Capital Letters: The Center of the Universe

In which our man in Washington dines with dairymen, ponders politics with gay Republicans, and investigates interns

Date: Mon, June 28, 1999 11:46:59 AM
Subj: Expensive Dinner

"Is that John Ashcroft?" a woman asked, complaining that the dim light made it hard to identify members of Congress. I speculated that the lights were low to give the crowd of pale corporate lobbyists a simulacrum of a tan. She suggested that it was to hide the fact that we were basically in a barn--the D.C. Convention Center, one of the few facilities large enough to hold the 3,300 guests at the 1999 Republican Senate-House Dinner.

It's high fund raising season in Washington. Presidential candidates and members of Congress are rushing to pile up the dough before the June 30 filing date. So lobbyists are busy dropping off $1,000 checks at breakfasts and dinners for politicians they hope to influence. I did my part--even breaking a date with the Lovely Wife--by accepting an invitation to the $1,500-a-plate dinner. I thought it might be worth monitoring.

I attend a lot of Washington events, but this was my first $1,500-a-plater. And I must say, it differed a bit from think tank dinners. No appetizers, for one thing--not a single stuffed mushroom.

The crowd was unfamiliar as well. You get to know the faces on the wonk circuit. But I recognized few in this crowd, and it wasn't just the lighting. My host had purchased half a table, which meant that I got to eat with some strangers, representatives of the milk producers in a Midwestern state. The first course, a "goat cheese and caramelized onion tart," upset them. It's disrespectful to make cow people choose between eating goat cheese or forgoing the first course.

The audience showed an equal disrespect for the speakers, all "powerful" members of Congress. As House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) spoke, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) standing stiffly at his side, you couldn't miss the rising din. The longer Hastert spoke, the louder it got. The room grew even louder as Lott worked through his remarks. I sat quietly, working on a glass of Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon and enjoying the scene. It's hard to think of these guys as powerful while they perspire before a rudely indifferent crowd.

Why plop down $1,500 and waste an evening at such an event? It's certainly not for the video that contrasts braying donkeys with gracefully running elephants. It's not for the food, not for the drinks, and not for the company at your table, unless you happen to be seated next to an influential congressman.

I can think of two reasons. First, to buttonhole a member and apprise him or her of your concerns. (Hence the frustration with the dim lighting.) Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) popped by our table for a chat. We ran into Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) on the balcony enjoying a smoke.

Also, I imagine it is important to have one's name on the list. It's a roll call, a bed check or, more accurately, a bankroll check. But once the festivities start, there's no reason not to get into some conversation, even if the speaker of the House is trying to tell you all that he plans to do for you. It's like recess without yard narcs.

The flip side of the crowd's indifference to the speeches is that they aren't long. The entire program lasted a bit over an hour, after which it was on to the important business of dancing, slurping cocktails, and continuing conversations.

Just before I headed out, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) walked by with a woman who was artificially blond and artificially busty. "She's 45 trying to look 25," said a Capitol Hill reporter. "He's 96 and looks 106." Strom stopped to kiss his escort. A woman next to me said she and many of her fellow female lobbyists had been similarly "Stromed." Power still has its perquisites.

Date: Wed, July 7, 1999 11:50:40 AM
Subj: Hill Day

Rat-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat. The drummers of the "American Original Drum and Fife Corps," clad in blue band jackets and black Zorro hats, provided the cadence for 70 or so Republican congressmen and women who marched into the Ways and Means Committee Room waving miniature American flags. It was July 1, the next to last day of business before Congress adjourned for its July 4th break. What better day to celebrate a "New Declaration of Independence!," Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer's plan to grant Americans tax relief?

To the objective eye, such an event is an absurd waste of time and an assault on any residual intelligence among those who follow public policy. The fife and drum corps, complete with Anheuser-Busch logos on the drums. The long march across the street while waving tiny flags. The group of authentic American people: young, middle-aged, and senior; brown, black, and white. The nine bundles of red, white, and blue balloons. The podium, which read in descending order: "A New Declaration of Independence!; Securing America's Future; Strengthening Retirement Security; Freeing Families with Tax Relief." Any of these items--especially the New Declaration of Independence!--should be enough to embarrass the participants. Together, they constitute absurdist theater.

Yet it worked. Nine TV camera crews were on hand to record the event. The Associated Press story led, "Literally banging a drum for tax cuts..." The next day's Washington Post began, "A huge surge in projected budget surpluses had Republicans' mouths watering yesterday on Capitol Hill, as they celebrated the prospects of a new round of tax-cutting with a Fourth of July-style rally--complete with a colorful fife and drum corps."

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