Look Who’s Hitched!

The secret lives of Washington’s power couples

By T. A. Frank

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Some couples you don’t want to mess with. Maybe they trap you in a corner at parties, or maybe they call each other “Bushie,” or maybe the wife is a covert operative at the CIA specializing in weapons of mass destruction. In such cases, particularly the last of these, it’s best to keep a prudent distance. Still, in the summer of 2003, anger caused Vice President Dick Cheney to abandon such discretion. The trigger was an op-ed in the New York Times by one Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who described taking a CIA-sponsored trip to Niger in 2002 and debunking claims of Iraqi uranium purchases, only to see the White House ignore the findings and mislead the public about evidence for WMD in Iraq.

Cheney did not enjoy the article. Poring over each sentence, the vice president underlined passages and scribbled vexed notes in the margins. “Do we ordinarily send people out pro bono to work for us?” he wrote. “Or did his wife send him on a junket?” The “wife” referred to one Valerie Plame, who, Cheney had learned, worked as a WMD specialist at Langley. After discussion with his chief of staff, I. Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Cheney decided that Libby should go forth and whisper to colleagues and journalists about Valerie possibly having pulled strings for Joe at the CIA to get him a trip to Niger. The old-fashioned nepotism-conflict-of-interest angle looked like a promising sell.

Subscribe Online & Save 33%But a curious thing happened on the way from Leakville to the newsroom: not much. Very few journalists bit. A host of plausible reasons for this come to mind. One is that Niger, while unmatched in nomadic camps and Neolithic rock engravings, doesn’t exactly suggest a junketeer’s paradise. Another is that most reporters, while happy to receive inside information, still have the decency not to out one of our spies. A third is that accusations of spousal favoritism coming from the husband of Lynne Cheney are, to put it gently, a bit rich. (Former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke notes that, on the evening of 9/11, Dick invited Lynne to join staff in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, a restricted bunker below the East Wing of the White House, and that she felt comfortable enough to drown out the teleconference of the Counterterrorism Security Group by turning up the volume on CNN.)

The main reason, though, was simply this: Washington has no real quarrel with power couples. Nor does it have a quarrel with power couples whose professional lives occasionally overlap. This also applies to the journalists that the White House wanted to entice with the Plame leak. There was New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who’d once shared a home with the late Les Aspin, at various times a congressman, defense secretary, and Miller source. There was Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus, spouse of Ann Terry Pincus, a onetime director of the Office of Research at the United States Information Agency, a position to which she was appointed by Bill Clinton. There was John Dickerson of Time, married to Anne Dickerson, a onetime news producer who now specializes in media coaching for advocacy groups. And NBC’s David Gregory: he’s the husband of Beth Wilkinson, general counsel for Fannie Mae; they met when she was prosecuting Timothy McVeigh and Gregory was reporting on the case. And there was Time’s Matthew Cooper, married to Mandy Grunwald, onetime media specialist for Bill Clinton and current ad guru for Hillary Clinton. As for Bob Woodward, who’d learned about Plame several weeks earlier, he is married to New Yorker writer Elsa Walsh. If Dick and Scooter hoped to indict Joe and Valerie for the proximity of their professional lives, they might have picked a more promising jury. Only old Robert Novak took the bait, and Novak, like Mikey in the bygone commercial for Life cereal, eats anything.

What Cheney and company seem to have missed is that Washington has changed. Career overlap occurs here because career parity between husbands and wives has become normal rather than exceptional. Not only do accomplished men and women now seek each other out; it’s rare that they don’t. The power couple, in short, is integral to Washington life.

And two cheers for that. Thousands of Washingtonian power couples—defined here as couples in which both husband and wife attain positions of consequence—now pursue influential, independent careers. Some, like NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and former Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan, get lots of attention. Some, like Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame (at least until they become famous), get none. Many, like Scooter Libby and Harriet Grant, onetime Democratic staff lawyer for the Senate Judiciary Committee, get something in between. All are evidence of a city that has tossed aside its old sexist clubbiness and replaced it with a new nonsexist clubbiness.

But couples are also a funny thing. When they put their mind to misbehaving, they can, by the nature of their closeness, be especially naughty. Those Macbeths, for instance, did seem so nice at first. Or, to take a more Washingtonian example, when former Congressman Tom DeLay started to get in legal and ethical trouble, one of the problems was that his wife, Christine, had received $115,000 from the Alexander Strategy Group, a lobbying firm, for doing close to nothing. (Christine and DeLay’s daughter, Dani, also received a total of $350,304 in political consulting fees and expenses as consultants for her husband’s Americans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee.) Then there was DeLay aide Tony Rudy, whose wife, Lisa Rudy, founder of Liberty Consulting, took in $86,000 thanks to lobbyist Jack Abramoff. (Abramoff now admits payments were made to get Tony Rudy to influence DeLay on some key votes.) In each of these cases, the spousal monkey business evidently continued for years unnoticed.

The problem is that the same Washington indulgence toward dual-career married couples that rightly protected Valerie and Joe (or almost did, until Bob Novak came along) is also what wrongly protected the DeLays and Rudys (or did until the prosecutors came along). Such indulgence isn’t surprising. People here are married, so most have a stake in the deal. Moreover, Washington is a one-industry town that already tolerates some outrageous conflicts of interest. Lobbyists become legislative aides, and legislative aides become lobbyists; agency officials become lawyers with clients who have business at the agency, and lawyers with clients who have business at the agency become agency officials; generals retire and go to work for defense contractors, then become talking heads on television arguing for greater spending on defense. In such company, power couples, even very cozy ones, look innocent indeed. Finally, power couples are routine everywhere. Every city has its celebrated pairs: New York has Tina and Harry, Seattle has Bill and Melinda, and Los Angeles has Brangelina. Why should those in Washington merit extra scrutiny?

The answer is simple: because what happens in Washington doesn’t stay in Washington. In Los Angeles, if Ben Affleck cuts a hidden deal with former squeeze J-Lo, the most damaging consequence is another Gigli. In Washington, if Congressman John Doolittle allows Julie Doolittle to be the sole staffer of “Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions” and to collect 15 percent of all money donated to Doolittle’s PAC, the most damaging consequence is, well, the reelection of Congressman John Doolittle.

This makes it much more important to keep an eye on such things. John-and-Julie-style duos are, thankfully, rare, and most power couples in this town are made up of charming, ethical people. Still, thousands of Washingtonian husbands and wives hold positions that could, if misused, allow them to benefit one another at the expense of the rest of us. That’s why, more than any other city, Washington has marriages that, when you first learn about them, make you go hmmm. (Or at least we do. Take a look at our list, Washington's 60 Sizzlingest Power Couples, and see if you agree.) Washington is happy to know about them, of course, but it’s not sure you need to know.

Or do you?

Consider Bob and Rita, a model Washingtonian power couple. Bob is a friendly, sixtyish attorney at Williams & Connolly, one of the country’s premier law firms. He is also known, according to his own Web page bio (where he appears as Robert B. Barnett), as one of the “premier authors’ representatives in the world.” His clients have included Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Bob Woodward, Lynne Cheney, Alan Greenspan, Katharine Graham, Barack Obama, and Queen Noor. Rita, his wife, kept her maiden name, Braver, when they married in 1972. She now works as a national correspondent for CBS News’ Sunday Morning.

Bob and Rita are often on the road, about 100 and 150 days per year, respectively. Their time together is mostly during weekends, when they like to brunch at Furin’s in Georgetown and maybe take in a movie. When they do happen to be home during the week, their days are long. They arise in the morning and hit the exercise room in their apartment, and then it’s off to work until evening. Professionally, they lead independent lives.

That doesn’t mean they don’t run into each other, though. Bob likes Democrats, and he has played a role on the debate-preparation team of nearly every Democratic presidential campaign since 1976 (the exception was in 1996). The problem, of course, is that his wife has often had to report on people being represented by Bob, or Bob has had to represent clients who were being reported on by Rita. Faced with this sort of problem regularly, the two have come up with what they consider a workable system. “We have a rule called ‘Who gets there first?’ ” Bob explains. “If I’m involved in something, then she doesn’t cover it. And if she’s covering something, I can’t get involved in it.” (When Rita was assigned to cover the White House, though, Bob, who had been Bill Clinton’s private counsel, agreed to relinquish his role. “I won Husband of the Year Award from our condominium,” Bob recalls.)

Who knows how well such an arrangement always works? In any case, it has at least allowed two skilled professionals to have proper careers. What’s more important to the rest of us is that they’re open about their connections. Bob, for instance, consented to sit for an interview on the subject. As for Rita, her CBS Web site biography volunteers that she is married to Robert Barnett.

But openness and rulemaking of the sort practiced by Bob and Rita are largely a matter of individual choice in Washington. If Bob and Rita chose to be less stringent about separating their beats or to be more secretive about their private lives, they probably wouldn’t hear too many complaints. When, for instance, Campbell Brown, anchor for the weekend edition of NBC’s Today Show, tied the knot with Dan Senor, longtime GOP operative and former spokesman for Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority, no one minded that Brown had first met Senor when interviewing him in Iraq and soon after taken a shine to him. People can’t help whom they fall for. Nor did anyone insist that Brown amend her NBC Web site bio to include information about her new spouse. That was Brown’s business.

Or take the case of American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Fred Kagan, who is widely credited with authorship of the “Surge” in Iraq. Kimberly Kagan, wife of Fred, is writing assessments for the Weekly Standard of how the Surge is working. Nowhere in the Standard, however, has there been any reference to her marriage. Blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote a pointed entry about this—“[T]hey picked the wife of the main author and one of the plan’s original architects. And they never disclosed these relevant facts”—and so did a few others, but it never rose above a minor grumble. The Weekly Standard stayed the course.

That power couple mores can vary so widely in Washington is partly because every organization has its own ethical standards. The federal government forbids any spouse in the executive branch from hiring a spouse, but that’s as restrictive as it gets. For the past decade or two, for instance, lawmakers have regularly been getting hitched to lobbyists. This hasn’t prevented either spouse from continuing with work as normal. If husbands or wives of elected officials have chosen to cease lobbying their spouses or the colleagues of their spouses, it’s been for the sake of appearances rather than the sake of law. The spouses of Senators Ted Stevens, Liddy Dole, Byron Dorgan, Dick Durbin, and Kent Conrad are all registered lobbyists.

Recently, though, the Senate tightened rules on such matters. No longer may a Senate spouse lobby the Senate. Well, no spouse except those who became lobbyists at least one year before their marriages (or one year before their senatorial spouses were elected). This new rule winds up inconveniencing exactly one spouse: Lucy Calautti, lobbyist for Major League Baseball and wife of North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad. Sorry, Lucy. It’s all in the name of ethics, you know. The rest of you go about your business.

In the House, meanwhile, spouses remain free to ply their trade as before. And such trade has allowed romance to blossom for members such as Congressman Roy Blunt of Missouri, who was linked romantically to Abigail Perlman, lobbyist for Philip Morris, when he tried to insert legislation favorable to big tobacco into a homeland security bill. In 2003, Roy divorced his wife and married Abigail. Although Abigail stopped lobbying the House once Roy became acting House majority leader, she remains a lobbyist. If there are House standards on spousal lobbying, let’s just say they’re not overly confining.

Newsrooms, too, have varying rules, and the standards continue to evolve as the phenomenon of dual-career pairs takes hold. When NPR correspondent Michelle Norris of All Things Considered informed her superiors that her husband, Broderick Johnson, would be acting as a senior adviser to the campaign of John Kerry in 2004, NPR decided to pull Norris off all political coverage for the campaign season. On the other hand, in 2005, when Los Angeles Times political reporter Ron Brownstein married Eileen McMenamin, chief spokeswoman for John McCain, the Times , it seems, couldn’t quite figure out what to do. A few weeks ago, it finally switched Brownstein out of the newsroom and over to the opinion section.

The New York Times stands out for having a thick guidebook to journalistic ethics, and one issue it addresses is that of spousal careers. “In a day when most families balance two careers,” it notes, “the legitimate activities of companions, spouses and other relatives can sometimes create journalistic conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts.” For example, a “spouse or companion who runs for public office” would create such a conflict. The Times remedy is to require that staffers “not write about people to whom they are related by blood or marriage.” And there are many instructions about notifying the standards editor. In practice, though, it mainly boils down to a salty rule laid out by the late A. M. Rosenthal, one that somehow didn’t make it into the guidebook: “If you’re fucking the elephants, you can’t cover the circus.” (The phrasing of the quote varies, but not the imagery.)

But in Washington, a city of circus watchers, that can be a considerable restriction.

Let’s at least be grateful for how far we’ve come. Twenty-five years ago, Washingtonian wives with careers comparable to those of their husbands were viewed with something between suspicion and bemusement. “It was a major story when I chose to continue working,” recalls Debbie Dingell, who was a lobbyist for General Motors when she married Democratic Congressman John Dingell in 1981. (She quit lobbying but remained at General Motors.) “The social activities for spouses were totally designed for people who didn’t work.”

Even the most important women in town quickly learned to set the bar low. In her 1982 book Ear on Washington, Washington gossip columnist Diana McLellan describes one memorable Washington welcome: “Justice Sandra O’Connor found herself celebrating her appointment at a luncheon—not with twenty-four senators, but with twenty-four senators’ wives.”

The early ’80s were also a time when the phrase “power couple” first entered common parlance in Washington. Imagine that, was the subtext. She’s important, too. And, as it happened, “she,” most of the time, meant Liddy Dole. A Nexis search for mentions of “power couple” prior to 1990 turns up 133 articles, of which no fewer than eighty are about Liddy and her marriage to Senator Bob Dole. To get a sense of how novel this power couple seemed back in the day, note this passage from a 1983 article in Newsweek, written when Liddy was secretary of transportation: “Perhaps the truest measure of the impact of Washington’s consensus ‘power couple’ is the surfeit of Dole jokes making the rounds at Georgetown dinner parties. There’s the one about how their marriage violates federal antimerger laws.” Clearly, Washington wasn’t yet comfortable with married women having careers of their own. And when Bob decided to run for president in the 1988 election, Liddy, to the disappointment of many working women, resigned her post in order to support him properly.

If there was a turning point in the history of power couples, it was when Bill and Hillary Clinton moved into the White House. Bill’s presidency brought many new pairs to town, most of which were of the dual-career variety. (The most famous of these was James Carville, a Clinton campaign staffer, who married Mary Matalin, a George H. W. Bush campaign staffer.) Even more important than duos in the Clinton entourage, though, was the First Couple itself. Here, for the first time, was a presidential pair in which each party had recently enjoyed a real career. Washington, ever the gracious host, had a fit. Conservatives spent the next eight years or so combing through Hillary’s history at the Rose law firm in search of damning conflicts of interest.

Still, power couples were becoming plentiful enough that they were beginning to provoke some serious reflection on the subject. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the media began to look seriously at all the ethical pitfalls of working in overlapping careers. A 1994 article in the Washington Post Outlook section even identified “power-couple syndrome” and suggested that Bill and Hillary take the lead in coming up with “clearer guidelines, more creative solutions” for the new ethical terrain. It was all very high-minded.

In the end, though, no one ever did do much about coming up with clearer guidelines (although one could argue that “creative solutions” have been plentiful). Instead, Washington allowed the new couples to settle in, and everyone got comfortable. Today, the power couple is barely more newsworthy than a power single. According to Diana McLellan, the fascination with power couples is entirely gone. “That era is dead,” she notes. “There are no more surprises.”

Newspapers do periodically chronicle who in elected office is married to whom. We’re reminded that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is married to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. Or that Congressman Steven LaTourette is married to lobbyist Jennifer LaTourette. Or that former Senator Phil Gramm is married to former Commodity Futures Trading Commission head Wendy Lee Gramm. Recently, the Los Angeles Times even broke some new ground by reporting on journalists married to political operatives.

But there are many more couples that the press doesn’t note until they happen to touch on a breaking story. Take Cathie Martin, former communications director for Dick Cheney. Until she became a star witness at the Libby trial, few Washingtonians had ever heard of her. (To be sure, being a communications director for Dick Cheney is almost a contradiction in terms.) Even fewer knew that she was married to Kevin Martin, chair of the Federal Communications Commission. Now that we do know, however, we have a clearer sense of the lines of power in Washington. In this case, we once again see the reach of the vice president into the federal bureaucracy. That’s useful information to file away, but before the Martins were in the news, there was little reason for journalists to print it.

Some other things keep journalists quiet: We, too, have spouses and value our privacy. Also, like most people, we’re loath to antagonize colleagues. As a young political journalist, I, for instance, might like to be on friendly terms with Jim VandeHei, former Washington Post reporter and founder of a new political publication, The Politico. Jim knows a lot of the people I know, or hope to know, and he might be in a position to hire me. This makes me less likely to bring up that Jim happens to be married to former Tom DeLay staffer Autumn Hanna VandeHei. Sure, Jim has written numerous articles about Tom DeLay for the Washington Post without disclosing that Autumn once worked for DeLay, and sure, for all I know, it’s possible—possible—he may have given DeLay overly favorable treatment as a result. But, hey, I’m sure Jim’s reporting is trustworthy, his marriage is his business, and I prefer to stay on his good side. (Come to think of it, I think Jim VandeHei may be the greatest journalist in human history.)

Congratulations to me, then, for I know about Jim and Autumn and you don’t, and that’s fine with all three of us. I’ve just taken a step further into Club Washington. It is, of course, a comfortable club with plenty of seating in which many relationships similar to that of Jim and Autumn go unmentioned. Over here by the miniature quiches is Jim O’Beirne, who, as White House liaison to the Pentagon, according to the Washington Post, screened staff for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and here’s his wife, National Review writer Kate O’Beirne. Hi, Jim. Can I have a job in reconstruction? Just a little joke. Hi, Kate. Nice piece on Iraq. And here by the chicken satay skewers is neoconservative scholar Robert Kagan, husband of Victoria Nuland, current ambassador to NATO. Hi, Bob, nice piece on NATO. And, wow, here come Clarence and Virginia Thomas. Talk about A-list.

But, okay, given the nature of this piece, I suppose I do have to step out of the club for a second and confront Jim VandeHei about his marriage. Luckily for me, Jim is perfectly agreeable and says that he met Autumn when he was working for Roll Call and she was working in DeLay’s office. “It didn’t help me or her, because I was doing investigative pieces on DeLay at the time,” he says, adding, “I’d already done a lot of reporting on DeLay.” Jim also notes that his wife’s most recent employment was as a consultant for what he calls a “nonpartisan nonprofit,” the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, a legal advocacy group for poor families grappling with substance abuse. See? Told you I didn’t need to bring it up.

Ultimately, when it comes to Washington marriages, the problem with Washington is rarely the possible conflicts of interest. It’s the concealment of them. We’re not doing anything wrong, is what we think. If we start dragging out information on who’s married to whom, then people will just think we’re doing something wrong. Besides, we already let our boss/standards editor/colleague know about this.

Well, tough luck. And here’s a reminder: the public out there already holds this city in abysmal regard. Sure, I know you’re nice and honest, but they don’t. If you don’t tell them this personal stuff, and they find out on their own, they’ll get angry and make your life harder.

Therefore, in the interests of getting things moving, this piece is going to wind down by offering some new rules for this town. Forget general exhortations about guidelines or disclosure. Instead, how about we try something tougher and get a little bit specific? Some suggestions, then, on a new approach to power couple ethics in Washington:

  1. If you’re married to an elected official, forget about lobbying. We’ll make a law against that. And if you’re married to a lobbyist, forget about being an elected official. We’ll outlaw that, too. “Wait,” you ask, “if I’m a congresswoman and I fall in love with a lobbyist and marry him, does that mean that either he quits lobbying or I quit Congress?” Yes. And spare us the moaning about how that means one of you can’t work. There’s a vast, wealthy metro area out there. Go open a Starbucks.
  2. Many government officials, including any federal appointees requiring Senate confirmation, must submit public financial disclosure forms. Amend this rule to include public disclosure of the profession of one’s spouse. Expand the disclosure requirements to include all congressional staffers.
  3. Journalists love to put “full disclosure” in parenthetical statements, but, compared to federal appointees, we disclose barely a thing, and only when it suits us. Let newspapers and other journalistic media maintain disclosure Web sites where employees list potential conflicts of interest, including professional affiliations of spouses.
  4. Let us know if your husband is the author of the Surge.

Does this solve the problem? Not entirely. Is it fair? Not really. Girlfriends and boyfriends and lovers of various sorts get a free pass. (So do partners in same-sex unions—although, if lawmakers won’t recognize them, then maybe they deserve the break.) Plenty of conflicts of interest and loopholes would remain. But that’s the way law works. It’s never entirely effective and never entirely fair. All it can do is improve on what we have.

Again, none of this is to suggest that Washington is awash in power couple misdeeds. Quite the contrary: power couples are a thing of joy. (Okay, so maybe careerist Washington duos don’t cheer you per se, but remember that they exist because women have made belated gains in a notably atavistic city.) They do, however, form a web of influence, and influence, if we’ve learned anything over the centuries, bears watching. So, yes, Washingtonians, enjoy your coziness, but be aware that soon the tax for such luxuries must be a small sliver of your privacy, payable in disclosure of your significant other. You may fear what those outside of Washington will say when they find out. But don’t underestimate them so. Remember, they have working spouses, too.


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T. A. Frank is a consulting editor of the Washington Monthly. His wife, Jody Gibney, manages Norton Internet Security at Symantec.

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