Even after a week, in a culture so wealth-besotted as ours, nobody's managed to write something as singularly privileged and self-pitying as Sally Quinn's Washington Post "announcement" about "the end of power in Washington."
Plenty of people justly mocked it coming out of the gate, galvanized by the baleful whines of neglect that can only come from a socialite who's marked the decades by inhaling foie gras with the unlanced boils that keep breaking the world.
If you're not someone who reads political Twitter feeds, you might have missed it, and you shouldn't. Quinn's piece stands out because its every idea is so toxically spoiled and vain that reading it aloud to a parakeet and a small child in an unventilated room would make both of them drop dead.
She begins her column with a "scary" story of being pushed against Callista Gingrich, at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, as the paparazzi stream past her to get photos of Kardashians. "Desperate celebrity guests were heading toward the ballroom, murmuring to us as they passed, 'Get me out of here.'"
Evidently, being a Post columnist and wife of the former editor-in-chief comes with a few perks. One of which is using your column to try to set a record for minimum number of words required to alienate literate humanity. I know what you're thinking: "Why didn't she just start the column with, 'Go fuck yourself'?" Well, one, anarchists and punks would probably like that too much, and, two, someone might have mistaken that as directed at the Beltway elite and not as a cri de coeur on their behalf.
On the way home (we skipped the after-parties)
Tie a black ribbon on your stemware, America.
I suddenly realized that this grotesque event signaled the end of power as we have known it. That dinner—which seemed to have more celebrities, clients and advertisers than journalists and politicians—was the tipping point.... The decline of power has been happening for a while. In 1987, I wrote a piece for this magazine called "The Party's Over." In it, I chronicled the demise of the Washington hostess. ... Power still trumped money in those days. Today, money trumps power.
This is the vile thesis she spends the rest of her piece explicating:
1. That in the gauzy, sublime twilight of a forgotten age, there were these people in Washington called "hostesses," indigenous only to the area. McMansion-dwelling helicopter moms who memorize the names of their kids' teachers, coaches and doctors and who know their husbands' co-workers' (and their spouses') names, titles and interests are different, inadequate beasts. They lack the wizarding know-how to be hospitable and remember personal trivia with important fat people in bespoke suits. Accio, gravitas!
Only very few people can access this arcana, people like mediocre journalists who carry on affairs with their editors and then marry them. There are rigorous testing protocols, and abandoning them debases us all. The tea lights are going out all over Georgetown; we will not see them lit again in our lifetimes.
2. That "money" is now sadly more important than "power"—something that does not come from, is not increased by and will never be synonymous with money.
If Katharine Graham, the late publisher of The Washington Post, were having a party today, and politicians or statesmen received a conflicting invitation to a party put together by Sheldon Adelson (Gingrich's super PAC guy), where do you think people would go? Adelson. No question.
Quinn has an interesting attitude toward supporting a thesis, which is apparently to immediately undermine it. At this point, I expect she trains a bichon for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show by firing a derringer into its brain. Being indulgently whiny about your wealth, influence and access to celebrity is bad enough, but Quinn decides to go ahead and also be thunderingly stupid about it. To wit:
Power in Washington used to be centered on the White House, the Congress, the Cabinet, the diplomatic corps and the journalists. Today, all of those groups depend on money for their very existence.
All of this would make sense if we were discussing an America where money had never dictated terms to Washington—and presidents, members of congress, the cabinet and the senior diplomatic corps did not routinely come from wealth or rapidly become wealthy because of their positions. In Quinn's America, the 1960s happened, but Joseph P. Kennedy never did. The Roosevelts are a myth. Ambassadorships haven't historically been farmed out to rich patrons, and journalists have only in the last decade started muzzling themselves in deference to power when not rooting at the rancid scraps at the bottom of the trough. Tucker Carlson is a new mutation: there has never before been a bowtie-clad twerp stapling himself facefirst to moneyed elites like a voluntary human centipede.
The real power lies with the lobbyists, the money-raisers, the super PACs, the bundlers, the corporations and rich people.
These creatures were invented in Bell Labs, in 1997, by somebody who hated crudités, chamber music and ties.
The irony is that in New York, I'm told, people are interested in power. In Washington, people are interested in money. Think about it. The White House's power comes from the money people give the president. ... If the president thought that there was real power in Washington, that the Congress, the diplomatic corps or the journalists could help him in any way, then he and the first lady would surely go out more often.
It's like people in two different places with an equally hungry interest in the other have recognized that there is a 1:1 exchange rate between the same commodity, as it exists in different states. People in New York have ice, and people in Washington have water, and together they can build and sell freezers. Obama? Grrrr.
The Obamas have been roundly criticized for not being part of the Washington social scene. The question is, does it matter?
For fuck's sake, no. End of editorial.
Could Obama win or lose the presidency because he has dissed the Washington community? I suspect the answer is no. It doesn't matter anymore.
So I'm just, like, sitting in Washington and thinking 'bout everything, and then Obama comes in, and I didn't even know he was there. He called my name, but I didn't hear it, and then Obama started screaming, "Sally! Sally!" And I go, "What? What's the matter?" And Obama goes, "What's the matter with you?!" I go, "There's nothing wrong, Obama, except the parties I go to that spend enough in one hour to provide free school lunches for an entire county for a year suck now." And Obama goes, "Don't tell me that! You're on drugs!" I go, "No, Obama. I'm not on drugs. Why don't you give me a brandy? It's okay, I'm just thinking, you know?" Obama goes, "No, you're not thinking! You're on drugs!" I go, "Obama, just give me a brandy, please. Just ONE brandy!" And Obama wouldn't give it to me! He wouldn't give it to me! ALL I WANTED WAS A BRANDY. Just a Brandy.
In "The Party's Over" I then wrote: "Good luck and good timing are great, but ultimately, a Washington party rises and falls with its power quotient. This has always been the case." ... Ain't no mo'.
Sing to me, Sally! And tell the story
Of the wanderer harried with bummers
After plundering the canapés
Atop the proud height of Georgetown!
It's entirely possible that Sally Quinn no longer understands that what she's writing is read by America, that the Washington Post is not—despite its primary function—one of those inter-office novelty papers circulated in giant law firms that tell everyone how the softball team is doing. It's probably impossible to produce something more tone deaf to human beings—short of re-shooting the opening of 48 Hours with Eddie Murphy in the amputee wing of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, wearing headphones and screeching out Country Joe and the Fish's "Fixin' to Die Rag."
First of all, the senators are probably out trolling for money. When a senator or congressman walks into a room now, you don't think power. You think, "Poor guy or gal, what a nightmare life that is."
Yes, this is a natural response to have when, as of 2010, the "median net worth of a current U.S. senator stood at an average of $2.63 million." The lovelorn weasels have nothing to look forward to, except de facto immunity for seemingly any perversion of law and joining a lobbying firm and increasing their income by an order of magnitude. Jesus Christ, I mean—
Wait. I'll finish this thought as soon as I come up with a second sentence for my open letter to the male talent at Brazzers.com, which begins, "You poor dears—all that fucking." I'm printing out every frame of an animated gif of my shaking my head forlornly and binding it into a flipbook, so the empathy leaps off the page.
They are beholden to so many people. They can't get anything done on the Hill because of the hideous lack of bipartisanship. ... We used to celebrate the great compromisers. Now, they're all denigrated.
And here, then, is the narcissistic sub-thesis of Quinn's editorial exercise: a celebration of the hostesses who used to nurture compromise in Washington salons, bringing together thinkers on opposing sides whose antipathy and resolve would crumble under the sensual assault of hors d'oeuvres, French wine and endless trophy-wife ass.
People like Sally Quinn used to be the guardians of the republic, mellifluous mavens who poured oil on the waters and pushed both sides together at table. That the slavish devotion to centrism exhibited by people of her ilk allowed one party to opportunistically redefine the center by pushing one platform to a rightist extreme should not be held against them. Washington is now a political toilet, but under no circumstances should the hosts of its most vital exchanges be held accountable for its becoming so on (apparently) their watch.
The diplomats, too, have no power. The good ones, such as the British and the French, are more interested in economics than in power. They follow the money, as well.
Maybe it's because their continental economy might be fucking imploding. I wrote this with both of my pinkies in the air, ramrod straight. I find this sentence quaffable.
The White House could have power but doesn't engage. It doesn't use its power, so its power doesn't matter.
"Are you going to show up? Why don't you show up? What else could you possibly be doing?" This reasonable discussion of political power is now indistinguishable from that one friend of yours who sends you an E-vite and, when you don't respond, sends you a Facebook PM with a link to it, texts you to tell you to check your Facebook PMs, then, the next morning, calls you on a flimsy pretext and tries to casually mention the Facebook update you just posted.
If members of the administration do go out publicly (they see each other privately and in small groups of friends), they're more often standing in a corner than in the center of the room, unlike, say Henry Kissinger, who used to dominate every party he attended by standing dead center as people clustered around him.
Oh, Henry. I remember him telling the funniest anecdote about firebombing Cambodian children when he was accessorizing the fabulous war he helped illegally prolong with a simply stunning sabotage of Humphrey's peace talks in 1968. I think this was in, oh, '73 or so, just before the Chilean coup he sponsored—before all that messy business of disappearing people. Very messy. So Henry turns to this gorgeous redhead and says, "Search me if I wouldn't be destroyed if you won't let me lie in your strategic hamlet," and he points to her perfect bottom. "Henry!" I said, laughing and pointing at her, "you weren't behind those last two, and I don't think you're going to get behind this one!" But she'd already soaked through her panties and part of her dress! Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Anyhow, that was the same day I bought all these blood diamonds.
Journalists used to be powerful. But now there are so many 25-year-old bloggers, many of them showing up on the TV talk shows, that the old-timers are struggling to catch up, tweeting their hearts out and using hip language like "hashtags." And those young bloggers care about money, too.
Hip language like the hashtags and the subtweets and the followback and the things and the goings on. This whole bit is just a few "untraditional" DC pigments away from being a Bill Cosby routine. Then it starts ranting about money. Journalists don't like money and don't respond to it. That's why pro sports organizations, special interests and trade conventions absolutely refuse to provide them with free buffets and (often) free drink.
Fifty years ago, journalists wrote all year on spec, with only the promise of winning Pulitzers, which they then sold for enough money to pay their families' debts. Good writers didn't give up and write schlocky novels or huff enough paint so that their brains didn't mind becoming TV hosts. Peter Jennings was edgy. Tom Brokaw has an ideology beyond selling sepia-tint handjobs about wars and baseball to baby boomers and their parents. Something hysterical about Ezra Klein.
Interest groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Citizens United and American Crossroads have become more and more powerful, beating out everyone else in the game.
Who's the real victim of Citizens United?
There you have it. Money is power. The fundraiser has replaced the Washington dinner party.... How special can you feel when you know you have to pay to go to an event and then get a bad seat on top of that?
For those scoring at home, here's your word count on famous sybaritic mewling, up to this point:
- Marie Antoinette: 4
- Sally Quinn: 1,233
But maybe this small-group trend is not such a bad thing. Maybe, as in one of those post-apocalyptic movies where the planet has been destroyed by war, people will begin to make their own lives.
By God, the world is broken, and if all it's gonna take to remedy that is destroying the world, then Sally Quinn and the gout-ridden shambling hemorrhoids that fill out her seating arrangements are just going to have to write shit-stupid tributes to themselves until it's destroyed. Again.
Image by Jim Cooke.