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
From: mlynch@reasondc.org
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
From: mlynch@reasondc.org
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."

Archer got to the nut of the issue. "What this debate is really about," said the soon-to-be-retired Texas congressman, who is responsible for writing tax legislation, "is whether we are going to downsize the power of Washington and upsize the power of the people." He then proclaimed that "broad-based tax relief" will be the dominant item in his tax relief plan, which will also address the marriage tax penalty, education capital spending, capital gains tax cuts, the death tax, and incentives for health care.

This announcement might seem mundane, but to budget and tax policy watchers, and to Republican publicists, the news was unexpected and exciting, tantamount to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's taking time out from reading a prepared statement to scratch his head. "We expected [Archer] to just show a little ankle," Hastert press secretary Pete Jeffries told me after the event. "He went up over the knee."

Jeffries may have sensed belatedly that Bill Archer's naked knee is not necessarily an image that sells. He was soon onto his next point. "If the market goes up today, it's because of the capital gains announcement," he said with a self-satisfied smile. "What if it goes down?" I retorted. After a brief pause, he said that would be because it was worn out from the runup the day before. (For the record, the Dow closed up 96 points. Reuters cited a "good outlook for second quarter earnings," not political promises of tax cuts, as the reason.)

Date: Fri, July 23, 1999 3:47:53 PM
From: mlynch@reasondc.org
Subj: Log Cabin Libertarians

Two and a half years in Washington and I've finally found the free marketeers in the Republican Party–they're gay.

The second Wednesday of each month, in the basement of the Rhodeside Grill in Arlington, Virginia, anywhere from 30 to 60 gay men, a few straights, and a couple of women gather under the auspices of the Log Cabin Club of Northern Virginia. I dropped by yesterday to catch the featured talk, "Freedom for All: The Case Against Employment Non-Discrimination Laws," by Nigel Ashford, a professor of American politics in England.

I assumed they had to go all the way to England to find a gay conservative willing to argue against making homosexuality a protected class under federal discrimination law. But this hunch was wrong. The vast majority of the 40 or so gentlemen and two ladies present appeared to agree with Ashford. This puts them at odds with the national Log Cabin Club and probably every other gay advocacy organization.

Bookended by a dartboard and a TV showing local news, Nigel began his talk by saying he had 15 minutes to give 12 reasons why the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), was a bad thing. "Start with a principle," he said. It is wrong to discriminate, but it is wrong to force people not to discriminate. Since he has no right to a particular job, being denied it is not a denial of his rights. Said Nigel, "Even bigots have rights."

Nigel then laid out three more specific reasons to oppose ENDA: It's a threat to civil liberties, to society as a whole, and to gays. "It is intended to increase opportunity, but perversely, and I said perversely, not perversity, it will have the opposite effect," he said. This is because employers will be less likely to hire openly gay individuals if they fear they cannot let them go without risking a lawsuit.

So what is the proper agenda for politically active gays? Gays should work for equality before the law, Ashford said, by attacking sodomy laws and promoting gay marriage, gays in the military, and gay adoption laws. That's not exactly a Republican agenda, but then, Ashford has the benefit of being British.

Not everyone agreed with Ashford's libertarianism. A dissenter said he supported equality and therefore he wanted to be equal with minorities and women. Someone else in the audience clapped. Nigel answered that such group rights were damaging to America, adding that he thinks anti-discrimination laws for other groups should be abolished as well.

The second, and last, question, was about internal Log Cabin Club politics. A man asked Ashford to address the contradiction of people like Log Cabin Club President Rich Tafel, who call themselves libertarians but lobby for ENDA. "It's a good thing he sees himself as a libertarian," Ashford responded. "What he needs to do is read some literature to see what that means. He needs to read David Boaz's book." Boaz was sitting, looking satisfied, to my left. The room erupted in claps.

Outgoing chapter president Dan Blatt rose to give his farewell address, the only barrier between us and dinner upstairs. Blatt's vision is not of pushing a gay-friendly agenda like Nigel's. It's to work with Republican candidates on shared issues, such as lower taxes, while letting them know you're gay and that there are good gays dedicated to the party. Familiarity over time will produce acceptance.

Blatt gave an example of how this could be done. A fellow Log Cabiner had purchased one of those $1,000 tickets to George W. Bush's recent fundraiser in D.C. He made it to the rope line, and when he shook Bush's hand, he didn't advocate gay marriage, gays in the mili-tary, or any of those good things Ashford talked about. He simply said, "I am a gay Republican. We want to work with you."

Blatt added, "My vision for Log Cabin is this: Be openly gay and proudly Republican." I wish him luck.

Date: Mon, August 9, 1999 9:39:00 AM
From: mlynch@reasondc.org
Subj: Mentoring Session

I figured it would be a tough assignment when I saw the bouncer guarding the door. I'd been to the Capitol Lounge many times, and had never before needed any papers to get into the Pennsylvania Avenue watering hole. Sixty-seven bars have been cited for serving underage patrons this summer, "this being one of them," the full-faced fellow at the door said no less than three times when I inquired about the reason for his employment.

I was on hand Friday to observe interns in action. Congress had just adjourned for the summer, and Washington's legions of interns had all been working long enough to form deep thoughts on this city, government, and the role they play in it. It would be tough to get the youngsters to talk: A Roll Call story at the start of the intern season had caused their Hill bosses to issue a universal gag order. I expected I'd have to wait until they got drunk. The bouncer made my job all the more difficult.

Fortunately, I didn't have to rely on complete strangers. My summer sidekick, Jonathan Block, had rounded up some colleagues. We sat down over happy-hour pints and two orders of hot wings in the basement cigar and martini lounge.

"So are you having fun?" I asked. A woman working for a legal group said she wasn't. "They are working my ass off and not giving me any respect," she said. She worked all day while the rest of her office practiced their golf game in the hallways, hitting her in the feet with errant putts and chips. "It was hell," she said.

Note to organization presidents: Don't leave the office for extended periods of time. When you take a vacation, so too does your staff, except they take theirs on the clock. I was regaled with tales of Fridays so casual that most people didn't show up for work, and those who did left early. Said a leggy 21-year-old in an Ally McBeal skirt, "If someone leaves early on Friday, everyone else has to leave also." She'd been at the bar since early afternoon.

The staff of another research organization whose president was on vacation spent the portion of the day not dedicated to a three-hour lunch playing "sardines," a version of hide-and-go-seek. Said one intern, in what I assume was a figurative expression, "The office has gone to pot."

As the evening rolled on, the $2 pints started to establish themselves. The Violent Femmes' "Add It Up" blared from the jukebox. My own intern announced that it was time for shots. I declined at first, citing my advanced age and my Lovely Wife. But I was quickly humbled into it.

Block soon took to dancing around, and then on, the pool table, with a fellow intern who managed to keep her feet on the floor. Academic looking–short straight hair, cut to no particular style, and "I read serious books" wire-rim glasses–Block's dance partner is no introverted intellectual. When her summer stint is up in D.C., she's not flying back to California. She's going Greyhound to see the country from the ground. (See "Road Trip," March.)

The Weekly Standard's Tucker Carlson claims that nobody rides the bus any more. That's just not true. She wasn't the only one. A Cato intern with a buzz cut and long sideburns told how he recently Greyhounded from Wisconsin to Salt Lake City to see a girl. He met the "neatest people" on the bus. Two of those people, an orange-haired guy and his purple-haired girlfriend, each amply pierced, were fleeing the deadening boredom of Chicago's suburban "sprawl" for the old "new urbanism" of San Francisco. They planned to live on the streets.

The interns seemed to like D.C. A fellow from Hawaii said spending a summer in Washington meant "being in the mainstream, the center of the universe." The bus bound dancer agreed. "Who could ever want to leave D.C.?" she asked.

After the shots, a fellow from Claremont McKenna College and I proceeded to thump my inebriated intern and his partner at pool. By now, the leggy intern was skillfully working the room for free drinks. She was temporarily wrapped around an athletic-looking fellow who'd recently made the transition from Hill committee staff to a p.r. firm and therefore could afford the tab.

She slinked over to check in. She didn't care if I quoted her, but wanted to be sure I described her as "leggy," a word she had earlier seen me scribble in my Looney Tunes notepad. A student at the University of Southern California, she was also interested in an internship in REASON's L.A. office. That's the spirit. You're exactly what the L.A. office, or any office for that matter, needs, I told her, as she rewarded my kindness with a hug. I said Associate Editor Jesse Walker would certainly have something for her to do, and I promised to put in a good word.