WASHINGTON IN THE SNOW

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The morning Metroliner got me into Washington's Union Station a few minutes ahead of time and I picked up the Washington Post where peered out at me the amiable face of Eleanor Holmes Norton. The District of Columbia's delegate to Congress was lecturing local activists about money, "preaching the fiscal gospel."

There was no mention in the story that for some years Ms. Norton and her husband had somehow neglected to file their tax returns.

It was wonderful being back in Washington where, despite Newt and all that, things seemed pretty much as I remembered them.

After checking into the Ritz-Carlton I took advantage of the clear weather to stroll about, noting that the Decatur House on H Street was featuring an exhibit on how to make clothes from feedsacks, and thought to myself this might well be a useful craft for out of work Democrats to learn. A plaque informed me it was in this house that Commodore Stephen Decatur died on March 22, 1820, following a duel with one Commodore Barron. Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren also lived in this same house. But were not shot.

I had an appointment to interview the Vice President, Mr. Gore, for Parade and I reported in at the White House where a lone guy in black was kneeling on the sidewalk with a sign about POWs and MIAs. The Secret Service checked me out and then I was inside the gate strolling up to the mansion where in mid-afternoon, the TV people were already setting on their tripods for those so-obvious shots of correspondents reporting "from here at the White House."

The briefing room looked more cluttered than I remembered it with techies lounging about, a few asleep, others eating take-out food and a few gossiping and bragging. The big item to chew over: Dick Armey's idiotic "Barney Fag" comment into an open mike.

No one ever learns.

The Gore interview went fine and I wandered back across the street to the Willard Hotel for a drink, the hotel where in other times U.S. Grant would sit on the porch and chat with his cronies with a single Pinkerton's man on guard. Washington was predicting snow and it was getting grayer and damper and it was good to be inside at a good bar. A half inch of snow in D.C. is equivalent to an avalanche at Chamonix.

Saturday morning I walked over to Georgetown to look at where I used to live. The snow hadn't yet begun. John Chafee, who is a Republican senator from Rhode Island, picked me up in his car and we drove over to the black wall of Vietnam to look around and to see where they're going to unveil that Korean War memorial later this year. Chafee fought on Guadalcanal and Okinawa and later in Korea where he was my company commander so I felt I was in good hands. There was, he said, a little lunch club called the Alibi Club that he belonged to and why didn't we drop by there for some hot soup and pot luck. So we did.

And about the first people I met were several admirals, a governor, a couple of former cabinet members, and then George Bush. Since he and Chafee were both Yalies there was considerable handshaking and jollity, I can tell you. Then Herb Brownell came in, whom I thought was dead but he wasn't, and former Chief Justice Burger and Bobby Inman and Judge Webster, who used to run both the FBI and the CIA, and like that. The soup was hot black bean and it too was fine.

That evening there was a blacktie dinner at the Capital Hilton, the annual get-together of the Alfalfa Club, which is 82 years old and the political version and model for, the Gridiron Club. And, of course, by 6 when John Chafee came by to pick me up, there was an inch of snow on the ground and it was really coming down. Since the first time I'd ever seen Chafee was up in the mountains of North Korea in the snow, I felt right at home. "Come on," he said, "we'll get a drink."

Inside the ballroom a cocktail party raged.

Half the Cabinet was there and important folk besides. I took a refreshment and wandered about ogling the powerful. Dr. Kissinger was there and Tom Foley, newly unemployed, and the commandant of the Marine Corps, and then we were going in to dinner and the Marine Corps drum & bugle corps and the Marine band were fluting and fifing at an enormous rate and you suspected the President might be arriving.

Meanwhile, I studied the head table. Like where the commissars stood atop Lenin's Tomb on May Day, who was closest to Stalin, you can tell something about the Washington pecking order by studying head table arrangements. For example, they had Colin Powell next to Christie Whitman of New Jersey, which had people murmuring, "dream ticket." And they had the Chief Justice, Mr. Renquist, suitably far removed from that dapper rascal, Mayor Barry.

There was everyone at that damned head table but Mandela and Princess Di.

Senator Pete Domenici was our emcee and a splendid one indeed. As he orchestrated the evening, I worked the room a bit, dropping by to greet such luminaries as Jack Valenti who pumped my hand enthusiastically and said, "Meet Sumner Redstone." Then Senator Domenici introduced the evening's speaker, Jim Baker, who has been everything in federal government but Surgeon General. Alfalfa Club tradition calls for wit and Mr. Baker did his best, starting with, "Even now there are rumors he [Clinton] will step aside and support Al Gore." Pause. "But can I believe Al Gore?" Then we got the usual list of 10, a la Letterman.

Baker's list was the 10 reasons the Dems knew they were in trouble: "... when Gergen puts the President on hold to take calls from Sonny Bono."

Gingrich was not called upon to speak and just sat there, positioned between Bush and Clinton, who began his response to Baker with: "President Bush doesn't have to put up with this crap anymore."

When it was over, the snow had ended and in the light of street lamps Washington had taken on a crystalline glow. It had all been enormous fun and the sort of good-natured banter you'd like to see more of in politics and less of the nasty. We dug Senator Chafee's car out from under the snow and he drove me home safely through the icy streets, much as Captain Chafee had gotten us home through the snow and worse 40 years before.

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