Throwing the Book at Washington

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Has Washington heard enough about presidential sex? Apparently not, because the town is starting to buzz about yet another Oval Office affair. This one has nothing to do with Monica--or Bill. The latest White House romance unfolds in a novel called Face-Time by Erik Tarloff, a screenwriter and occasional Clinton speechwriter who's married to Laura Tyson, formerly Clinton's top economist. But the reason people are talking about Face-Time, which Tarloff began long before the Gap dress went under an FBI microscope, isn't that it offers an insider's look at explicit sex. These days you can get that on C-SPAN. In fact, the book's treatment of matters of the flesh is almost quaint; unlike Ken Starr, Tarloff leaves most of the steamy stuff to one's imagination.

What makes the novel riveting is its almost anthropological description of the ebb and flow of power and status in official Washington, where the ultimate currency is access to the President, or "face time." In his descriptions of aides scrambling up the West Wing ladder during the day and angling for an A-list invitation at night, Tarloff provides the context that's missing in disclosures by Starr, Larry Flynt and the tabloids. They tell us everything we always wanted to know about sex in high places, but nothing about life there.

Most of Face-Time takes place in White House offices or at ubiquitous Washington parties where the goings-on seem more like work than work itself. At one cocktail event, the President--a dashing former Senator from New Mexico named Chuck Sheffield--moves from group to group, chatting amiably, and as soon as he moves on, the people left behind disperse, "as if the real purpose of the group had now been fulfilled...and there was no longer any compelling reason to remain together." (Now that's Washington.) At another party, Sheffield becomes smitten with Gretchen, a radiant, low-level East Wing staff member who lives with a rising presidential speechwriter named Ben. After Gretchen and the President begin an affair, her face time surpasses Ben's, which sets Tarloff to brooding on the intersection of love and power. If the desire for face time can turn movie stars, corporate barracudas and big-time lawyers into grinning fools--and separate them from their money in hopes of getting more--can Ben blame Gretchen for enhancing her access through other means?

Gretchen isn't infatuated with the President. She's just enjoying her brush with history, a fling she says she might tell her grandkids about. (Linda Tripp suggested the same thing to Monica.) If only Monica had been so clear eyed. She made the mistake of thinking she was in love with a self-involved, pudgy 50-year-old who had a wife and a killer schedule that left no time for champagne, candlelight or pillow talk. If she'd realized it was the presidency she was swooning over, not the President, and spent more time pushing her ideas for education reform and less time moaning to Tripp, the Senate might not be tied up in knots trying to decide how to carry out somber constitutional duties over matters that have the makings of farce. Some Senators must be longing for the days when Presidents lied about things that mattered, like coups d'etat or arms for hostages.

Face-Time limns another Washington reality. Despite three decades of feminism, the prevailing ethic is still man on top. Think of all the power couples in Washington, and you'll be hard pressed to come up with more than a few in which the woman is more prominent than the man. The Doles would break new ground should Elizabeth become President, but not that much. Bob conceded his alpha maleness when he revealed last year that he'd taken Viagra.

A year after Tarloff soaked up the pheromones at Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn's 1997 New Year's Eve party, Washington seems another world, colder than the one in Face-Time, in which a reporter hot on the story of the President's affair never goes with it, and hearts are broken, not the presidency. If only Washington could be so sentimental, so neat and tidy. Outsiders are shocked that such a seemingly sexless place is now so awash with the stuff. A President, a Speaker- to-be and a few of our more upright Congressmen have already been humiliated, and there are rumors of many more to come. But it's not surprising that Washington can get so physical. Using power to get sex means not having any that makes a claim on your heart--or, more important, on your time.

Tarloff commits at least one unforgivable act of imagination: he creates an inner life for some of his Washington types, when their real-life counterparts have none. They have schedules instead of lives, talking points instead of conversations, breakfast meetings instead of coffee and newspapers with someone they love. There's solace in the packed calendar, the ever present staff that's more obliging than family, the nightly parties full of people eagerly seeking face time. In the end Tarloff's hero discovers he can live without power but not without love. It must be fiction. No one in Washington would do that.