In the Washington Post Magazine this weekend, Sally Quinn—wife of former legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, former religion columnist and social lioness—wrote a jaw-dropping piece about How Washington Has Changed For The Worse. As a friend said, "Every time you think this column can't get more deranged, there's another paragraph." Here's a summary: Crude people like the Kardashians and the Gingriches are getting attention, instead of my husband and me. That's appalling. We important people used to be in charge of getting things done here in Washington. But now people like me are pointless, because Washington is all about money. Important people won't even come to my dinner parties any more. Well, f*** 'em, I'll just have friends instead.
The astonishing part is that she publishes it as if we ought to sympathize. Some excerpts:
Money is power. The fundraiser has replaced the Washington dinner party.
Washington has become a community of small groups of people, mostly staying within their circles, occasionally making a foray out into the bigger world to large events, only to be turned off by the endless corporate “fundraiserness” of it all. How special can you feel when you know you have to pay to go to an event and then get a bad seat on top of that?
Well, okay, I get that that's a problem. But by "Washington," you understand, she means her former A-List friends who once ran the world for good, not evil, marrying power and then managing it well. Politico rounded up some of the best Twitter quips about this astoundingly self-absorbed and clueless piece here. My favorite was from Ana Marie Cox, of The Guardian: “Quinn doesn’t complain DC is now run by insular elites; it’s just now run by the WRONG elites (i.e., not her friends).”
For more insight, I turned to one of my own extra-smart C-List acquaintances, Rich Yeselson, a former labor organizer and writer (see his lament for the decline of unions here). Yeselson wrote an exegesis far more fascinating than the document on which he riffed:
It's a classic intra-elite fight, but Quinn really writes with an extraordinary lack of self-knowledge. On one hand, she gets at some of the things about the new entertainment/political oligarchy that are so disappointing, indeed close to repulsive--the pejorative populism (vacuous people famous for being famous whom millions pay attention to, and the media reflexively cover) particularly, and, even, to be fair, the continued success of demagogues like Gingrich (people who could have been great in the old Bradley/Quinn run system, but lost their way because they wanted to become filthy rich and famous). But she conflates this demotic populism with a more egalitarian meritocracy. ... So: "twenty five year old bloggers" are the same to her as the Kardashians. But those 25-year-old bloggers were people like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias. And they were really really good, and the new frictionless/sans gatekeepers media transmission belt allowed the two of you, and many more, to achieve large and justifiable audiences. And, yes, there are other young bloggers who haven't had that kind of success, and some of them should have more success. Still, the new structural spaces enabled some talented people to break through in a way that might have been foreclosed 30 or 50 years ago. But to Quinn, Kardashian=Gingrich=Klein. It's all a fall from grace.
Quinn doesn't think of any of this in structural/historical terms. For her, it's all about people with a certain kind of taste--a kind of affect-- being, in fact, the gatekeepers--that's what we've lost. The giveaway remarks (among them, anyway, there were several) is the reference to Joe Alsop and his wife, the hostess of yore. Quinn notes without comment that Alsop is the subject of a current Broadway play. And, for once, she entirely in control of her material. This is exactly how she wants to frame her reference to Alsop. The subtext, in her voice, would seem to be: 1) Joe Alsop was a great man. 2) His wife (like me) was a clever subordinate to a great man, a social whirlwind--that's what a great wife is (and, also, always left unsaid: how I "got" my husband--a young, attractive woman, winning the attention of sophisticated, successful, married older man--is, also, entirely normative and gender appropriate--this is what good looking young women have been doing for centuries, and it enables them to find their important, but subsumed, place in the world). 3) If you know about Alsop or just read a review of the play, you know that he was gay--I don't have to be so vulgar as to mention it here, people like the Kardashians or Newt Gingrich would mention it, but I'm not going to--but I'm signaling you that, of course, I knew it. 4) But we tasteful gatekeepers of that era, including his wife, knew this and we didn't care! Joe Alsop was a great man, a man with deserved "power" (a key anti-populist trope of hers). 5) We didn't care because we weren't bigots, and we understood what was important--public power, not private pecadillos. 6) But, back in the day of gatekeepers with taste, everybody understood that the private should remain private--thus Alsop himself was too tasteful and discrete to openly parade his irrelevant homosexuality. The "appearances" he and wife maintained were not just appearances--they were a way of perceiving and acting upon the world, a way that kept the operation of power in the hands of appropriate people. 7) And that's what is missing today--a famous gay journalist today is out of the closet, a narcissist. Sex sex sex sex--it's vulgar, it's populist, it detracts from what should be his (or her--imagine what Quinn thinks of Rachel Maddow!) true calling. But it’s not even sex, per se, that troubles her—her own affair led to her marriage, after all. The “closet” for Quinn is where anything she takes to be tasteless, ostentatious, small "d" democratic, or egalitarian should be put. It's transparency and intellectual mobility she most fears. If any smart person with a blog can affect a president, then her entire, ordered world comes crashing down.
So the lesson of the Alsop’s marriage for Quinn is: We knew, we didn't care, but we didn't tackily parade it around the neighborhood. This is the credo of a parochial ruling circle conflating repression with worldly wisdom and a normative homogeneity with cosmopolitan sophistication.
Quinn can't even imagine anybody in DC beyond her circle of power (never money--the inherited money of a Katherine Graham is just kind of there, not disgustingly solicited in the way Kardashian and Gingrich do). There are no working class people, no poor people, really not even any workaday K street lawyers.
Rabble like you and me, dear reader, are not included. Quinn conflates herself with the just order of things. It's quite astonishing, really. Let's agree not to do that ourselves, 'k?
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