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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Hickory Hillbillies

by digby

Those of us who follow politics from far outside the beltway are often amused at the way the DC estabishment has somehow convinced itself that it is a small town in middle American ca. 1937 and they are all Jimmy Stewarts and Donna Reeds. Those of us blue state heathens who live in big cities with big power centers particularly know how self serving and absurd this is.

Here's a nice piece by Michael Crowley in TNR from a few months ago that they are reprising this week as a best of 2006 that's really entertaining on just that subject:

Surry Hill. So reads a plaque at the end of the long, winding private road that leads to the crown jewel of McLean, Virginia: the 18,000-square-foot mansion that Republican lobbyist Ed Rogers and his wife Edwina call home. To get there from Washington, you drive across the Potomac River and along a parkway that, in the summer, is canopied by lush green trees. Shortly before the guarded entrance to the CIA, you turn off McLean's main road and then down a private lane, passing through brick gate posts adorned with black lanterns and into a grand cul-de-sac. A massive brick Colonial with majestic, white Georgian columns looms above a perfectly manicured lawn. Tall trees surround the house; no other buildings are in view. But the best way to appreciate the grandeur of the estate--originally zoned for nine separate homes and featuring streams, ponds, and a pair of waterfalls--is from above. The Rogerses once hired a helicopter to take aerial photos of the property, which they converted into postcards--a project requiring a paranoid, post-September 11 CIA's grudging approval.

On a recent summer afternoon, Edwina, a petite Alabaman with a demure Southern charm, opened the door to her house. Edwina doesn't know the total number of rooms in Surry Hill, but an elevator services the house's three floors. Upstairs, Edwina's bathroom (one of eight) features a small fireplace by the tub. But she is proudest of her home's dazzling--and eclectic--art collection. "We do a lot of lobbying for foreign governments. I just can't imagine any country we haven't gotten a piece from," she explains. Sashaying from room to room like a docent, she points out the eight-foot steel-plated pantry door from Rajasthan, the light fixtures from Venice, and the four Taiwanese stone statues, each weighing 300 pounds, embedded in her dining room wall. (The floor had to be reinforced with steel to support them.) Her most delicate pieces are housed in their own "art gallery"--a white-walled room where ancient figurines, pottery, and pieces of jewelry lay on cream-colored stands under Plexiglas. "We hired the company that does the Smithsonian's display cases," Edwina explains. One tiny statue, from Peru, is labeled:

Monkey effigy
Moche variant

Within Republican circles, Surry Hill is an iconic place--a Shangri-la for those who toil on Capitol Hill and along K Street. ("Have you seen Surry Hill?" Republicans are apt to say. "You've got to go.") It's also a testament to the rewards awaiting ambitious conservatives in modern Washington, where unprecedented wealth is being made from the business of politics. Just ask the Rogerses, who have ridden a boom in Washington lobbying during the last decade. Edwina, a former Republican Hill staffer and Bush White House aide, worked at the Washington Group, chaired by former GOP Representative Susan Molinari, whose clients have included Boeing and the government of Bangladesh. Ed, a former aide in the Reagan and first Bush White Houses and a regular on shows like msnbc's "Hardball," co-founded the powerhouse lobbying firm of Barbour Griffith & Rogers in 1991. Last year, the firm--whose clients include Eli Lilly, Verizon, Lorillard Tobacco Company, and the governments of India and Qatar--reported revenue of $19 million. Built from these lobbying riches in 2002, Surry Hill is the psychic center of McLean. And McLean, in turn, has become the psychic center of the Washington Republican establishment.

Rogers is referred to as a "Republican strategist" whenever he appears on television. Let us hear no more from the mainstream media about bloggers making huge money and failing to disclose their ties, ok?

McLean covers just 18 square miles and has a population of 40,000. But it is packed with the people who impeached Bill Clinton, elected George W. Bush, launched the Iraq war, and have now learned to make millions from their association with government. Some are famous--people like Bill Kristol and Colin Powell, Scooter Libby and Newt Gingrich, several current and former Republican senators, and Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia. Dick Cheney once owned a McLean townhouse--until he sold it to Bush's 2000 campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh. Less well-known are the countless lobbyists, lawyers, and businessmen whose names rarely turn up in The Washington Post and who like it that way--people like super-lobbyist Ken Duberstein, Ronald Reagan's former chief of staff; Frank Carlucci, former chair of the Carlyle Group, the notorious global private equity firm with close ties to the Bush family; and Dwight Schar, a construction mogul who is currently finance chairman of the Republican National Committee.


Conventional wisdom has been slow to assimilate this new reality. In the parlance of Beltway-bashing populists, "Georgetown" is the sneering shorthand used to describe Washington's clueless, cosseted elites. That shorthand, however, reveals how little these critics really understand contemporary Washington. Georgetown--and the establishment that resided there--faded from importance long ago. Over the last decade of growing Republican dominance in the capital, a new establishment has risen up to replace it. In a sense, McLean is the new Georgetown. ... "The whole Georgetown liberal inner sanctum, I just don't think that exists anymore," says Sally Quinn. "That whole little social class has just disappeared."

In recent years, a new one has replaced it. Beyond their cultural preference for the suburbs, Washington's cadre of movement conservatives had no interest in joining the Georgetown set--they had come to Washington to defeat it. Certainly, these post-Reagan conservatives--many from the South and the Sunbelt--hailed from a different class. Edwina Rogers, for instance, grew up in the rural Alabama town of Wetumpka. ("Dirt road, no telephone.") Ed is from Birmingham. (They met when she was a University of Alabama law student and he was working for the 1984 Reagan campaign.) As Edwina explained it, "Georgetown is more for the social elite, the intellectual elite. The people in McLean are more from humble backgrounds, state universities, not coming in from Yale or Harvard. It's middle-American nouveau riche."

Indeed, the migration of power from Georgetown to McLean represents the shift in American politics in microcosm. The Northeastern liberal elite drawn to the urbane sophistication of Georgetown has receded. In its place has risen a new conservative striver class--more likely to have grown up in Texas (or, as with the Rogerses, Alabama)--that has set itself up as landed gentry across the Potomac River in McLean.

Or Arkansas, but that was different. Clinton was, evidently, from the wrong side of the hill (billy.)

But it's not merely political power that has accumulated in GOP circles over the last decade-plus. It's also money. The modern Republican brand of corporate conservatism, embodied in the capital by Tom DeLay's K Street Project, cultivated a climate of unprecedented access--and therefore profit--for lobbyists. If the Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham scandals didn't tell you everything you need to know, consider some statistics: Between 2000 and 2005, the number of registered Washington lobbyists doubled to about 35,000--and overall spending on lobbying grew by 30 percent, to $2.1 billion. A well-connected congressional aide can easily win a $300,000 starting salary on K Street. When John Boehner became House majority leader last winter, watchdog groups pointed out that a whopping 14 of his former aides had gone on to K Street lobbying jobs. Meanwhile, where it was once considered tacky for former members of Congress to lobby, they now routinely cash in their access and know-how for seven-figure earnings. In Washington, the spirit of public service has been overtaken by the profit motive.

Much of that profit has followed the maturing conservative establishment into McLean. "You're seeing now what I call the Gingrich Republicans, the revolutionaries--all the staffers are in their early forties now, and they're married; they're moving off Capitol Hill," says one former House GOP aide-turned-lobbyist. "And they're deciding, OK, where am I going to be for the next 20 years. And, three-to-one, people move to McLean." That helps to explain why McLean's median income is among the highest in the country--topping such ritzy enclaves as Greenwich, Highland Park, and Malibu.


"There's definitely more money in Washington than there was twenty or thirty years ago," agrees Fred Malek, a venture capitalist and Bush family intimate who managed George H.W. Bush's 1992 presidential campaign and co-owned the Texas Rangers with George W. Bush. But Malek, who has lived in McLean since 1969, contends that people like Brzezinski overstate its gilding: "I see a lot of families with kids, greenery. It's a wonderfully close-in suburb that offers an island of tranquility in a sea of turbulence."

Of course, it's natural to have that view when you live, as Malek does, on Crest Lane, among some of McLean's poshest homes. One property here, said to have been rented by Queen Noor of Jordan, listed in 2003 for $11.5 million. A realtor's brochure describes it as "a spectacular estate," which "curves dramatically on the top of a hill. ... Watch the American eagles glide by!" Other Crest Lane residents include governor-turned-lobbyist Frank Keating and Richard Darman, a former Reagan official who is now a senior figure at the Carlyle Group.

Malek's house lies at the end of a long arching driveway that passes lush gardens. On a recent morning, he sat in his living room filled with antique furniture, a gigantic fireplace, and a stunning view of the Potomac churning over rocks below. "It's pretty nice," he said matter-of-factly.

Malek sat and chatted about life in McLean for a while. Then the phone rang. He took the call and returned a few minutes later. "One of my airplane's engines had a problem. That was the mechanic. Fixed."

Last May, not far from Malek's house at the Saudi Arabian ambassador's compound, Prince Turki Al Faisal, the Saudi kingdom's new emissary to the United States, hosted a gala party. The scene, according to the descriptions of those who attended, was straight out of the film Syriana. White drapes and soft lighting lent the compound's pool house a dreamy atmosphere for the gathering of a few hundred of Washington's biggest names in politics and media: Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, George Tenet, Paul Wolfowitz, Bob Woodward, Ted Koppel, John Negroponte, Syrian ambassador to the United States Imad Moustapha, and TV-hollerer John McLaughlin, who pulled up in a silver Porsche. The enormous compound--with a 38-room main house, 12-bedroom staff house, tennis court, and guard house at its front gate--has long been the scene of Washington intrigue. Its last occupant, Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, used to informally host visitors like New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Tenet, who sometimes stopped off for a drink on his way home from CIA headquarters. Faisal's gala didn't run late--"there was no alcohol," complains one attendee (unlike the more hedonistic Bandar, Turki forbids booze). But his obvious purpose of stroking Washington's power elite had been served.

In the new McLean, socializing and lobbying are one and the same. An enormous amount of conservative hobnobbing is organized around fund-raisers or lobbyist-subsidized entertainment. Malek and his wife, Marlene, have hosted fund-raisers for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Olympia Snowe, George Allen, George Pataki, Arlen Specter, and George W. Bush. And events like Turki's, designed to win favor and influence, are conducted on a massive scale. A notice in The Hill for last September's installment of GOP lobbyist Tim Rupli's annual Pig Pickin' party expected around 500 guests, including several senior Capitol Hill staffers, who could enjoy a honky-tonk band and the roasting of three hogs. Alcohol was provided gratis by the DC-based wine and beer wholesalers' associations. Indeed, the closest thing to an intimate Georgetown salon one can find in McLean may be regular dinners--including annual seder meals--hosted by Bush foreign policy aide Elliott Abrams and attended by such fellow neoconservatives as Bill Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz.


The Georgetown of old was clubby, but it was not highly partisan; its heyday coincided with the era of postwar political consensus. The culture of McLean, by contrast, seems built around a politicized Republican identity. Just ask Terry McAuliffe, one of the few prominent Democrats there. (Not shocking in McAuliffe's case, given that, as a millionaire former business mogul and golf enthusiast, he is perhaps Washington's most culturally Republican Democrat. He also arrived in McLean in 1991, during a less conservative era.) "When we got out here, it was like animals in the zoo--'Guess who's moved into the neighborhood?'" jokes the former Democratic Party chairman. McAuliffe was once stopped at a red light in the middle of town when a stranger got out of his car and berated his politics. During Mark Warner's 2001 gubernatorial campaign, McAuliffe planted a large warner for governor sign on his lawn. "Every couple of nights someone would come out after one or two in the morning and spray-paint all kinds of awful things." Each time, McAuliffe would replace the sign with a fresh one. "This went on no less than fifteen times!"


Even churchgoing has a political cast in McLean. Worshippers at Trinity United Methodist Church, just off McLean's main drag, listen to sermons from pastor Kathleene Card, wife of former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card. (The church's signage recently advertised a somewhat belated sermon on christianity & world religions: understanding islam.) For evangelicals, there is McLean Bible Church, a $90 million complex that seats 2,400 parishioners. ("The Wal-Mart of churches," one former church employee told the Post in 2004.) McLean Bible is led by the crusading Reverend Lon Solomon, who preaches a particularly doctrinaire and conservative gospel with the aid of elaborate mood lighting, 92 speakers, and the occasional fog machine. Solomon has attracted such prominent Republicans as Kenneth Starr, Dan Coats, Don Nickles, Don Evans, Senator John Thune, Senator Elizabeth Dole, and a clique of young Bush White House staffers. "It's really because of Lon Solomon that I go," the conservative Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, who sometimes takes notes during Solomon's sermons, told the Post. "He does things that many others don't do. He's not afraid to say things and talk about political issues. He's very pro-life and strong on opposing homosexual [marriage]." In one sermon during the Clinton impeachment, Solomon reportedly issued a thinly veiled Clinton-bashing spiel about how lying to the American people is wrong. That would be little surprise, given that Solomon is close to Ken Starr, to whom he sent encouraging personal notes during the Clinton inquisition. Perhaps because of Solomon's fearless mixing of religion and politics, McLean Bible is a networking hub for young Washington conservatives, and many a GOP power couple has formed there. One McLean lobbyist, a former aide to Senator Phil Gramm named Jay Velasquez, told Roll Call that he met his future wife in the church's lobby when she complimented his cowboy boots.

Isn't that special? "Fearless mixing of religion and politics" is one way of putting it, I guess. (Why are churches exempted from taxation again?)

I think that what may have surprised me the most about this story is that Ed Rogers is married to a woman, but the large sums of money come in a close second. Property in McLean is more valuable that Greenwich or Malibu and there is something terribly wrong with that. These are the good ole boy Republicans who hold fancy "Pig Pickin'parties" and claim to represent Real Americans --- it's one of the greatest con jobs ever perpetrated. I've got no problem with people getting rich -- I've got a lot of problems with people doing it by stealing money from the taxpayers while wearing a cross and condemning others' morality.

This little community of newly minted aristocrats needs to be broken up. This can be accomplished by denying them any more taxpayer funded plunder and putting a few of them under the microscope and possibly in jail. At the very least, they should be exposed for the phonies they are. I suspect that most Americans don't really give a damn about this stuff when things are going well. It's when the economy goes south --- and it will --- that they will lose their patience. Be prepared. This story and others like it will add fuel to the fire.