He moves across the lobby of Washington’s Metropolitan Club with the assurance of a man in his own environment. This is the habitat of party elders, Republican and Democratic. This is their comfort zone– safe, secure, orderly and predictable. This is where graybeards lunch, scheme and reminisce. It is as someone once called it: a hotbed of social rest.
Here on the well-worn Persian carpets, men and women of achievement in many fields, not the least politics, talk over unexceptional food, always with an eye for another grandee who deserves a wave across the dining room.
The man who just entered the lobby is a Republican through and through. He has done a lot for the party; has advised at the highest levels, since the Reagan presidency; and has been rewarded with a major ambassadorship. He will know a lot of people in the dining room on any day and even more will know him.
To dine at the Metropolitan Club is to step back to a time when eminent graybeards—yes, they were almost exclusively men and almost all lawyers–worked behind the scenes to help presidents and their parties. Names like Barbour, Clifford and Cutler come to mind.
Now lobbyists now whisper in influential ears, and the doyens of the Metropolitan Club are not in demand. Like the Georgetown dinner party, some things are now in the past.
There is no time for profound consideration, no time to weigh the data and no time to exercise institutional memory. Omar Khayyam’s moving finger writes very fast now; so to deal with new situations and crises, politicians fall back on old ideology. “Is it progressive?” ask Democrats. “What is the free-market solution?” ask Republicans.
Blame the warp-speed news cycle, and its overemphasis on politics over programs; the quick response over data and rumination. The relentless news machine wants speedy answers, everything in an instant.
A few blocks from the Metropolitan Club, the bloggers and twitterers in the White House press briefing room parse and comment upon the words of press secretary Robert Gibbs just as fast as he speaks. This is a de facto system where the trap is constantly sprung for the gaffe not the substance. If no gaffe is likely to occur, induce one.
Step forward Lynn Sweet of The Chicago Sun-Times with her race-heavy question about the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. This happened at the end of the last presidential press conference, when the chosen reporter usually goes for something light or fun. Not Ms. Sweet.
A few seconds at the end of that press conference eclipsed President Barack Obama’s earnest but dull defense of his health care reform proposals; eclipsed the previous 55 minutes. Obama was in a place he did not want to be, and he would stay there for weeks. No time to ask some party elder how best to handle the situation.
If Democratic grandees are sidelined in the new news-driven politics, then Republican statesmen, like the man at the Metropolitan, have been sent into exile. They can write an occasional op-ed and argue at think-tank seminars. But for now, the party has been hijacked by its broadcast wing. Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin have become the censors of the party. They intimidate its elected officials and will brook nothing they hear from their own wise counselors.