Washington’s Sexual Awakening

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.

For the most part, these women are self-conscious, somewhat bawdy reactionaries. The Weekly Standard, playing on the set’s weakness for stylistic cliché, characterized them as “a new class of Washington-bred cigar-and-martini bimbos.” These women – and their Democratic counterparts – have brought sex to the table in a much more direct and open way. The age of the Donna Rice-style party girl is evolving into a world where women are equals both politically and sexually. Not so long ago, Washingtonian magazine took a tongue-in-cheek tone when it ran stories headlined BIG NAME HUNTING: IN THE SOCIAL WILDS OF WASHINGTON, IT’S THE WOMEN WHO BAG THE TROPHIES and HOW TO DATE A CONGRESSMAN. The former discussed, with awe, derision, and jealousy, women like the lobbyist Victoria Reggie, who just after her divorce in 1989 declared her intention to date a senator. She first set her sights on Georgia’s Wyche Fowler, getting invited to a party where he would be and then going on a date with him; next was Ted Kennedy, whom she later married. In the other story, the joke was that a young female reporter had the nerve to actually phone all seven of the single men in the House and invite them out to dinner (six even accepted; only Patrick Kennedy turned her down).

The romances of the new breed of GOP women, however, can be seen as strategic alliances, increasing their name recognition and broadening their base of support. Kellyanne Fitzpatrick has been romantically linked to Senator Fred Thompson. April Lassiter even crossed party lines to go on a date with George Stephanopoulos. And the frontman of her band, Joe, is Joe Scarborough, a congressman from Florida.

Some of the more notably libertine sex scandals of the past couple of years have involved the most moralistic congressmen. Jim Bunn, an Oregon Republican, was elected to the House in 1994 as a “deeply rooted family man.” He made a great issue of the fact that he and his wife had five children. By 1996, they divorced amid rumors that he was dating his chief of staff. Later that year, he eloped with her – and gave her a raise.

So worried was Republican Jon Christensen, a born-again from Omaha, of the damage his impending separation might do to his political career, that he made it very public it was his wife who had brought on the divorce. He proffered an affidavit from her in which she admitted to cheating on him. (It was reported, in the right-wing Washington Times of all places, that Christensen and his wife, who is from a very rich family in Texas, had struck a bargain in which she would take the blame and he’d make no play for her money.) Meanwhile, Christensen threatened to reveal who his wife’s two affairs had been with; it’s been widely speculated that both were congressmen. In the past year, the 34-year-old Christensen has gotten engaged again – to a 24-year-old former Miss America. Then he took to the airwaves in Nebraska to let it be known that his fiancée is a virgin and plans to remain one until they are married.

An unwillingness to see more attention paid to his own reported adultery may be partly responsible for Newt Gingrich’s virtual silence about Clinton’s mess so far. “I’ve been wondering where he is the past week,” said the former congressman Peter Hoagland. “Their poor track records on this count may be what’s kept the rock throwers quiet,” another Democratic congressman said.

But not Representative Bob Barr. Although he was once caught licking whipped cream off the chests of two bustier-wearing women at a campaign fund-raiser, he’s been the Republican working hard to draft Clinton’s impeachment papers.

For all of the high-profile imbroglios, one constantly hears rumblings of others waiting to be discovered. The staff of one member of Congress consider their – also married – boss such an extracurricular swordsman that their private nickname for him is a euphemism for an erection. Warren Rudman began a Washington parlor game that rivaled trying to name the author of Primary Colors when, in his memoir, Combat, he told of a fellow senator who came to him in despair. “One colleague tearfully told me that his girlfriend was pregnant, his marriage was a disaster, and there was no solution except to resign,” the retired senator wrote in the memoirs two years ago. “I urged him to reconsider, and today he’s one of the most powerful men in Washington.” In a New York Times op-ed piece last week, a former congressional aide told of how a senator locked her in his office, pressed his leg against her, and asked her for a date. And one married senator’s reputation as a cad has consistently kept him from being named a likely vice-presidential candidate.

Still, this is Washington, and no one is about to blow the whistle without threat of a subpoena. In fact, many of the politicians I called professed total ignorance of any potential scandals lurking in their midst. “I never saw it, but then, some of us don’t really fit into that culture,” said Pat Schroeder, the retired congresswoman. I asked Jade West, the staff director of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, whether the culture of Capitol Hill made it difficult for her to be taken seriously. “Lunacy,” she said. “I’ve worked for and alongside a number of senators, and I’ve never been treated with anything but the utmost respect. In fact, I’ve never heard of any female colleagues’ being approached in any improper way.” So what about Bob Packwood and Buzz Lukens? “Well, I’ve never heard about it firsthand,” she said. “The only things I’ve heard about are the incidents that broke publicly.”

Now and forever, whatever is happening behind closed doors, what Washingtonians constantly emphasize is the city’s sexless environment, a notion that is partly fact, partly fig leaf. Last week, a giggling Democratic congressman was heard telling a lobbyist that part of him wanted to condemn Clinton. “On the other hand,” he said, “I want a blood transfusion from him.”

With additional reporting by Braden Keil and Jennifer Senior.

Washington’s Sexual Awakening