In D.C., breakfast can outpower power lunch Over bacon and eggs, careers get scrambled

November 24, 1995|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Breakfast has become the meal of choice in this town where power means never having to say you're sleepy.

But as the coffee and news have flowed among politicians and journalists, lobbyists and business executives, Washington's power breakfast has taken on a new dimension: Lately, it has become the place where political careers are scrambled, fried and over-easy.

Just last week, two prominent men -- both of whom, most likely, wish they'd overslept -- damaged their careers by putting more than Rice Krispies in their mouths at early meetings with reporters.

At breakfast Wednesday, House Speaker Newt Gingrich turned himself into the butt of a week's worth of jokes by saying he toughened up a budget bill Republicans sent to the White House because he didn't like the way he was treated by President Clinton on a trip aboard AirForce One.

Two days later, Adm. Richard C. Macke, the American military commander in the Pacific, jettisoned his 35-year naval career with a few unfortunate words uttered around another breakfast table with reporters.

He said the three U.S. servicemen who conspired to rape a 12-year-old girl in Okinawa were "stupid" because they could have hired a prostitute for the money they spent renting the car in which the crime was committed.

Before most people had arrived at work last Friday and poured their first cup of coffee, Admiral Macke was toast.

"Breakfast in Washington?" muses Republican strategist Ed Rollins. "Best to have it at home. It can be very dangerous to one's health."

Mr. Rollins learned that lesson the hard way.

At an infamous breakfast with reporters in November 1993, he boasted that, as campaign manager for Christine Todd Whitman, who had just won the New Jersey governor's race, he spent $500,000 to suppress black voter turnout.

He later retracted the comment, saying he had gotten carried away at the breakfast.

But the remarks ignited a furor and derailed his career, temporarily at least.

"Without exception, people are stupider in the morning -- even stupider than they are after a few drinks at dinner," says columnist Diana McLellan, an observer of Washington customs and an avid luncher who shuns breakfasts.

Both Mr. Rollins and Mr. Gingrich committed their gaffes at Washington's premiere power breakfast, the "Sperling breakfast," an hour-long, on-the-record, Q-and-A for reporters started in 1966 by Christian Science Monitor senior columnist Godfrey "Budge" Sperling Jr.

The Sperling breakfasts are still organized and presided over by the 80-year-old newsman and held about twice a week.

They take place at the elegant Sheraton Carlton and have featured everyone from Al Gore to the Dalai Lama. About 40 journalists sit around a table set with pink napkins and silver, asking questions and scribbling notes between forkfuls of bacon and eggs.

"No matter how guarded you are when you go in, there's an informality to it," says Mr. Rollins, explaining why guests often say more than they had planned. "You know most of the people in the room. It's not adversarial.

"You get relaxed and conversational and you forget -- foolishly -- that there are tape recorders running, and people are going to go out and they're going to do stories."

Since his fiasco, Mr. Rollins has declined all invitations to return.

Mr. Sperling agrees that the nonadversarial nature of his breakfasts contributes to the forthrightness of his guests. But he believes the early hour may also play a part.

"Public officials haven't been hammered around all day," says Mr. Sperling, approaching his 2,800th breakfast. "They're fresh. They come in with a little more confidence, and we benefit from that confidence -- maybe over-confidence."

Ironically, his celebrated breakfast began as a lunch. After Mr. Sperling and a few of his journalist friends invited a new senator, Charles Percy of Illinois, to lunch in 1966, they decided to repeat the event with New York Mayor John Lindsay as the guest.

But there were no rooms available at the National Press Club for lunch, so he asked about booking a room for breakfast. "No one ever has groups in for breakfast," he recalls being told by the employee.

"Let's give it a try," he responded.

Since then, the Sperling breakfast -- which recently assembled in the State Dining Room of the White House when President Clinton was the guest -- has been the site of not only gaffes, but news.

Many journalists recall a 1968 breakfast with then-Sen. Robert F. Kennedy at the height of the Vietnam War. Grilled about whether he planned to enter the presidential race, the senator repeatedly said it was "inconceivable" that he would run.

But after someone rushed into the room with a bulletin about the start of the Tet offensive by the North Vietnamese, a bloody turning point in the war, he appeared to change his mind on the spot.

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