There is so much that is deeply strange in a New York Times story reported Friday by Jason Horowitz.
Assuming the article is factually correct, and it certainly appears to be well reported, the president of the United States phoned the majority leader of the U.S. Senate during a legislative crisis to complain that one of the senator’s staffers is a leaker. Unbeknown to the president, the staffer was listening in on the call and broke in to rebut the president’s accusation.
This is more like a television version of Washington—something a scriptwriter of a D.C.-based drama would concoct—than Washington as it has traditionally operated and should be expected to operate.
Presidents don’t call senators to complain that someone in their office got them mad. That is below a president. (It is especially below one during a crisis.) If persistent leaks get under a president’s skin, he has one of the tough guys around him make that call. If it’s really serious, he has his chief of staff do it. But a president doesn’t lower himself to making accusations, he doesn’t stoop to expressing personal anger at a mere congressional staffer. Presidents have bigger things to do. They also know that everyone leaks. They roll their eyes and keep walking.
Senators don’t have staffers surreptitiously listen in on phone calls from the president of the United States. If they want to request that someone listen in and take notes, they can, and the White House can give or decline permission in advance of the call. Has any senator ever violated this etiquette? Probably, sure. But it is a violation, and they would know it is a violation and not something to brag about.
Staffers to senators don’t jump in on phone calls to argue with a president of the United States. It is disrespectful and a violation of the president’s stature.
Staffers or senators who did do such things would not talk about it, would not put it into the air on Capitol Hill so that a reporter could pick it up and tell the story.
Standards of behavior even on relatively little things appear to have fallen so far in Washington that you get the impression the people in this story never knew there were standards in the first place. They come across like people who don’t know the rudiments, who have no sense of the courtesies and dignity of their respective positions.
And of course the story is a gossipy reminder of how much such things have changed—not improved, just changed—in Washington.
Thinking about it, I remembered two things, not the same in weight but sort of connected thematically. The first is what happened the night I heard about the Monica Lewinsky story in January 1998. I had written a book, there was a book party, and two good friends, one a jurist and the other a journalist, both Democrats, came up to me breathless.
“Did you hear? It just broke, a big story about the president and a woman.”
I shook my head. There had always been gossip about Bill Clinton. People had been hearing it for years, why is this new?
“No, there are tapes.”
“She’s young, an intern or something. They were in the White House—the Oval Office!”
At this point I said, “Whoa. Whoa.” Because my instinct was that it wasn’t true, presidents don’t do things like that, this sounds more like a novel than life. Maybe the girl is just someone with an extremely odd and active fantasy life.
But my friends believed the story, and I could tell that they felt a little sorry for me that I didn’t get it.
Which I didn’t. Because no president would act like that. It took days and weeks for me to fully absorb it. And then I got mad, because the people involved in the scandal were acting as vandals and tearing down things it took centuries to build.
My only personal experience of the White House was of two men, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, for whom such behavior would have been impossible.
If you work for American presidents who are good men, you will inevitably carry forward in your head the assumption that American presidents will be good men. Your expectations will be toward high personal standards and normality. If you started out working for leaders who are not good men, on the other hand, you can go forward with a cynicism and suspicion that are perhaps more appropriate to your era.
The second thing the Horowitz story made me think of is this. I have remarked, and I think others have also, on the broad, deep impact of the television drama “The West Wing.” It spawned a generation of Washington-based television dramas. (Interestingly, they have become increasingly dark.) It also inspired a generation of young people to go to Washington and work in politics. I always thought the show gave young people a sense of the excitement of work, of being a professional and of being part of something that could make things better.
But it also gave them a sense of how things are done in Washington. And here the show’s impact was not entirely beneficial, because people do not—should not—relate to each other in Washington as they do on TV. “The West Wing” was a television show—it was show business—and it had to conform to the rules of drama and entertainment, building tension and inventing situations that wouldn’t really happen in real life.
Once when I briefly worked on the show, there was a scene in which the press secretary confronts the president and tells him off about some issue. Then she turned her back and walked out. I wrote a note to the creator, Aaron Sorkin, and said, Aaron, press secretaries don’t upbraid presidents in this way, and they don’t punctuate their point by turning their backs and storming out. I cannot remember his reply, but it was probably along the lines of, “In TV they do!”
“The West Wing” was so groundbreaking, and had in so many ways such a benign impact. But I wonder if it didn’t give an entire generation the impression that how you do it on a TV drama is how you do it in real life.
And so the president calls the senator and the aide listens in and cuts the president off. And things in Washington are more like a novel than life, but a cheap novel, and more like a TV show than life, but a poor and increasingly dark one.