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On Sally Quinn, Money, Power, Bipartisanship and My Inner Veblen

Sally Quinn-bashers have once again been at work—ridiculing an essay headlined Sally Quinn announces the end of power in Washington.

Granted, Ms. Quinn has never delighted my inner Veblen. The essay among other things recalled the era when Quinn and her husband, Ben Bradlee, “might have attended five-course dinners a couple of nights a week, with a different wine for each course, served in a power-filled room of politicians, diplomats, White House officials and well-known journalists.” Never mind the Trumpian aura of a Quinn-bylined commentary appearing in the Washington Post with her name as the first two words in the headline above the announcement (was the copy desk trying to sabotage Ms. Quinn by way of the third-person reference?). Talk about a love of conspicuous consumption, D.C. style!

All in all, however, as many of the Quinn haters would concede, those glittery dinner parties of yore were harmless stuff compared to the oh-so-businesslike purchase of elections made possible by Citizens United. The Quinn essay is smack on the mark. Money has usurped power in D.C., or, to be far more precise, Wall Street clout and other corporate toxins have poisoned Washington. Real-life Gekkos are also disenfranchising American voters—both through brilliantly Orewellian commercials and actual anti-voting initiatives—even though we’re the ones who supposedly sent the politicians to D.C. in the first place. Corporate boards today are the true American electorate. Here’s to more efficient and callous plutocracy! Perhaps we can replace the electoral college not with a direct vote but with a PAC-sponsored meeting every four years of the combined directors of the top companies in the S&P. The Street’s mindset has even won at the Washington Post Company itself—Ms. Quinn’s employer—which has shortchanged its newsroom in favor of the bottom line, an unwitting but still grotesque parody of Kay Graham’s desire to be a prize-winning business woman. I much prefer Ben Bradlee’s repeatedly realized ambition to be a more traditional kind of journalistic prize winner. I’m not anti-business and understand the need for profit in the private sector, whether from newspapering or toilet paper, but enough is enough.

Let me also stick up for Sally Quinn’s defense of yesteryear’s bipartisanship (strikingly shown by the photograph that ran with her article—of Kay Graham warmingly greeting the Reagans despite her deceased husband’s Democratic ties, and despite the the Post’s Watergate-related battles with prominent Republicans). It is no act on her part. Among the regular guests of Sally Quinn’s more conservative parents, in her youth, was none other than Barry Goldwater, who, like Ronald Reagan, lacked the full jihadist fervor of today’s rightwing warriors. She can see conservatives as family friends, not just bulls-eyes for rhetoric. Yes, bipartisanship at its worst can lead to fiascoes like “No Child Left Behind” and squelching of dissent and mindless support of futile and immoral wars, as well as the lack of a single-payer plan and completely universal coverage, which would help us rein in healthcare costs. But bipartisan flexibility can also result in, for example, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency—actually born in the Nixon era; yes, the very bureaucracy that scads of Republicans today want hobbled or destroyed.

Furthermore, when conservatives and liberals regularly supped together at Antoinette-sumptuous dinners, the debates on the House and Senate floors were less hateful. You could say that Georgetown dinner parties reflected, not created, bipartisanship, but I myself think it was a mix; perhaps enough of the old-time parties would have at least helped to save the U.S. from a credit downgrade exacerbated by all the hyperpartisanship, especially on the Republicans’ side. The long-term result of all this political dysfunction was not and is not merely “inside baseball”; rather, the loss of countless jobs and billions in American wealth, far, far beyond the Beltway. Just because Georgetown can be preternaturally self important—I take more than a few nostalgic potshots at that in The Solomon Scandals, set in the Washington of several decades ago—doesn’t mean that Quinnlike hostesses are devoid of usefulness to the cosmos at large.

At a considerably less rarefied level of D.C.-area society, I can recall the protracted but always good-natured jousting between my parents and our Republicans neighbors south of Alexandria when I was growing up. In a catty attack on Ms. Quinn, New York Magazine made fun of her comments about a buffet table incident in the 1950s when “Senator Strom Thurmond, grinning from ear to ear, had one hand on my behind and and other on my mother’s.” I didn’t know Sen. Thurmond, but Harry S. Dent, Sr., his aide and architect of the notorious Southern Strategy, which taints so much of the GOP even today, lived almost next door. The Dents and like-minded people were always neighborly toward us and we toward them despite our fervent loathing of segregation, whether or not it was passed off as "states' rights"; and in the end, our side prevailed in the U.S., with Thurmond at least mitigating his destructive stridency, lest the political world leave him behind. He even hired some African-American staffers and voted for a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King. But here’s the real lesson. Both sides had believed they could educate the other one out of its wrongheadedness. Conservatives learned from liberals, and vice versa.

Today, alas, political strategy all too frequently is not to outeducate but rather to outbully and outspend, with bought think tanks taking the place of thinking. In the old Georgetown, the dinner chatter was a chance to educate while compartmentalizing—while separating the issues from the people, and one issue from the other. No perfection back then, no nirvana! But right-wing billionaires and other special-interest extremists did not so easily dominate the national agenda. Norquistian fanatics on a particular issue could not dictate to an entire party (the one with three letters in its nickname) and reduce the need for the Georgetown kind. That is what Sally Quinn, her haughty side notwithstanding, fathoms endlessly better than do so many of her critics.

And a few related thoughts…

Out of fairness to Ms. Quinn, a stranger to me, as I have emphasized with the honorific, I’ll ping @sallyquinndc to see if she wants to weigh with in her own thoughts, especially about the headline over her essay. I would love to know the full story of the headline’s origins. “If the Post had run a more restrained headline or at least hadn’t used your name there,” I’d ask her as well, “do you think so many haters would have ganged up on you for yet another bashing?”

The pro-Quinn faction, of course, might also see major positives here. If Ms. Quinn is already dead, why do so many of her enemies still care about her opinions? Meanwhile the Post Web crew must be grateful to Gawker and the like for the resultant hit count. The headline, at least as I’m seeing it on the Web, is pure catnip for search engines. A lesson from the latest Quinn controversy, whether or not the headline in the end flattered Ms. Quinn? Definitely. If the Post wants to maximize profits for its shareholders, the paper should expand, not shrink, her writing duties—her flaws notwithstanding—and favor her with attentive editing so she comes across as less guillotine-worthy to her enemies. She’ll still find plenty of other ways to provoke them while jacking up Web traffic. How many Posties enjoy the same name recognition? With luck, she can even mentor a few more like her, albeit with the haughtiness quotient dialed back; Katharine Weymouth’s editors could do worse than to restore the old color and excitement from the Bradlee era. With the Post local coverage so lacking—I blame the miserliness of the Post business side, not the actual reporters—I spend a lot more time reading the New York Times than the paper across the river from me. More Quinn and the like, mixed with in-depth hyperlocal coverage of plebes and nonplebes alike, might restore my enthusiasm. Back in the Bradlee days she was a Web personality before the Net even existed; and it would be folly not to bring her back to the very center of limelight.

In fact, I would suggest that, with the encouragement of Sally Quinn’s employer, but most definitely without any proposed $250,000 charges or other contemplated transactions of the ilk that sullied the Post a few years back, Ms. Quinn resume her bipartisan salons within the limits of time and energy (in photos at least, she has held up well for someone who will celebrate her 71st birthday on July 1). Just turn Ms. Quinn loose and let her socialize for the love of it, not for commerce, unless you count good fodder for Style. But would Power People come? Well, surely not every politician is out to ostracize Ms. Quinn; besides, what better way for conservative Republicans from moderate districts to show open-mindedness than to drink and dine with her? Mix those guests with the standard Democratic suspects, and perhaps D.C. can become just a tad less hate-ridden and dysfunctional and save a few jobs in Muskogee.

By David H. Rothman, a writer and D.C. -area native