At a party in Georgetown last Saturday night, Vice President Al Gore and wife Tipper offered hosts Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee a toast of gratitude in front of 250 other denizens of the innermost loop
of the Beltway.
It was a gesture of fealty that will serve Gore splendidly should he succeed William Jefferson Clinton, a rustic from one of those middle places who never got the hang of local ring-kissing rituals. Unlike Clinton, Goreson of a senator, nice St. Alban’s boy, and all thathas always had a place in the heart of Quinn and the rest of Washington’s permanent class. It was no surprise they were in the midst of it all as Quinn and Bradlee celebrated their 20th anniversary.
But enmity between the doyenne of D.C.’s cocktail nation and Bill Clinton is as old as the president’s tenure, and now that he has shown himself to be every inch the Philistine she judged him for, Quinn and her familiars can’t contain their contempt. (For the record, Quinn says she has a fine relationship with the first lady.)
That bile boiled over last Monday in “Not in Their Back Yard,” Quinn’s first Washington Post Style byline since she came back on staff. The piece amounts to a focus group among the Georgetown set on the post-Lewinsky Clinton, and the results are conclusive: The president is not one of us. Quinn sells the story as the product of reporting enterprise: The “disconnect between the Washington Establishment and the rest of the country is evident on TV and radio talk shows and in interviews and conversations with more than 100 Washingtonians for this article.”
What follows, though, is a vapid spin through her Rolodex and a long snake of predictable cluck-clucks and how-could-he’s from D.C. cognescenti. Her point, apparently seconded by every one of the 100 like-minds she talked to, is well-taken: The president’s behavior has deepened the country’s cynicism about the city we live in. But since Quinn has played majorette in the parade of civic disdain for Clinton, making the decision to hand her a journalistic megaphone is silly.
Since the beginning of the year, Quinn has been pointing the crooked finger at Clinton in other publications and on televised blabfests. She provides dynamic, attention-getting commentary, but it’s not the kind of cant you usually shop for when making a writing assignment. Quinn doesn’t buy that for a second.
“Whatever people’s perception of me, the fact remains that I am very much a journalistand this was not an editorial; it was a reporting job that I felt did a good job of analyzing a situation people don’t understand very well,” she says.
Style editor David Von Drehle referred calls about the piece to Post editor Len Downie. According to staffers at the Post, Downie reportedly championed and edited the piece along with front-page-feature editor Mary Hadar. Downie saw nothing inappropriate in having Quinn reporting on a phenomenon she has served up like so many canapés.
“She did a reported piece that is not straight news, which is very much in the Style tradition. I think it is very consistent with the kind of coverage that we do in that section of the paper,” Downie says.
And Quinn’s tenure as the social secretary of the upper crust doesn’t trouble Downie, either.
“Howie Kurtz is a reporter, and he covers the media. This doesn’t seem all that much different,” Downie says.
Many others in the newsroom do not share their leader’s enlightened perspective. Says one of Quinn’s colleagues, “I think it would have been a much more honest story if we had put it in that Saturday real estate section called ‘Where We Live.’”
Not a bad idea. After all, Quinn opened her Monday piece with a scene from the village square, detailing a high-bucks fundraiser attended by the likes of Rahm, Madeleine, Donna, Alan, and Maureen. The jeweled scene-setting was meant to establish that there really is a there herethat she and her pals care about each other and the city they own. And even though the rest of the country has clearly stated that they have no appetite for lynching Clinton, Quinn goes on to consult the Muffies, Tishes, and Cokies on her way to this epiphany: “Bill Clinton has essentially lost the Washington Establishment for good.” It would have been a nice conceptual scoop back in January, a decent observation midsummer, but as an anchor Style piece in post-confessional November, it’s a dusty cultural artifact, a paean to the Lost Tribe of Washington.
“They call the capital city their ‘town,’” says Quinn of the cluster of her friends and neighbors. “And their town has been turned upside down.”
In an interview, Quinn says Washington’s story isn’t really being told.
“There were plenty of surprises in the piece. Everybody is writing about what people in Oregon and Montana think, but nobody has written the piece about what people here really think. I have a certain expertise, because of the kinds of friends I have, and where I live, and what I do. Those things give me access and allow me to get quotes other reporters can’t,” she says.
Jill Abramson essentially did the same piece last July in the New York Times, but instead of proprietary tang, her piece was synthetic and full of social nuance. Style needs to work this story, but Quinn’s spanking machine was not the way to go. She recently returned to the section part-time after ramping down her career for many years in order to look after her son. Since coming back, Quinn reportedly walks around as if she owns the place, and, in a sense, she does. Her husband may have pulled the Post into journalism’s first tier through ballsy news judgment, but it was Quinn who single-handedly created a new kind of political coverage in Washington back when Tina Brown was still toiling at the Tattler. Many of the Style staffers who knew her only by legend were wondering what she would come up with on her second tour. It was not an auspicious return.
“I actually expected better. She has a reputation as somebody who could be cutting and interesting, and this was neither. The kindest thought I have is that it was a useful cinema vérité peek into the grotesque, claustrophobic town we live in, but I’m not sure that’s what she had in mind,” says a colleague.
Quinn’s unparalleled connections did yield some nuggets: Who else could get that gasbag David Broder to state in very simple terms that “[Clinton] came in here and he trashed the place. And it’s not his place” ?
Quinn made that same point abundantly clear some months ago, telling the Times, “When you think about it, he’s homeless.” This from a person who wrote this week, “For reasons they cannot understand, Washington insiders come across to the public as judgmental puritans, shocked and horrified by the president’s sexual misconduct.”
Even though Quinn was determined to make her first piece back in the mix a reported effort, she couldn’t help but interject the voice of civic hostess.
“Privately, many in Establishment Washington would like to see Bill Clinton resign and spare the country, the presidency and the city any more humiliation,” she wrote.
There’s nothing really private about the underlying message. Clinton had violated the narrow bandwith of acceptable village behavior long before he began to sully the furnishings, and when he finally loads up the RV and leaves, Quinn and her buddies will regain custody of their city, if not the nation’s interest. And maybe, just maybe, the next White House can crawl its way back onto the Georgetown A list.
Landmine Phil McCombs’ three-part series last July about a famous Vietnam-era photo shot by then-UPI photographer Frank Johnston was a jewel. A man who saw his brother’s face in the long-unidentified picture of an exhausted grunt contacted Johnston, who now works at the Post, and an odyssey commenced that was beautifully chronicled by McCombs. Both McCombs and Johnston had spent time in Vietnam as journalists, and their connection to the place was manifest in the series they produced.
Through a process of circumstantial evidence, deduction, and expert opinion, the Post decided that the guy in the picture at the so-called “Peace Church” was indeed Richard Sutter, who was thought to have survived the intense firefight at the church only to be felled by a sniper a month later. Johnston, McCombs, and Sutter’s brother, Robert, went to Vietnam to look for the ghost whose likeness had become one of the iconic images of the Vietnam War. The quest turned out and then some, producing the Style desk’s first legit shot at a Pulitzer in many yearsat least until an unscheduled Part 4 ran.
It happens that the actual soldier in the picture, Michael Tripp, was still very much alive. He had made an effort to get in touch with Johnston at UPI after the war, but was told that the photographer was dead. That’s where it rested until Tripp recently saw the photograph anew in a promo for a documentary and made another call. The two men, Sutter and Tripp, looked very much alike, but it was Trippwho had taken refuge in the church after his chopper was shot downwho stared into Johnston’s lens.
The Post had run a caveat in the first series saying that there was a “remote” possibility that they didn’t have their man, but for the rest of the story’s hundreds of inches, their best guess was rendered as fact. Once discovered, the error was corrected in long form, with another full installment on Page 1 detailing where the paper had gone wrong and how Tripp had stayed hidden so long.
Henry Allen, a Style writer and a Vietnam-era Marine, walked into Style editor Von Drehle’s office when the bad news broke and said one word:
It’s fitting that a place that served as a quagmire for American ambition still has the power to trip up well-intentioned people this many years later. Especially when an image that resonated precisely because it seemed like Everysoldier turned out to be its own mystery.
I went back and read the Big Mistake, and it still reads like a true story even though I now know how it ends. E.R. Shipp, newly arrived ombudsman at the Post, had thrown a flag for inadequate disclaimers to begin with, and a too-cute fix, and she was right. The Post should have included more caveats about the ID of the G.I. in the picture. But so what? I learned a ton about the place, the men who fought there, and the families who now wait forever for the children and siblings they sent over there to come home.
Von Drehle says it would be dumb to blame McCombs.
“Phil did everything right. He reported the hell out of it, and when the uncertainty about who it was came up, he didn’t try to paper it over. It was brought to my attention, and I concede that uncertainty should have been stated much stronger in the first part of the series and mentioned again in the other parts. But I don’t think it was a waste of space even with the error. Richard Sutter was a person who lived as a grunt and died at Khe Sanh, exactly as we said he did,” Von Drehle says.
McCombs was beyond philosophical about his latest lesson in Vietnam’s elusiveness: “This is a process. From my point of view, I reported my heart out and did my best, and I’m honestly happy and amazed by what has happened since. I don’t care about prizes or anything else. I was privileged to be part of this story and these men’s lives, regardless of where it ended up.”
Bridge of Interest In keeping with its mission of covering the hell out of regional gridlock, the Post continues to chronicle the ongoing battle over the proposed $1.6 billion replacement for the Wilson Bridge. One salient point, though, has somehow gotten lost among all the traffic projections, land disputes, and bridge heights: The paper’s ownership has had a compelling economic interest in a portion of the debate.
Robinson Terminal, which is wholly owned by the Washington Post Co., sits in Alexandria upriver from the bridge. Every other week or so, the terminal takes delivery on shipments of newsprint from large oceangoing boats, the kind that can’t pass under a low stationary span. The Post is far and away the biggest customer, although other publications store paper at the terminal. There are few other users of the drawbridge: tall ships docking for activities in Alexandria, an occasional cruise ship, and the Coast Guard, which sends its own tall ship through once in a while for various ceremonies.
Back in 1995, regional governments affected by the bridge decided that even though the new bridge would be high enough to accommodate most recreational uses, ocean access for upriver ports of call needed to be preserved. Never mind that Washington’s heyday as a port city is more than a century past and that sporadic cruises and speculative plans for harbor development in P.G. County seem like a thin rationale for spending the estimated $75 million extra it will take to make the massive 12-lane bridge get out of the way on cue.
By maintaining oceangoing delivery, the Post is able to purchase paper from a broader array of suppliers. Robinson investigated downriver options for siting a new port and could not find what they deemed a suitable replacement site. Post Vice President for Government Affairs Carol Melamed says it’s not just a parochial issue of one company’s access to newsprint that has led to the option of a movable span: “There is a broad range of reasons why access for oceangoing vessels is important….We are not the whole story, not at all. Robinson Terminal’s interests coincide with the larger economic development interests of the region.” She points out that failure to include a draw span would preclude forever other development dependent on ocean access and that PEPCO has on one occasion used a large ice-cutter upriver to ensure delivery of badly needed fuel oil. A consultant’s study of the economic benefits of the draw span for the life of the bridge estimated its value at up to $100 million, although that figure is built on some fairly gauzy assumptions.
D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans was part of the contingent that represented the District in the bridge talks. His legislative assistant, Lyle Blanchard, says that the Post’s interests were a significant part of the discussion.
“If you look at…things in totality, most of the business is Robinson Terminal’s,” Blanchard says.
Activists who oppose the bridge see the Post as one more giant economic interest pushing for a very expansive approach at the Wilson.
Steve Schwartz, director of the Washington-based Coalition for Smarter Growth, says the paper had “a major influence on elected officials to ensure that the design of the…bridge accommodated their interests at the Robinson Terminal.”
The debate over whether the bridge will have a movable deck is settled. Right now, the project as a whole is tied up in court, with various Alexandria interests suggesting that, regardless of whether it goes up and down, a 12-lane bridge and the myriad interchanges on either side will make a huge footprint that they can’t live with. David Carr
Elizabeth Murdock contributed research for this column.
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