Sally Quinn’s Washington

Jamison Foser

By Jamison Foser

You cannot caricature Sally Quinn. Don’t even try. It simply can’t be done. No matter how hard you try to exaggerate her preening self-regard and utter frivolity, she comes right along and shows herself to be worse than you could possibly imagine.

Quinn — who gained fame when The Washington Post was forced to retract her false claim that Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser unzipped his fly during an interview — makes the extraordinary claim in her January 26 column that Carter lost his re-election campaign due to his failure to attend Washington dinner parties. Not only that — according to Quinn, Ted Kennedy ran against Carter because of it:

When Jimmy Carter arrived in Washington, he and Rosalynn and many of their advisers were decidedly not interested in the locals and made it known. That chill was such a mistake that Teddy Kennedy felt free to challenge Carter, which doomed Carter’s reelection.

Wow. Who knew that when Kennedy declared "the dream shall never die," he was referring to the dream that one day Sally Quinn would once again rub elbows with presidents?

But that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Quinn’s column — in which she complains that the last several presidential administrations have been insufficiently interested in partying with her and her friends — is chock-full of self-aggrandizement, casual indifference to the actual act of governing, and comically transparent hypocrisy. Consider:

The Clintons brought in a whole new crowd, many of them young and arrogant and clique-ish, which created such a competitive social atmosphere that the environment became toxic.

That’s right: Sally Quinn, in the middle of a column boasting that the Washington establishment (her word) to which she belongs tears down presidents who don’t socialize properly, declares the Clinton crowd "arrogant and clique-ish."

Quinn continues with an odd little story:

Ironically, President Clinton had given a toast at Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham’s welcoming dinner for him shortly after he was elected. He talked about Washington being a place that was obsessed by "who’s in and who’s out, who’s up and who’s down." It was as though he were predicting his own tenure: A lot of enemies were made.

What’s odd about that is that if Clinton said those words at Katherine Graham’s little soiree, this is apparently the first time anyone has mentioned it in the 17 years since. Now, I wasn’t at Katharine Graham’s welcoming dinner for Bill Clinton, and I assume that Sally Quinn was. So maybe it happened. Or maybe Quinn is actually referring to Bill Clinton’s first inaugural speech, in which he uttered that line. That seems more likely, particularly since Quinn herself began her infamous 1998 column about Washington’s contempt for Bill Clinton with that same quote, attributed to his inaugural address.

It probably says something about Quinn that she cannot tell the difference between a presidential inaugural address and a party at Katherine Graham’s house — and it definitely says something about her that she omitted what Clinton said next. Here’s the passage from Clinton’s speech:

This beautiful capital, like every capital since the dawn of civilization, is often a place of intrigue and calculation. Powerful people maneuver for position and worry endlessly about who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down, forgetting those people whose toil and sweat sends us here and pays our way.

Americans deserve better, and in this city today, there are people who want to do better. And so I say to all of us here, let us resolve to reform our politics, so that power and privilege no longer shout down the voice of the people.


Let us give this capital back to the people to whom it belongs.

In Bill Clinton’s version, the nation’s capital belongs not to the powerful and the privileged, but to "the people whose toil and sweat sends us here and pays our way." You can probably see why that doesn’t sit well with Sally Quinn.

It gets worse.

Quinn opens and closes her column by analogizing Washington to Avatar — an analogy almost as insufferable as the film’s dialogue. From Quinn’s opening words ("Imagine Washington as the planet Pandora in the movie ‘Avatar’") it’s clear this isn’t going anywhere good. In Quinn’s telling, the Washington establishment (again: her word for her and her friends) is "the natives, the Na’vi." That is to say, the good and innocent people who face invasion and the destruction of everything they hold dear at the hands of soulless, shallow and power-mad villains.

Now, I should remind you that Quinn’s central complaint is that incoming presidential administrations do not party quite as hearty as Quinn and her good-time pals would like:

When Obama was elected, people began singing "Happy Days Are Here Again." Expectations were over the top. It would be only hours before we would all be dancing on tables. They were beautiful and glamorous, hip and fun. They were the new Kennedys, and Washington would come alive again. They would set a new social tone. Young people would be out every night, partying, mixing and mingling. Members of Congress, who had been sleeping on sofas in their offices and in group houses because their families lived back in the home districts, would start accepting invitations again instead of working for 18 hours, three days a week, and then going home for four.

It was all a Camelot fantasy. Obama inherited the helm of the Titanic. Many of those he brought in were from past administrations. A lot of his crowd came in from Chicago and stuck together. People are working around the clock, and too exhausted and overextended to go out. The Obamas rarely entertain, except for large events.

I should assure you: I did not make that up. Sally Quinn actually wrote it. She actually wrote that members of Congress work too much and party too little.

Anyway, back to Quinn’s analogy: The Na’vi had their sacred grounds bombed into oblivion, which is just like Barack Obama’s failure to dance on a table with Sally Quinn. And that failure, according to Quinn, has consequences:

It would be inspiring to see a new administration understand the simple secret of how to belong to the community. Then, they would never have to hear, as the heroine of Avatar, Neytiri, says to the would-be hero, Jake Sully: "You will never be one of the people."

See, if you want to be "one of the people," you have to hobnob with Washington millionaires like Sally Quinn at elite gatherings of the connected and powerful. That’s just basic common sense.

If you replaced Quinn’s use of "establishment" with "The Village," the column would read like a parody of Quinn and her crowd penned by Digby or Bob Somerby. Instead, almost unbelievably, this is Quinn herself, and she is all too serious.

Again: You cannot caricature Sally Quinn. Don’t even try.

Unfortunately, you also cannot completely ignore her. Hard as it may be to imagine, Quinn is not alone among establishment media in heaping abuse on presidents who don’t make sucking up to her a priority — particularly Democratic presidents. Just a few weeks ago, Time‘s Mark Halperin wrote that a key Obama shortcoming was his purported difficulty "Wooing Official Washington" — by which Halperin meant himself and his friends. Or, as he put it: "Beltway salons and newsrooms whose denizens hoped the über-cool newbies would play." At the time, I noted that "this is the kind of idiocy that contributed to the elite media’s hatred of the Clintons," and that there were other signs of Village restlessness — particularly, Sally Quinn’s call for the resignation of the White House social secretary, whose sins include the fact that she is "not of Washington."

Quinn’s column may be absurd and shallow and betray a fundamental lack of seriousness, but it is not entirely wrong. Much of the Beltway media establishment really will trash a president for purely social reasons.

Keep that in mind: Their priorities are not your priorities. They care very little about jobs and health care and climate change. They just want to bask in the reflected glory that comes from dancing on tabletops with the "beautiful and glamorous, hip and fun." And if they can’t, there will be hell to pay.

Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web, as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.