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Washington's new ruling class

It is hard to think of another time when the relationship between press and president became so knotted as during the abortive nomination of Kimba Wood for attorney general. Wood’s husband, Michael Kramer, is a political writer for Time, and in the course of the fiasco he wore many hats, and many at once. At various points, Kramer acted as a journalist covering the president, an adviser to the president (according to some), an adviser to his wife the prospective nominee, a White House source for reporters, a spokesman for the embattled near-nominee and finally as an apologist for his own tangled role in the affair.

Following this debacle, media critics wrung their hands over whether it would bias Kramer’s future coverage. In fact, those dowsing for conflicts of interest would have done better to consider the past. Through the campaign and after, Kramer’s coverage was soft; in one postelection piece he compared Clinton to Lincoln and FDR. When Time ran a story about “Why Voters Don’t Trust Clinton,” Kramer managed to convince his campaign pals he’d had nothing to do with it (though he was helping to direct the magazine’s political coverage at the time). Later, Kramer may have crossed the line from observer to courtier. After interviewing Clinton for Time’s Man of the Year story, he told the president-elect that if he was looking for a female judge as attorney general, he should pick someone like Wood who had “management experience,” according to a source close to Clinton. (Kramer says he doesn’t recall what was said but that he never recommended his wife.) The next day Kramer golfed with Clinton in Little Rock. Clinton reportedly told aides afterward that Kramer had relentlessly talked up his wife. (Kramer calls this “total bullshit.”)

In his column “The Political Interest,” Kramer never declared his own when he piled on criticism of Zoe Baird’s nomination. Then, when Clinton fastened on Kimba Wood as his next choice, Kramer reportedly leaked the information to fellow journalists, including his friends Al Hunt of The Wall Street Journal and Tim Russert of NBC, who both had the story early. (Kramer neither confirms nor denies this.) When Clinton decided not to pick Wood because she’d been economical with the truth about her own Zoe Baird problem, Kramer spoke anonymously to The New York Times on her behalf, blaming the mistake on the White House. Wood publicly denied the Times story. But the Times, bound by its pledge of confidentiality to Kramer, could not explain that Wood was contradicting her own husband! The Washington Post later reported Kramer as the source for the faulty first story, but Kramer would not acknowledge it, and still will not. His justification is that the Times broke its promise to protect his anonymity.

Call it Clincest. Kramer and Wood were both part of an extended society of aspiring Clintonites who at times seem less worried about distinguishing their precise roles than in being a part of the cultural-political phenomenon of the new Washington. Clincest is not just about the rise of conflicts of interest, as husbands, wives, friends and former classmates promote each other’s careers and advance in tandem, socially and professionally. It’s about the increasingly cozy relationships between press, law, academia and government that now mark the Clinton era. In fact, there’s rarely been a time when the governing elites in so many fields were made up of such a tight, hermetic and incestuous clique.

Of course, the phenomenon of overlapping roles around an administration is nothing new. John F. Kennedy was legendary for his friendships with members of the Georgetown social set, including Ben Bradlee of the Post, and for importing a Harvard-Oxford mafia. Even under Ronald Reagan and George Bush, dynamic duos—Robert and Georgette Mosbacher, Dick and Lynn Cheney, John and Anne Dore McLaughlin, Ed and Sherrie Rollins—made a social mark. But the circles in and around the Clinton administration are far more inbred than any of these. And the fact that they are more meritocratic than any previous governing class only intensifies the problem. They think of themselves as entitled to power in a way their antecedents never did.

This change in the culture of Washington is in large measure generational. The Clinton cadres are almost entirely composed of privileged baby boomers, who, like Clinton, were youthful opponents of the Vietnam War but attended elite schools while their socioeconomic inferiors were fighting in it. Bush’s Yale class was admitted largely on the basis of money, pedigree and connections. (Thanks to the Second World War, however, his generation’s experience wasn’t limited to this elite.) But by the time Bill and Hillary attended Yale Law School, the elite had become far more democratic, selected on merit rather than pedigree. Thus they, and members of their circle, feel few qualms about relying on connections formed through these institutions, and little impulse to look beyond them once diversity criteria are satisfied. The Clinton circle has a pronounced class consciousness that tells them they’re not just lucky to be here. They’re running things because they’re the best.

The quintessential Clincest moment occurred in Hilton Head, South Carolina, at the most recent Renaissance Weekend, itself a Clincestuous orgy. It was when President-elect Clinton asked his old Oxford housemate Strobe Talbott if he wanted a job at the State Department while the two were jogging along the beach. The man who ran for president as a small-town Southerner with a common touch was here engaging in an act of classic cronyism, drawing upon an old school tie to deal with a new political issue—at a yuppie networking event that presents itself as an exercise in self-improvement. (Bush jogged too, but faster than Clinton, and without conflating friendship, fitness and social progress.)

But the Talbott story reached its apogee only last week at the Forest Summit in Oregon, when, according to Maureen Dowd in The New York Times, Talbott’s misty-eyed swearing-in took place. In Portland’s Benson Hotel, Labor Secretary Robert Reich (Rhodes scholar, ‘68, University College) presided over the oath given by Bill Clinton (Rhodes scholar, ‘68, University College) to Talbott (Rhodes scholar ‘68, Magdalen College). “It was a really beautiful moment,” commented George Stephanopoulos (Rhodes scholar, ‘82, Balliol College).

Another shade of Talbottian Clincest came out when Strobe’s wife, Brooke Shearer, who helped Hillary Rodham Clinton in the campaign, spoke on “The Hillary Factor” at a seminar on “How the Presidential Race Was Won.” She was subsequently appointed to head the White House Fellows Program. It got deeper still when Brooke’s brother Derek, an economic adviser and long-time Friend-of-Bill’s, was made a deputy undersecretary at the Commerce Department. Derek Shearer is much more powerful than his title would suggest, thanks to what he told The Wall Street Journal was the president’s style of “liberation management.” The liberation Clinton feels is to rely on his pals rather than those with important titles. A third brother, Cody Shearer, is also a Clincest victim, having spent much of the campaign hyping the story of Brett Kimberlin, an Indiana prison inmate who claims he sold drugs to Dan Quayle.

According to newspaper reports, the Renaissance Weekend was invented when its founder, Phil Lader (nominated deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget), was sitting around with his wife and another power couple, and someone piped up: “Wouldn’t it be great to have an occasion to really share some of your innermost thoughts with some very accomplished people?” People who answer yes to that question are now far more in evidence in Washington these days. Combine that with the fact that the president-elect and his family were to spend several days of semileisure time there for the eighth consecutive year, and the hunger to be part of the event became palpable, and its size increased, perforce, from 500 to 1,500. Those lucky enough to finagle spots on the guest list sat through largely tedious seminars on topics ranging from “New Technologies: Personal Implications for the 21st Century” (Program #12) to “How to Run for Congress” (Program #28) to “Building an Inner Life” (Program #207), participated in fun-runs and beach walks and went to a New Year’s Eve party run by “facilitators.” Howard Fineman, a correspondent for Newsweek, was only one of many journalists who lobbied for, and received, a last-minute invitation.

Invited journalists were only allowed to attend on the condition that they not write about the event. But that hardly mattered since they were going as “players,” not reporters. And play they did. As Howard Kurtz of the Post reported, Fineman and his wife, Amy Nathan, a lawyer-lobbyist, importuned Clinton to put daughter Chelsea in Sidwell Friends Academy, where their own little girl attends power-kindergarten. The Finemans got in some serious face time with Clinton at a “get-acquainted party” for freshmen at which Clinton fraternized until the wee hours. No flagrant conflict of interest that. But now, whenever Fineman sees either of the Clintons, he can approach not just as a reporter asking questions, but as a fellow member of the Sidwell community.

Sidwell, where Chelsea recently took her dad’s economic program to school—on a computer disk given her by his deputy undersecretary of commerce—is filled with power kids, including those of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s mentor Marian Wright Edelman and her husband, Peter Edelman (who worked on the Justice Department transition and is in line for a job there, or HHS); Don Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, and his wife, Mary (who live next door to the Edelmans in Cleveland Park); Bob Kaiser and Bob Woodward of the Post; and the grandchildren of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, chairman of The New York Times. Having a kid there is almost as good as being an FOB or an FOH. Thus it is not entirely surprising that the Clintons’ choice was avidly endorsed by various T.V. journalists whose own kids go to or went to Sidwell: Mark Shields, Jim Lehrer, Judy Woodruff and her husband, Al Hunt (who dismissed the flap over Chelsea’s schooling, saying the Clintons’ decision was “simply a private matter”).

Many of the other journalists who attended the Renaissance Weekend, according to the confidential roster, were also line-crossers, such as David Gergen of U.S. News and World Report and the “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” who was mentioned for the directorship of the U.S. Information Agency before it went to Joe Duffy (who is married to lobbyist Anne Wexler, who employs former Clinton spokeswoman Betsy Wright). Another was Walter Isaacson of Time, who was interviewed by Clinton for his Rhodes scholarship, and Joe Klein of Newsweek, who is close to a number of Clintonites of the Democratic Leadership Council strain. Also present, according to the roster, were Michael Barone of U.S. News, James Adams of the London Sunday Times, David Arnold of the Boston Globe, Jill Abramson of The Wall Street Journal, Wolf Blitzer of CNN and Mike Elliott of the Economist. At a panel on the media’s role in the election, many of these referred to the president-elect as “Bill.”

Also much in evidence were the media power-couples; those journalists married to sources or other journalists. The former category includes Rita Braver of CBS, whose husband, Bob Barnett, played George Bush in Clinton’s practice debates. The latter includes New York Times columnist Les Gelb and his wife, Judith, a producer at “Nightline”; columnist Jim Hoagland and his wife, the author Elizabeth Becker; and Clay Felker, the former editor of New York, and his wife, Gail Sheehy, of Vanity Fair. These couples quadrupled with power-couples like Ira Magaziner of health policy fame, who attended with his wife, Suzanne, a consultant, and a raft of little Magaziners; James Carville’s partner Paul Begala and his wife, Diane Friday-Begala, who works for the cable T.V. association; Bruce Reed, who was a Rhodes scholar before he became assistant for domestic policy, along with his wife, Bonnie Lepart, who works for the Justice Department; David Ifshin, general counsel to the campaign, and his wife, Gail, an economist. Ifshin scored a major coup by playing golf against the president-elect. Clinton’s first two choices for attorney general were there as well—appeals court judge Patricia Wald, who has also been mentioned for the Supreme Court, and Zoe Baird, with her husband, Paul Gewirtz, a professor at Yale Law.

Gewirtz was only one of many aspiring jurists making the scene at the weekend, also attended by liberal law professors Walter Dellinger of Duke (now at the White House counsel’s office) and A.E. Dick Howard of the University of Virginia. But the lawyers, vying for slots as advisers and judges and for jobs at the Justice Department, were not so eager as the lobbyists trying to forge connections for their clients. These included Mike Berman, head of the Duberstein Group, a historically Republican firm trying to change its complexion; Lansing Lee, a lobbyist with Ron Brown’s old firm, Patton Boggs & Blow, who is married to political fund-raiser Becky Robinson; and Chuck Manatt, of Manatt Phelps, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee who was embarrassed when he was revealed trying to peddle the connections of his former partner Mickey Kantor, U.S. Trade Representative (FOH, married to Heidi Shulman, a former NBC reporter, who also worked on the campaign).

The Renaissance roster is an unintentionally hilarious document that accords smiley-face symbols to return guests, diamond symbols for past professional work, clubs for hobbies and associations and gives everyone’s familiar name in parenthesis (Mike, Kit, Tony). Even more amusing are the biographies, drawn from information provided by the attendees, which meld career, family and athletic achievements. Immigration lawyer Marty Saenz let fellow attendees know she was named “Ultra-woman” by the National Association of Female Executives. Norman D. Berman boasted his induction into the “American Accounting Association Hall of Fame”; Alice Lancaster that she was a “Nat’l Finalist, Great Amer. Family Award”; Representative Dave McCurdy that he was one of “Ten Outstanding Young Men in America.” All present seem to have won prizes for being all-around wonderful people. This is the ethos of an event where children as young as 6 sit on panels on such topics as “The Presidential Campaign: Our Generation’s View” and attend sessions where grown-ups recommend their professions, like “senator” and “university president.”

Others save valuable networking time by listing attributes one ordinarily would allow to emerge in the course of a developing friendship. Jim Coleman of Duke lists on his resume “defended Ted Bundy.” Clinton backer and Arkansas chicken king Don Tyson—whose company until recently was represented by Hillary Clinton’s old law partner, now Justice Department Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell—adopted Clintonite lingo in noting that he “grew his company from $5m to $4b; World-class big-game fisherman.” Anne Grizzle notes not just that she was a social worker but a “Harlem social worker”; Sheryl Handler that she has been “working with Yo-Yo Ma & Maya Lin on Year 2000 Project” (whatever that is), “designing toys with Maya Lin”; Ralph Everett that he was “1st African-Amer. to serve as Chief Counsel & Staff Dir. of US Senate Committee.” Sarah Hildebrand, a “homemaker, climbed Kilimanjaro”; Patsy Davis, also homemaker, “bungy-jumped off 150’ NZ bridge” (New Zealand?).

Of course, many of those at the weekend shared links from other elite events and organizations—Oxford, Yale and Harvard for starters. Take Clinton’s Rhodes scholarship friends—they include Talbott, Reich (who was also at Yale Law with the Clintons, and whose wife, Clare Dalton, worked for Hillary during the campaign), Labor Department solicitor Tom Williamson, Magaziner (who once wrote a book with Reich), Stephen A. Oxman, who has been nominated assistant secretary of state for European affairs, and Rick Stearns, a close Oxford friend, now a Massachusetts judge, who has recently been mentioned as the likely next head of the FBI. A dozen others, including University College alums John Isaacson and Douglas Eakeley (also a Yale roommate), worked on the campaign, transition or inauguration. Eakeley raised $100,000 from New Jersey for the campaign using Rhodes scholar and Yale Law School directories as his only guides. And the government is filled with more than two dozen other Oxonians, of whom the best known are James Woolsey, George Stephanopoulos, and Bruce Reed.

Alumni and professors of Yale Law School are almost as plentiful, including the solicitor general-designate, Drew Days, and Professor Burke Marshall, a close FOH, who has sent many of his students to Washington. Gewirtz was in line for a judicial appointment until his Peruvian problems intervened. During the campaign, Yale Law Graduates for Clinton raised an astounding $1.6 million, according to Bob Cohn of Newsweek. Nearly half came from Bill’s and Hillary’s classes, 1972 and 1973. Contributors were offered an inside track for delivering their resumes to the transition team’s personnel office.

One would think they would be wary of the political liability of such credentials. But with an Arkansan good old boy who happens to be an instinctive populist as their leader, nobody seems very worried about it. Thus Clinton has already brought to his administration at least eight Harvard professors, including Reich, David Ellwood (Health and Human Services), Graham Allison of the Kennedy School (Defense) and Phillip Heymann of the Law School (deputy attorney general)—something Dukakis never would have dared. The time is ripe for William F. Buckley to repeat his famous line about how he’d rather be governed by the first 100 names in the Cambridge phone book than the faculty of Harvard University.

The Harvard-Oxford circle of Reich and Magaziner has a heavy overlap with what my former colleague Sidney Blumenthal has called “The Conversation”: a group of liberals who have long shared ideas about reinvigorating the Democratic Party. (See “The Anointed,” TNR, February 3, 1992.) Clinton’s earlier ideological neoliberalism seems to have fallen prey to the peer pressure of this better-connected group. The Democratic Leadership Council, which developed some of the ideas used by Clinton during the campaign, has been noticeably stiffed since the election in favor of the Clincest buddies. Of the dlc-Progressive Policy Institute crowd, only Reed and Bill Galston won subordinate positions in the domestic policy office. And they are under Carol Rasco, an FOB, who now reports to hrc. Rob Shapiro, Will Marshall and Al From have all remained on the outside, as have those who transgressed certain social proprieties. Elaine Kamarck, a Newsday columnist and likely candidate for many jobs, reportedly lost out because of a column she wrote suggesting Hillary take a back seat to her husband during the campaign. More recently, she has turned up as an informal assistant to Al Gore.

Blumenthal has yet to analyze, however, his own role in “The Conversation.” Most of those quoted in his story are not just sources but long-standing personal friends. And he sees his advocacy journalism as an extension of that friendship. In this, he follows precisely the rules of Clincest. Rick Kaplan, executive producer of ABC’s “Prime Time Live,” played golf with Bill shortly before the inauguration and watched movies with both Clintons at the governor’s mansion. Hunt, too, has tried to insinuate himself with the new in-crowd. Six weeks after the Kimba Wood screw-up, he was still brooding about his friend’s not making the grade, calling her non-selection his “outrage of the week” on CNN’s “Capitol Gang” on March 20.

The New Republic, of course, is not immune. At the inauguration, the magazine threw a party for Gore, a Harvard student of editor-in-chief and chairman Marty Peretz. Peretz informally advised Gore during the campaign and was subsequently mentioned as a potential director of USIA, a job that went to Joe Duffy. Five of the top nine editors at The New Republic attended Oxford, two as Rhodes scholars, myself included (New College, ‘87). And numerous Clintonites, including Shapiro, Reed, Reich, Gewirtz, Michael Waldman and Bruce Babbitt, have written for us. But at least we’re an opinion magazine.

Perhaps most incredible of all is Taylor Branch, who worked with Clinton on George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. Branch requested access as a journalist to the president on Inauguration Day for Life. He got it, but only on condition that he help write Clinton’s inaugural address. Because Branch is a fine writer of real integrity, nobody frets much about this hybrid role. But objectively, it’s much more dramatic than what George Will did for Ronald Reagan when he helped him prepare for a presidential debate in 1980. The only mitigating circumstance is that Life more or less explained Branch’s dual role in an editors’ introduction to his story. These journalists, it is worth pointing out, unlike their predecessors, are all approximately the same age as the Clintons. Thus access shades into identity.

As a result of the social connections between reporters and officialdom that transfuse the new administration, the inside defense has become a kind of journalistic subgenre in recent months. Kramer never declared himself the husband of Kimba Wood in his column, but others have been only too eager to point out their ties to the new crew. Thus Anthony Lewis in The New York Times of January 25: “I know Zoe Baird, and I think I understand why Bill Clinton chose her.... She is a wonderfully talented lawyer with the backbone to do the toughest jobs.” Or Anna Quindlen in the Times of February 7: “I know Kimba Wood, which is my good fortune.... If I had to choose three words to describe her, they would be these: integrity, decency, intelligence.” These pieces do little for the nominees but much for the pundit alleging a connection. In reality, the “friendships” often amount to little more than co-attendance at a few chichi dinner parties. It’s hard to say which is worse—reporters who fail to disclose their potential conflicts of interest, or those constantly making self-aggrandizing disclaimers.

When the issue of Clinton’s draft wiggling first came up, one could hardly make out the roles of his various defenders. The case for Clinton’s integrity was made by former Oxford classmates, journalists, academics, friends and advisers—but mostly by people who fell into several of those categories, and some who fell into all of them. Talbott wrote one of these exculpations in the April 6 Time. In making the case that Clinton had not tried to dodge the draft, Talbott selectively quoted a letter given him by Rick Stearns (see above), which substantiates Clinton’s agony. It was unavailable to non-Oxonian members of the press. Another such role-blurrer was Reich, who spun the Colonel Holmes letter for reporters. Yet another was Michael Mandelbaum, who knew the Clinton clique when he was at Cambridge on a Marshall and they were at Oxford on Rhodeses. Mandelbaum, who wrote a book with Talbott in 1987, was offered the Office of Policy Planning at the State Department but turned it down. For purposes of comparison, consider how many friends of George Bush’s, from college or elsewhere, publicly defended the consistency of his statements about Iran-contra.

Another complicating factor was that several of those covering the campaign were Oxonians themselves, including David von Drehle and E.J. Dionne of the Post, both of whom tended to portray Clinton sympathetically. James Fallows, a Rhodes scholar and former Carter speechwriter who is a couple of years younger than Clinton, didn’t cover the campaign intensively, but wrote another Post editorial defending him. Fallows, who is famous for an article he wrote in 1975 criticizing members of his Harvard class for not opposing the war by allowing themselves to be drafted, later expressed his surprise at being invited to the Economic Summit in Little Rock.

The summit was another grand Clincest event, at which advisers—like Reich, captains of industry—like John Sculley, the chairman of Apple Computers (who sat next to Hillary during Bill’s address to Congress), academics—like economist Robert Solow of MIT, who recently boosted Clinton’s economic plan in the New York Review of Books, journalists—like David Osborne, author of the administration’s favorite book, Reinventing Government, and social activists—like Marian Wright Edelman participated without regard to status. They attended not so much as economists, businesspeople or (heaven forbid) reporters, but as FOBs and FOHs. This is particularly troublesome in the case of the academics, many of whom frequently testify before Congress as independent witnesses and who have developed strong personal investments in Clinton’s proposals and Clinton’s numbers.

As with the Renaissance Weekend, the roster of this event swelled, from 100 to 400, to accommodate those beating down the doors. The style of the seminar, too, owed much to the Renaissance Weekend. In a room too large and full for an actual discussion, attendees made serial presentations in which they registered their amazingly uniform views. And not surprisingly, there were a number of guests who were also at Renaissance, including Baird, Michael Porter of the Harvard Business School, trade lawyer Paula Stern, who was a near-miss for U.S. Trade Representative, and computer executive Sheryl Handler (the one who designs toys with Yo-Yo Ma and Maya Lin). Several attendees embarrassed themselves with praise for the man who made it all possible. “In conversations with a broad cross-section of the attendees, the word I heard again and again was `astonishing,’” Robert Kuttner wrote in a report for the Sacramento Bee. “People were stunned at Clinton’s range, grasp of detail, intuition and capacity to set a tone.”

This amounts to a familiar kind of self-promotion, in which the speaker builds up himself and others at the same time. But the impact of Clincest is more than just a matter of an elite mutual admiration society. It’s about the accountability of the governing classes. When many branches of power—executive, legal, academic, journalistic—come under the sway of a suffocatingly tight, meritocratic elite, there’s a real danger of getting out of touch with the rest of America. Nannygate, when the Clintonisant classes failed to understand the importance of what they regarded as a peccadillo, is unlikely to remain the only scandal; and no amount of direct access television and town meeting after town meeting can compensate for the problem. Real populists, not least among them Ross Perot, must sense blood already swirling in the political water.

Meanwhile in Washington, the name-dropping continues. Partly because the Clintonites’ belief in their own rectitude is so strong, they aren’t inclined to hold back. Republicans are more prone to recognize personal ambition for what it is. Clintelligentsia, and Clinton himself, tend to confuse it with political reform.

Take FOH Marna Tucker. A highly paid divorce lawyer, Tucker is a past president of the D.C. Bar Association, and “mentioned” as potential president of the American Bar Association or a federal judge. She is close to Brooksley Born, another FOH lawyer at Arnold & Porter who was mentioned as a potential attorney general or solicitor general. At the Renaissance Weekend, Tucker’s bio listed her as “one of DC’s 100 most powerful women.” On January 24, his first Sunday as president, Clinton called Tucker to compliment her on a favorable profile in The Washington Post Magazine. According to Al Kamen of the Post’s “Federal Page,” Clinton joked about how she managed to get such good press and invited Tucker to stop by the Oval Office later that day.

“When she arrived, Clinton was hanging pictures with aides and arranging the office. He took her over to his desk, bare except for the magazine, and asked her to autograph it. He made another joke about the nearly 7,000-word article. Tucker asked if he really read the whole thing.

“I read every word,” he said. “Here. Want to give me a quiz?”

Now how did Al Kamen learn all this detail about how impressed the new president was with his friend Marna Tucker? Hint: he didn’t get it from Clinton.