Nora Ephron’s Washington

Confession: Whenever I see or hear Carl Bernstein (of the Watergate reporter team Woodward and Bernstein), I think of Heartburn by Nora Ephron.

Heartburn is based on her life with Bernstein, on when, while pregnant, she discovered he was having an affair. It is funny, sad, poignant — with recipes yet.

Most of the news stories about Nora Ephron’s life, which ended on June 26, 2012, focus on her role in writing and making films, including “When Harry Met Sally,” and “Sleepless in Seattle.”

Heartburn is different from those.  While there was a film made of the book, it’s not very good, certainly not compared to the book.  And while the book and those films both involve personal interactions, there’s more, much more in Heartburn.

There’s those recipes, which really work as part of the narrative, even part of character development, and you can find them after you’ve read the book via an index at the end.

But there’s also a picture of Washington, particularly in contrast to New York. There’s the cultural differences between the cities — the much better food and food choices in New York and New York’s Jewishness versus the southern element in Washington, D.C.

Ephron’s Washington is also a place of big egos and dinner parties where political figures always need attention.

Take this description of a DC dinner party:

Actually there is no possible way a seated dinner party in Washington can ever be wonderful. After only half an hour of drinks, you are seated, seated forever, trapped between two immensely powerful men who think it’s your function as their dinner partner to draw them out. You draw them out. You ask them about Salt talks. You ask them aout the firearms lobby. You ask them about their constituencies. You ask them about the next election. Dinner ends and everyone goes home.

The focus here is on the men — who today still dominate elected office, as men are 83% of Congress — and they are the ones who don’t have to do anything in the social department.

But these dinner parties are good for something — getting information.

Betty Searle really was a witch about these things — about many things, in fact. She could go to a dinner party in Washington and the next day she could tell you who was about to be fired — just on the basis of the seating plan!

She should have been a Kremlinolgist in the days when everything we knew about Russia was based on the May Day photograph. Twitches, winks and shrugs that seemed like mere nervous mannerisms to ordinary mortals were gale force indicators to Betty.

Once, for example, at a cocktail reception, she realized that the Secretary of Heath, Education and Welfare was about to canned because the Vice-President’s wife issed him hello and then patted him on the shoulder.  “Anyone pats you on the shoulder when you’re in the cabinet, you’re in big trouble,” Betty said the next day.

Much has been written about changes in Washington. Political folks don’t socialize as much across party lines, in part because they go to their states and districts every weekend. This comes from and feeds political polarization, making it harder to compromise and govern.

But I doubt that the DC has changed so much that many (overwhelmingly male) politicians no longer expect attentiveness. And I doubt that DC has changed so much that someone is on the lookout for subtle cues that show whose power is on the decline.

But have these sorts of parties been eclipsed?

As Sally Quinn, a DC journalist and wife of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, tells it, those Washington dinner parties aren’t as important as they were.

Now the money matters more.  Writes Quinn,

First of all, the senators are probably out trolling for money. When a senator or congressman walks into a room now, you don’t think power. You think, “Poor guy or gal, what a nightmare life that is.” They are beholden to so many people. They can’t get anything done on the Hill because of the hideous lack of bipartisanship. And they don’t even have the advantage of being treated especially well publicly, because they are not seen as having power. People on the Hill have the power to stop things, to investigate things, but not to get anything done. We used to celebrate the great compromisers. Now, they’re all denigrated. . .

The fundraiser has replaced the Washington dinner party.

While Ephron’s Washington had plenty of problems — its fawning, and cliquishness, and sexism — the new regime should give us all heartburn.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.