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Washington's Sexual Awakening

In the capital, rules about sex are made to be broken.


In November 1992, Martin Hoke, the 40-year-old divorced owner of Red Carpet Car Care in Cleveland, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He had a girlfriend at the time -- she was a journalist -- but the day after his election, he broke up with her and prepared for his move to Washington.

Two months after he was sworn in, Hoke, along with several other unattached congressmen, was profiled by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times, in an article entitled “Single in Congress: No Time for Love, No Time for Laundry.” In the story, Hoke lamented the boredom of attending cocktail receptions in Washington. But there was hope. He would consider dating other congresswomen, two in particular, because, he said, “they’re hot.”

Hoke resurfaced in the national papers a year later. While waiting to deliver a live feed to his hometown TV station, Hoke had nodded to a fellow congressman and, motioning to the producer who had turned her back, said of her in a put-on, generically European accent, “She’s got ze beega breasts.” The camera was still rolling.

The Washington Post reported Hoke’s remark the next day and revisited his gaffe regularly over the next several weeks, making an issue of his curious pronunciation of the word big. Hoke quickly became a figure of fun on Capitol Hill, and in 1996 he lost his bid for re-election and returned to Cleveland.

Hoke’s peccadilloes were hardly on a par with those of which Bill Clinton has been accused, but they illustrate a point about elected officials who are called to Washington and the culture they step into. In both cases, it was precisely the high station of these men that deluded them into thinking they could get away with it -- in high-minded, highly watched Washington, D.C., no less.

It’s easy to see how both Hoke and Clinton might have been imbued with a foolhardy fearlessness and a flatfooted misperception that they were untouchable. Washington was like summer camp, providing a suspension of certain rules and self-consciousness. If a guy knew how to play it, it was a pretty good place to swing.

Actually, many of the legislators who’ve succumbed to sexual scandal in recent decades have been men who’d always considered themselves unattractive, men whose romantic vistas Washington seemed to open up. “Most of the members who were out of control sexually came to Washington from remote places in America,” a Senate aide told me. “For them, the swampy, sleepy company town of Washington was exhilarating and sophisticated.”

When Oregon senator Bob Packwood was made to resign for allegedly forcing himself upon seventeen women, most of them his own employees, the nebbish factor was the explanation most people reached for. “I think he still sees himself as that person behind the Coke-bottle glasses,” said his ex-wife, Georgie Packwood, shortly after the allegations surfaced. And Clinton, in his high-school years, was definitely no Jack Kennedy; he was a chubby kid who lettered in band.

Those to the manner born who’ve been in trouble -- Ted Kennedy and Chris Dodd, for instance, who participated in the famous “waitress sandwich” at La Brasserie in 1985, while their dates were in the bathroom -- have tended to get out of it by claiming that their boyish high jinks had simply gotten out of hand.

Then, of course, there are the unreconstructed, unapologetic good ol’ boys, though there are fewer and fewer of them still in office. Charlie Wilson, retired congressman from Texas, was known for having only good-looking women on his staff: “You can teach ’em to type,” he once said, “but you can’t teach ’em to grow tits.”

Wilson hasn’t changed his attitudes. “People gave me a hard time about it,” he joked last week, “but I always told them, ‘You don’t have to be ugly to be dumb.’

“The women who worked for me said they were often being hit on by members of Congress,” he continued. “But I knew cases where members of Congress have been hit on by pretty young women.”

The old Washington pattern of the lecherous politician in pursuit of his young, guileless quarry doesn’t entirely square with the scandal currently engulfing Washington. Monica Lewinsky, it appears, is a woman who is more than comfortable being the pursuer.

Lewinsky is oddly emblematic of a cultural shift that has taken place in recent years. As it happens, Washington has its own versions of Alanis Morissette and Courtney Love, women who’ve incorporated sex into their professional personae.

As with most anything Bill Bennett would disapprove of, it all started with Bill Clinton. The Clintonites arrived fresh from Harvard and Yale and stints at McKinsey, and swept out Bush’s less worldly staff. In honor of Clinton, MTV threw its first-ever inaugural ball. Soul Asylum and the B-52s played, and Tabitha Soren introduced the first couple. Doug Coupland was there, handing out homemade T-shirts that read INFRASTRUCTURE IS SEXY.

The standard-bearers of the Clinton youth brigade were mostly male. The era of the policy babes in Washington didn’t really kick in until the 1994 Republican Revolution, from which sprang part-time TV pundits likes Laura Ingraham, a former editor of the Dartmouth Review who famously posed on the cover of The New York Times Magazine wearing a leopard-print miniskirt; the pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, who boasted to Harper’s Bazaar that her “broad mind and small waist have not switched places”; and April Lassiter, a former congressional-staff member whose primary public cause seems to be promoting herself. Lassiter runs a libertarian nonprofit group, founded a moving salon for conservative women called No Left Turn, and sings and plays guitar in a bar band. One lyric goes like this: “I have no patience for your wink-and-nod politicization. I have no interest in your femi-Nazi actualization.” In addition, she has vowed to someday abolish the U.S. Department of Education.

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