Life in Washington is tough on outsiders

August 11, 1993|By Susan Baer and Karen Hosler | Susan Baer and Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — In an article on the pressures of Washington in yesterday's Sun, Jody Powell, former press secretary to Jimmy Carter, says that he intended his characterization of "inexcusable and inexplicable behavior" to apply to the press handling of the suicide of former White House official Vincent Foster and not the suicide itself.

WASHINGTON -- It took Vincent Foster only six months to decide he wasn't cut out for the pressure-cooker of the nation's capital -- a town some believe is getting meaner.

"I was not meant for the job or the spotlight of public life in Washington," the late White House deputy counsel declared in the anguished note he wrote, and then tore up, before committing suicide last month. "Here ruining people is considered sport."


Although his note suggests a deeply troubled mind that had lost perspective on the job, the town and ultimately his own life, many before him have discovered the same pressures of an unforgiving spotlight that can destroy people as easily as it can make them stars.

"I've watched a lot of casualties," says Edward J. Rollins, political director to former President Ronald Reagan. "For every survivor, for everyone who thrives in the atmosphere, for everyone who enhances his reputation, there is someone thought to be equally talented who gets destroyed."

Mr. Rollins, who says that only after decades here has he developed the ability to brush aside criticism and failure, believes the public eye can be especially uncomfortable and disorienting for outsiders like Mr. Foster, who spent most of his life in Arkansas.

"I've never been through anything like my experience [at the White House]," says Mr. Rollins, "and I had been in politics 20 years before that. There's no other place like it."

He also suggests that the high stakes, the intensity of the work, the long hours and the constant scrutiny of the national news media take more of a toll on the staffers, the behind-the-scenes ++ players like Mr. Foster, than they do on the center-stage politicians who have been exposed to all of those stresses during campaigns.

City not to blame

But Jody Powell, press secretary to former President Jimmy Carter, while acknowledging the intense pressures of Washington, discounts the connection between the town and Mr. Foster's suicide, dismissing it as part of "the search for excuses to explain away inexcusable and inexplicable behavior."

"Lots of folks come here from all over, and most of us become discouraged and depressed at one point or another along the way," said Mr. Powell, who came to Washington from Georgia and has stayed here since his days at the White House. "It is a tough, incestuous and sometimes mean-spirited little town. That's Washington."

Indeed, Washington has always been a tough town, but some people think it has gotten meaner in recent years. More intense partisanship, more intrusive press coverage of the personal lives and foibles of public officials, and a decline of any sort of rules of gentlemanly combat all are cited by Washington veterans in both political parties.

"I spent 35 years in Washington and I have the impression it's be come considerably more vicious," said former House Speaker Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat who resigned from Congress amid an ethics scandal. "Political operatives believe it's not enough to destroy a political opponent's arguments; they are out to destroy their very lives -- their reputations, their good names."

The intense public scrutiny discourages some people from coming to Washington.

'Not the real world'

"My husband is a highly successful small-town lawyer in Pennsylvania, and he wouldn't come here for all the money in the world," said Phyllis Kaminsky, a Washington corporate consultant and former Reagan administration official now in the second decade of commuter marriage. "He says it's not the real world. It's a place that eats people up and spits them out."

James Cicconi, who served as a top White House official in both the Reagan and Bush administrations, says all elements of the Washington culture are to blame for what he calls a growing "mean streak -- a desire to see public servants cut down to size."

But, at the same time, Washington veterans do not see suicide as a logical result of this nastiness and pressure.

As in all occupations, a certain kind of temperament is needed to survive here.

"It takes a very secure person to be successful in Washington," observed Marlin Fitzwater, who as White House press secretary for both Presidents George Bush and Ronald Reagan probably faced more daily public scrutiny that any of his colleagues. "There is a lot of perceived unfairness that you have to be able to deal with."

The closest parallel to the apparent pain experienced by Mr. Foster was the anguish felt by Robert C. "Bud" McFarlane, the national security adviser in the Reagan administration who, burdened by his central role in the Iran-contra scandal, attempted suicide in 1987.

Leave or hang tough

Others have had sterling careers crash and burn here -- usually through their own misjudgments -- but have left town or tried to resurrect their reputations. Many, including Mr. McFarlane, are still here.

Such casualties are a fact of life in Washington.

John Frohnmayer, who served as chairman the National Endowment for the Arts until Mr. Bush replaced him under pressure from the Republican right wing, agreed that Washington is "an extremely vicious town -- a blood-in-the-water type of town. . . . But that ought not to discourage good people and people of good morals from coming there."

"It would compound the tragedy of Vince Foster's death if good, talented people from outside refused to come here, leaving the town to just the politicians," he added. "We can see how that works out."

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