Capital's home news is one of best soaps around Sex, lies and tape are among subjects that pass for news

January 24, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- You know it's a big story when people in this town cancel lunch.

Instead of wheeling and dealing over Caesar chicken salads, political addicts such as Alma Viator and her associates were watching Mike McCurry on TV. Or discussing the dress President Clinton allegedly gave Monica Lewinsky. Or wondering why Linda R. Tripp donned a body wire. Or otherwise gossiping over, musing about, or gluing themselves to one of the most explosive Washington stories of the decade.

The alleged affair between President Clinton and former intern Monica Lewinsky is a national story to the rest of the country, but here, the crisis feels almost personal. It is hometown news.

"You call outside the city and people are like, 'How are you?' " says public relations expert Viator, shortly after getting ditched for lunch by a Los Angeles Times reporter.

Washingtonians woke up to the story Wednesday and were quickly swept up in every detail. Folks from out of town who happened to call the capital that day, and who hadn't yet heard the story on the radio or on television, got the news straight from Washingtonians themselves.

"Melrose Place" has come to Washington. Only this city could create such characters, from press secretary McCurry to government informant Tripp. And only this city could sustain them.

The thirst for information is frenzied. Channel 9 newscaster Gordon Peterson, desperate for new specifics Wednesday, was reduced to reading the next day's Washington Post out loud on the air during the 11 o'clock news. Everywhere, on the subway, in the supermarket, on the streets, Washingtonians were already on a first-name basis with the players.

And, of course, people here were eager for any little tidbit that hadn't yet been in the papers. Viator threw a dinner party Thursday night for a Cabinet member, a news anchor and a CNN correspondent -- a sure-fire way to keep informed during such turbulent times.

Viator's husband, Ben Jones, the former "Dukes of Hazzard" star and ex-congressman, plays a savvy media consultant in the upcoming film "Primary Colors," a sex-obsessed political soap opera modeled on the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign.

The night before the Lewinsky story broke, a Newsweek reporter told Viator: "You have no idea how much life imitates art."

Sure, some Washingtonians are already sick of this story, but they are outnumbered.

John Stewart, a GOP political advertising consultant, thinks nothing of putting this story ahead of his love life.

He told his date they must leave tonight's Washington Wizards basketball game and go straight to a television set if more news breaks on what has been dubbed Monicagate. It hardly surprised him that his date, Republican Senate aide Mandy Zeigler, eagerly agreed.

Stewart, who keeps his radio on all day at work to catch the latest news update, was heard answering his phone yesterday: "Monica Lewinsky, is that you?"

It was a joke, of course, but he and his colleagues admit they are hooked. A public relations specialist hung up on him this week because she didn't want to miss McCurry's television briefing.

"There's a perspective on this story that you can only get from being in Washington," said Stewart.

Over the week, he said, this city's mood has changed: "I think Wednesday was tragic, even for those of us on the other side of the political fence. Then Thursday, it was shocking, and then the morbidity kicked in -- with a little bit of humor by Friday."

The story has brought all sorts of players out of the wings. Among them: Robert Arena. He considers himself the voice for the downtrodden interns. Arena, who started Squire, an on-line magazine that caters to unpaid staffers throughout Washington, was angry on behalf of his people.

"People our age and interns in general are mistreated by people in power -- they treat us like peons," said Arena, who sent faxes to news organizations yesterday mocking Vernon Jordan, the lawyer accused of urging Lewinsky to lie to Paula Corbin Jones' lawyers.

The fax is a fake ad for "Vernon Jordan, Career Counselor," a play on Jordan's acknowledgment two days ago that he tried to get Lewinsky a job in New York.

"Help him help YOU!" the fax reads, mocking his statement that he often helps young people of all stripes achieve their "vocational aspirations."

Although the controversy has dominated national news outside Washington, visitors to the city were a little stunned by the city's laser-like focus on this story. Joseph Betancourt, a Boston doctor in Washington on business, felt as though he'd traveled to a foreign country.

"In Boston, folks talk about it, but it doesn't become part of the daily-speak the way it does here," he said. "There's a sense in Washington that this is our White House, this is our Washington, this is in our back yard. The reaction here is different from anywhere else."

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