Yesterday, the pointless Howard Kurtz published a pointless item on a Washington, D.C. yoga instructor named Pari Bradlee. There was no reason for him to have done so -- Kurtz is ostensibly a "media critic" and Pari Bradlee has about as much to do with the "media" as I have to do with the Tamil Tigers. As best as I can discern, Kurtz was moved to write about Pari Bradlee because the way she dressed in photos on her Facebook page did not comport to some odd, one-dimensional definition of "ladylike" that rattles, eternally, inside his head, like an acorn inside a tin can.
Now, one of the first people to respond and react to Kurtz's shabby treatment of Pari Bradlee, was Bradlee's mother-in-law, Sally Quinn. Quinn, as you know, is a veteran Washington Post thought-haver and the Dowager Countess of Washington's elite social set. (These facts, in fact, probably have much more to do with the existence of Kurtz's dumb article than anything Pari Bradlee has done.)
Media Matters contacted Quinn, and she made it clear that she was both "heartbroken" and "appalled" at the article. She is 100 percent right to feel that way.
But it has to be said: "Sally, welcome, at last, to Washington D.C." By which I mean the parallel, gilded universe of the city's political elites. It's time Quinn got to know the culture of this universe. It's a bit surprising that I have the occasion to say this, because she is, without a doubt, a creature of this culture.
But I am reminded of a well-known speech, made at Kenyon College by the late David Foster Wallace, in which he tells this story:
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says 'Morning, boys. How's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes 'What the hell is water?'"
The joke, here, as Wallace goes on to explain, is that "the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about." In this way, Quinn is one confused fish. She's become so entrenched in Washington's toxic culture -- a culture she's helped perpetuate, by the way! -- that she's no longer even aware of what's brushing up against her gills. Kurtz's piece on her daughter in law is the thing that has (temporarily, anyway) reminded her of the water.
And swimming in the Imperial City's water are a bunch of petty, resentful, emotionally-stunted, sociopathic, social-climbing, status-obsessed basketcases. Now, swimming in this aquarium can be a pretty good gig -- all these fish form a weird social meritocracy where everyone trades favors and kisses ass and burnishes one another in their light, and this can magnify fame, and influence, and affluence. But the sort of mistrust exemplified by this Kurtz/Quinn contretemps is always lurking, mere millimeters, beneath the surface.
(For this reason, I personally prefer to keep a mighty firewall erected between myself and this culture. I prefer to think that I do so because my soul directs me to. You might be of the mind that this is all poseur nonsense that I've adopted as my public "brand." Feel free to form your own opinions on that because believe me, I don't really care.)
The way Quinn explicates her grievance, here, is telling. She tells Media Matters, "I thought Howard was a decent guy, I thought he was my friend and I'm appalled and really heartbroken that he would do something like this. Why would you want to hurt somebody?" She goes on, "We were friendly, I've been on his show, you know, he's been in my house."
Here's a hard truth. Sally Quinn and Howard Kurtz were never friends. At least not friends in the conventional sense that you meet someone and have a bunch of shared experiences that foster a set of empathetic bonds and allow you and this other person to maintain a relationship based in trust, where you can share your dreams and hopes and vulnerabilities with one another. And it matters not a whit that Kurtz was a guest in her home -- let alone that she was a guest on his teevee show. Good God, anyone walking around with the notion that you are friends with somebody because they book you to blather on CNN panels needs to have their head examined, and perhaps trepanned.
D.C.'s culture gets anthropologically sifted fairly well by Mark Leibovich, in his book This Town. To a lesser but nevertheless potent extent, the same culture gets tried and executed by Neil Barofsky in his book, Bailout. (How could it not? Bailout is, after all, a book about the galactic incompetence of elite policymakers.)
This Town, as you might already know, details many things about Washington -- some with greater verve than others. But one of the things it gets perfectly is the thoroughgoing phoniness of these elites, and their alleged friendships.
For instance, when normal human Americans gather at a funeral, the proceedings are solemn, the occasion is hallowed, and the attendees mourn with a quiet dignity -- the order of the day is to place the focus on the deceased. At Tim Russert's funeral, however, everyone is focused on themselves. They preen and pose for cameras and kliegs, all while attempting to enter the orbits of the most powerful people in the room. Everyone's on the make, and the goal is to obtain some tiny social or occupational transaction, or lord over the lessers their need for the same.
It's one of the more compelling pieces of reporting in "This Town," and it's just ghastly to read about these thoroughly awful people, gulping down their own gaucheness like it's the brunching hour in the Cold War of Coprophages. After you read this section of Leibovich's book, you want to take a bath. Like, a Silkwood bath.
Now, it is not always this awful in Washington. I would say that the resting state of D.C.'s dotty elites is something more like you probably experienced in high school. If you remember the superficial, cliquish, small-minded way that universe was ordered, you can think of "This Town" as your high school on steroids. Only, again, with fewer real friendships.
A good relationship in the high social circles of Washington, is one in which two people manage to keep their resentments and contempt for one another muted. There is an annual dinner in Washington that puts all of this to the test. The White House Correspondents Dinner, known on Twitter as "#nerdprom," is a "prom" of sorts. But I prefer to think of it more as the "Gathering Of The Frenemies." God bless whoever coined the term "frenemy," by the way, as it's the best way of describing these relationships.
A BRIEF SIDEBAR: Isn't it high time we stopped calling the WHCD "#nerdprom," by the way? Sure, President Barack Obama is a bit nerdy. So is New Jersey Democratic Rep. Rush Holt. The hardcoreness of the late Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's nerdery was one of the most awesome and terrifying things about the man. But the WHCD attendees are not nerds. They are dilletantes. Remember, these are the people who lose their minds over having to read their own bills. A true nerd would look at the Affordable Care Act's stacked pages and say "Challenge accepted." They'd plow through it in one sitting and by week's end they'd know it better than its authors. Nerds read The Silmarillion, son. They compile Dothraki dictionaries in wiki form. Most of the people in politics and the media aren't worthy of carrying a nerd's 20-sided die. So let's be done with all of that.
Sally Quinn is perfectly aware of the fact that there are people in her world who dislike her. A sizable portion of her own familial relations despise her (they send "scheming Sally updates" to one another, and sometimes me, over email), and Quinn herself essentially admitted this to the world when she pettily aired her own family's dirty laundry in a Washington Post blog post that is a very fitting companion piece, in terms of sheer, "why does this even exist" pointlessness, to the Kurtz article that so appalled her.
But until Howard Kurtz wrote his piece on Pari Bradlee, I doubt that Sally Quinn even had a whiff of a clue about just how many people in her social circle are only pretending to like her. Howard Kurtz and Sally Quinn went to the same parties, after all, and they talked on the teevee, so his article feels like a betrayal to her.
But it shouldn't. It's not surprising. It's predictable. It's what This Town is all about. It's why I would never, in a million billion years, allow Howard Kurtz's skin-sack to pass over the threshold to my home. But Sally Quinn did, and she should have known who she was inviting into her life.
Here is a simple warning for Quinn, and all of her frenemies. When you lie down with petty, resentful, emotionally-stunted, sociopathic social-climbing status-obsessed basketcases, you wake up with blog posts about your daughter-in-law's yoga attire.
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