Are Washington Insiders On Their Way OUT? Well-connected figures within the D.C. beltway appear to be losing status

November 18, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

Washington -- It used to be a badge of honor, a mark of renown in this town, that guaranteed you a decent table at one of those clubby steak-and-big-pickle restaurants, tickets to a Redskins game, and at the very least, that late afternoon call from "Nightline."

These days, it's more like a self-inflicted wound, a scarlet letter in the form of a capital -- or Capitol -- "I."

Is the Washington Insider getting kicked outside?

"The collective reputation of Washington insiders has taken a tumble in the last few years," says Terry Michael, a political analyst and public relations executive in Washington. "Because of all the scandals -- with the savings and loans, BCCI [Bank of Credit and Commerce International], the excesses on Capitol Hill like pay raises and bounced checks -- the whole insider community has been tarred with a pretty broad brush."

"When was the last time anybody was foolish enough to say, 'Vote for me because I'm a Washington insider?' " muses Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "It was [former attorney general Richard] Thornburgh. See what happened to him."

He lost the recent Pennsylvania election for a U.S. Senate seat in a race that some political observers saw as a referendum on Washington insiderism. But the bad rep, says long-time Washington insider Art Buchwald, is nothing new; it comes with the territory. "If you're an insider you have to be maligned -- that's what makes you an insider," says the humor columnist. "If nobody maligns you, it means you're not worth much. I get maligned all the time, and I consider myself a very important insider."

Indeed, members of Congress aren't the only Washingtonians described as, or maligned as, insiders. They're all over the town, some of them tucked so deeply inside that they're virtual unknowns outside the beltway; others, conversely, are only considered "inside" because they've made themselves known "outside" through frequent TV appearances.

They are superlawyers such as Robert S. Strauss, a former Democratic National Committee chairman who's now President Bush's ambassador to the Soviet Union, or Clark M. Clifford, the classic insider who was a former defense secretary and adviser to nine presidents, but whose sterling reputation has been bruised by questionsabout his connections to the corrupt BCCI.

They are lobbyists who have close connections both inside government and business. They are previous Cabinet-level officials who stayed in town after their administrations left and are now consulting, practicing law or back in politics. And they are journalists, usually columnists, who also practice their punditry on TV.

"Being a Washington insider is based on this: Somebody says, 'Whadaya know?' If the other person has information, he feels like he's inside," says Mr. Buchwald. "It's all about exchange of information."

Another solid insider, Washington Post reporter-turned-author Sally Quinn, agrees that one's insider status is earned through what one knows. "Power isn't really an issue here -- it's knowledge and experience."

But if power isn't the key issue, "the perception of power is," believes Pamela Brogan, editor of Inside Lobbying, a Washington newsletter. Those who have the ear of the White House and members of Congress are the ones with the clout, she says.

Some believe heavy-hitting agents such as Mr. Strauss and Mr. Clifford are becoming an endangered species. In a June cover story on "Superlawyers," the National Journal, noting that the next generation of great D.C. lawyers aren't the Mr. Fix-its that the reigning superlawyers are,

reported: "The Washington superlawyer, it seems, may go the way of the dinosaur."

And D.C. public relations executive Jackson Bain calls Washington insiders "a dying breed." Policymakers are less "beltway-centric" than they've ever been before, he says, as national issues are being driven more and more by grass roots, and state and local, efforts.

But a look at the Oval Office -- now occupied by consummate bTC Washington insider George Bush -- suggests that these well-connected lobbyists, lawyers and journalists still wield much power. Jimmy Carter, who ran against Washington insiders and never played their game, ultimately was rushed out of town by them, say political observers. Ronald Reagan, they say, succeeded because he knew the formula.

"Reagan came across as an outsider, but he played an effective, subtle inside game," says political analyst Norman Ornstein. "Even when he didn't know what to do, he relied on consummate insiders to do it for him."

One of those to whom President Reagan astutely reached out was Edward Bennett Williams, the late lawyer and businessman regarded as the Da Vinci of the insider's art. "He loved power and knew how to get close to it," says Evan Thomas, author of a new biography about the legendary lawyer and Orioles owner.

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