. "It doesn't make your ticket appear more quickly,"
said Carolyn Peachey, a longtime Washington event planner who has
heard the expression for decades.
The only time Ms. Peachey has given a dispensation for the
expression's use was last fall, when the music mogul Quincy Jones was
prevented from entering a reception at the State Department. A plate
in his head from brain surgery had set off the metal detector, Ms.
Peachey said, and 20 minutes of talking to the guards made no
difference. "Do you know who I am?" Mr. Jones finally asked. The guard
replied yes, Ms. Peachey said, but insisted there was nothing to be
done. Mr. Jones eventually got in through intervention from
3. Don't withhold information from your lawyer.
Former White House counsels, lawyers for white-collar criminals, and
the city's highly paid damage controllers all agree: This is the
premier mistake that otherwise intelligent people make in Washington.
Cover-ups are often worse than the problems themselves.
"What inevitably happens is that the facts dribble out, compounding
the story, because reporters are not going to give up until they beat
the competition and dig up something new," said Lanny J. Davis, a
Washington lawyer brought in for White House damage control during the
Clinton scandals and the author of "Truth to Tell: Tell it Early, Tell
it All, Tell it Yourself."
Fred F. Fielding, the White House counsel for Ronald Reagan, who
vetted the current President Bush's cabinet nominees during the 2000
transition, heartily agrees. Nominees have to be prepared, he said,
honestly to answer the awful questions posed by White House lawyers:
Have you ever had an affair? Or used drugs? A yes to either of those
questions, Mr. Fielding added, was not necessarily a problem.
"There's a difference between somebody having an affair years ago,
before their first marriage broke up, and someone having an affair
with someone he supervised," he said. As for drugs, "occasional drug
use in college would not be a disqualifier."
4. Don't change your hairstyle too often.
"There is zero tolerance for coif inconsistency," said Mary Matalin, a
longtime adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and a former television
talk show host who is, at the moment, a brunette. Over the years she
has been blonde, light brown or, as she put it, "hijacked by
hyper-highlights ranging from dull orange to bright white." In short,
Ms. Matalin said, "You have to pick a color and stick with a color."
5. Don't plan to announce your new nominee before a proper vetting.
This applies more to presidents than to ordinary folk, but it is an
important corollary of Rule No. 3. C. Boyden Gray, the White House
counsel for the first President Bush, said that he was under constant
pressure from the president and his staff rapidly to investigate the
background of cabinet nominees so that Mr. Bush could fill jobs.
"I was pounded, relentlessly, when I was counsel," Mr. Gray said. He
recalled that in 1988, when President-elect Bush insisted on quickly
announcing Carla A. Hills as the United States trade representative,
Ms. Hills and Mr. Gray agreed that Ms. Hills's husband, Rod, would
have to resign from a steel company board to avoid any conflict of
interest with his wife's new job. The problem was that Mr. Hills was
on a plane until 4 p.m., and the president wanted Ms. Hills announced
at 2 p.m. But she refused to say publicly that her husband would
resign from the steel board without asking him first.
So Mr. Gray called the Federal Aviation Administration and got in
touch with the commercial plane's pilot, who summoned Mr. Hills to the
cockpit, where Mr. Hills gave his O.K. "I think it violated all kinds
of F.A.A. rules," Mr. Gray said. "The point of the story is that these
are very difficult issues, and you can't back down."
6. Don't wear a beaded Armani to a Friday night dinner in Cleveland
The clean lines of Armani are highly desirable in Washington, and the
first lady's white cashmere Oscar de la Renta wowed the town on
Inaugural day. But even in a city as formal as the capital, be careful
not to overdress. Andrea Mitchell, the NBC correspondent who is
married to Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board,
said she was reminded of that recently when she wore a black silk
Armani pantsuit with a beaded top to dinner one Friday in Cleveland
Park, an affluent, liberal enclave of faded Volvos in the city's
northwest quadrant. Every other woman, she said, was in slacks and
What to do? "Laugh it off and realize that in Washington what you say
and what you know is more important than what you wear," Ms. Mitchell
7. Don't think it is your job to educate reporters.
"You just bite your tongue on certain topics," said Ed Rollins, a
veteran Republican strategist and the manager of Christie Whitman's
successful campaign for governor of New Jersey in 1993. Mr. Rollins
did not follow his own advice later that year, when he infamously
boasted to reporters at a breakfast in Washington that Ms. Whitman's
campaign had paid African-American ministers and Democratic workers
$500,000 in "walking-around money" to suppress the black vote.
This statement, immediately recanted, prompted a federal
investigation, which found nothing illegal. But Mr. Rollins's words
had brought the political establishment down on his head and tainted
Ms. Whitman's victory.
8. Don't believe your own spin.
"I was guilty of that," said Mr. Davis, the Clinton defender. Mr.
Davis said he first spun out the argument that there was nothing wrong
with political donors attending coffees at the Clinton White House
because no money was actually collected there. "I tried to believe it,
because I was technically correct," Mr. Davis said. "But people were
expected to give money before or after the event."
9. Don't forget who your friends are.
"The biggest mistake that people make is that they base their
friendships on who is in power and who is not," Ms. Quinn said. "This
is short-sighted, because very few people in Washington stay in power
for a length of time. In the same vein, people will count people out
once they lose power. This is always a huge mistake, because people
are never out unless they're in the ground with a stake in the heart."
10. Don't forget where you came from, and that integrity matters.
"People think the values here will be different than the ones they
left at home, and they're not," said Robert S. Strauss, a Washington
sage who is the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee
and a longtime Bush family friend. "It's the same damn thing that you
have in Dallas or Los Angeles or Houston. People value loyalty here as
much or more as they do anywhere else."
If all else fails, Mr. Fielding has the surefire way to avoid social,
political and legal ruin in Washington.
"Move to Kansas," he said.
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