Corruptions, A Novel of Washington

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Chapter 5

“Tell me again why you insisted we come to this hearing?”

“You mean us, Michelle, or just you?” I was whispering a little more fiercely perhaps than was necessary, and from the corner of an eye saw heads turning on the other side of the Committee room aisle. I ignored them.

Michelle shifted heavily, her look of disgust aimed at me as much as at the Senators spread across the dais. I’d come in late, about 45 minutes into the hearing, but nothing appeared to have happened other than Administration witnesses droning on and on as they read through their prepared statements. I was pretty happy not to have missed anything, but less than thrilled with my colleague’s attitude.

Admittedly, Senate Budget Committee hearings – like those of their House counterpart – are hardly the most enjoyable assignments, listening to dyspeptic old men, and the occasional dyspeptic old woman, mumble and rant and moan about the excesses of the Federal budget. The Budget Committees have only limited authority, but make up for it through unlimited debate. As the Congressional year commences, they meet, they meet some more, and then meet some more, getting testimony from every agency and department there is, and finally, after more discussion than you’d think possible given the Committee’s pathetic role in the overall process, issue out a slimmed-down, chopped-up version of the budget the President sent them that year. Foreign aid is invariably slashed, and a wide range of crazy budget maneuvers inserted in the bill to make room for ever-more defense spending and a hefty slather of Congressional pork. Slip in a few new programs here, and add a nice dollop of education spending programs there, all in the name of ‘good government.’ Then push a resolution to the Floor that’s insanely partisan, and hang around for the next six to eight months wondering first if it has a prayer of passing the Senate and then if anyone is going to pay the slightest bit of attention to it.

“You know what I mean,” she replied. “It’s the Budget Committee, for heaven’s sake. They never do anything.”

“They meet, they talk, they sometimes talk about our clients, they pass a budget, they set foreign aid limits for the year, they … they do a lot.” I was struggling a little here, as I always did with the new kids, these interns we rolled through every year or so. The need to be there from the first day of the session until the last, the need to listen carefully to understand the context of it all, where you fit, how you fit, whether or not your clients mattered enough to show up as items for discussion within a Committee like the Budget Committee – usually a very bad sign – it was all very hard to understand. Washington is all about the ebb and flow of the process, especially for people like us, working at the edges of the Congressional debate where small changes and vague hints of interest could be turned into an amendment, or report language, or a minor change to the law that we could influence to the benefit of our clients.

The kids, though, they always wanted answers, simple and direct, and they wanted to know why they had to do something, why they had to ‘waste’ their time sitting through these meetings that they could never see the point of. Especially the ones like Michelle, the Mayflower descendants.

Glaring at me, she leaned in to add, “They don’t accomplish anything.”

“It’s what the clients pay us for, and what we pay you for.” I was tired of this argument, tired of the many times I’d been through it without ever convincing anyone I was right. I suppose it didn’t help that I often skipped the Budget hearings, sending the kids in alone, or that when I did attend them, like today, I showed up late and always had one of them with me to take notes. Truth be told, Michelle was right in that Budget Committee hearings are almost always a waste of time, as well as a fright to sit through. She was only there because, once every three years or so, somebody would say something that mattered, something that would come back to haunt us, and for all any of us knew, this was one of those years. That was reason enough.

Besides, I thought, I’ve paid my dues and now it’s your turn; not that I could ever say that aloud. I found myself rubbing my forehead, feeling a headache coming on. Sensing more than seeing Michelle’s body English in the chair next to me, I was envisioning her inevitable run back to Weller, telling him how stupid it was to waste her time this way, given who she was and how well she knew the process. Not something I needed these days, since I had my own reasons to keep Weller happy at the moment.

Goddammit, I thought, why won’t the kids just shut up and pay their dues?

* * *

Three days later, I was covering a Senate State/Foreign Operations Subcommittee hearing, this time alone. I didn’t mind, I actually enjoyed this committee. That day, though, it was just my luck to arrive as Raymonda Clayton, Staff Director for the subcommittee Republicans, stepped off the elevator closest to the hearing.

Shit, I thought. I’d planned to get into the room and its back row of seats before she even showed up.

“Ray! It’s been too long!” I smiled broadly, something that did not come easily when seeing my former lover. She glared at me. We both knew it was a lie, that it could never be too long between our meetings, for my disastrous relationship with her was semi-legend in the small Foreign Ops world.

We met right after she arrived in Washington, a neophyte in the city’s internecine battles but, unbeknownst to all of us, a vicious and dreaded opponent back home in the halls of New York State’s small and clubby legislature. She struck me as young, pretty, smart, ambitious, and a boatload of fun; the whole evil, psycho, I’ll-make-you-miserable-if-you-cross-me side of her didn’t come out in those early years. I’d been in Washington for about three years when we met, and had enough experience with the place to help her learn. And I had lots of fun for a year or so, as she used me to learn the nature of the business, the best sources for information on the Hill, and the various and sundry roles played by Washington’s many lobbyists, the ones playing in the big pond rather than the kiddie pool that was New York’s legislature. She led me on, letting me see the small-minded, bitterly partisan weasel of a Senator who she worked for, his insistence on helping out only those lobbyists with the deep personal pockets and many close, personal friends who could pay for his reelection campaign, and telling me how hard she had to work to get anything ‘real’ done. There was so much her boss could do on his Committee assignment, the Appropriations Committee slot he’d somehow wrangled (that should have told me something, since true novices never got Appropriations seats), if only I could help her out and show her the ropes. Like they weren’t joined at the hip. But I couldn’t see it.

I had such a great time, experiencing all those Washington novelties that one finds in a first D.C. love. The free Smithsonian you can walk to during lunch, catching a Monet exhibit in the East Wing while talking about the bill that would be on the Floor that afternoon. The fundraisers you can go to, her for free as a staffer, me for $500 or so to show my support to some Member or other while scarfing down hors-d’oeuvres, canapés and especially a couple glasses of decent free wine. Spring lunches on the lawn in front of the Capitol, loud, boisterous dinners at Millie and Al’s, company-paid box seats at the Kennedy Center, constituent-paid Orioles games down in the new Camden Yards in the years before the Nationals rolled into Washington. It was all new, it was all fun, and we lived it up as much as we could.

The sex was fabulous, of course, but then again don’t all great books and movies tell us that sex with the Devil is the best kind? And a devil she was, as she proved when our relationship moved into years two and three, and I slipped from her loving partner slowly into her backwash. Looking back, it still scared me, even after five years of marriage to Charlotte. I’d started out as the teacher, the good guy, the helper, but over time the power had shifted. I wrote all her legislation, gave her all my secrets, pointed out the lobbyists whose only route to success was money, not talent or a sense of the system, pointed out the ones on the fringes, the ones who seemed most desperate to gain a foothold in the secret societies that were the committees and their staffs, told her all of it. She sucked it in, sucked me dry, and left me spent wondering just how I could have been so stupid.

Luckily I had all my friends to tell me just how stupid I was. They could see it coming, they told me later, and had tried to warn me. Warn me? I never remembered any of those conversations, but they may well have happened: I just wasn’t listening. She was my first real, true love, and I was in too deep to hear what anyone had to say. So I always gave them the benefit of the doubt, and accepted their assurances that they tried to help, but mostly just for effect since I was struggling to forget that whole ugly period of my life.

Like I said earlier, though, people never disappear in Washington. They just get more powerful.

Still smiling, I continued, “So, what can we expect out of the hearing today?”

“Don’t give me that shit,” she snapped. “You’re just here to suck some money out of the Federal Government on behalf of your clients.”

Well, I thought, that was one way of putting it. I decided not to contest the point.

“Ray-ray,” a pet name for her I’d long lost the right to use, “I’m hurt. What do you take me for?”

She came to a dead stop, and stuck a finger in my face. “Don’t ever call me that.”

I made an innocent face, and said, “Oops. C’mon, Raymonda, I was just kidding.” Raymonda. God, who would ever curse a child with a name like that? No wonder she’d grown up to be a bitch. “Cut me some slack, okay? It has been a long time since I’ve seen you.” I smiled slightly, not sure which way she’d go, lighten up on me or smack me one across the face. The longer you knew her, the more explosive she could be, and one or two of those smacks had been a part of the long, slow decline of our relationship.

“Yeah, right.” She turned, and headed for the hearing.

Watching her back, I tried to think of something further to say. Usually with a staffer, especially one so involved with a Committee I worked, I’d want to give her something that I’d heard at another Committee, or offer to help do something in the bill, or suggest a problem that I thought might be headed down the pike. With Raymonda, though, any such comment would just get me into more trouble.

More trouble from Raymonda I didn’t need, because it was her boss, Republican Joseph Belkin of New York, who Uncle Harry had identified as the best candidate for our UAE MNNA amendment. So I was going to be depending on Ray a whole lot later on in the year, and the less I did to make that unpleasant – or any more unpleasant than it was already going to be – the better.

She disappeared into the hearing room without looking back.

I walked over to my linestander, who’d waited patiently through the exchange. “Larry,” I said, half as a question, half a statement. He snorted lightly, and nodded.

* * *

A little over a week went by before my next assignment, this time for what looked to be a particularly tedious hearing on North Africa and the Middle East. It was another of those hearings we needed to be at, in case a nugget or two might be revealed, but it was also one of those incredibly narrowly focused things – three hours on the Middle East and North Africa, rehashing the same questions over and over? – that seldom provided anything new. Given the tendency of all Congressional hearings to open with witnesses reading from opening statements, copies of which could be picked up on the way out of the hearing, and thanks to the fact that – in the spirit of ‘training’ – I’d been able to send Michelle up to take notes, I was able to arrive fashionably late.

I noticed her in the back row, looking sour, as I squeezed through the door into the room. Closing the door quietly behind me, I leaned back against it, taking the space among the standing-room only crowd that I’d created by opening the door. It was a cheap trick, but always worked.

A hand clasped my shoulder, and I glanced back around. It was Mourad, who I’d apparently squeezed out of the space I was standing in. “Thank you, my friend,” he whispered to me. “Now I’ve got somebody’s handbag against my ass.”

Checking out the dais to see whether I needed to pay attention, I whispered back, “Is she cute?” That got me an elbow, but no response.

I was always amazed at how excruciating Congressional hearings could be to sit through, but – as a cog in the wheel producing inane questions to be asked – I knew that attending hearing after agonizing hearing was part of my job, and part of my penance for manipulating the system. I checked my watch; it was only 3:15, meaning that I’d only missed about 45 minutes of the hearing, and this Subcommittee tended to go two, two-and-a-half hours a shot. The day’s topic – terrorism in North Africa – was always much worse than the average, in the efforts of the Administration to say as little as possible and in those of the Subcommittee members to make a big splash. There were those in the room who found it useful, I supposed, but there was absolutely nothing that was going to occur that we could even remotely claim credit for and, well, let’s face it, the minutiae of U.S. policy toward each and every vitally important nation in North Africa, discussed in excruciating detail over a three-hour period, was enough to put even a died-in-the-wool foreign aid junkie like me to sleep. Adding insult to injury was the single-most monotonal witness in the history of Washington, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East and South Asia Richard Murcheson, who at the moment was providing an exceptionally extended response to a question that seemed, the more I listened, to mean little more than “no.”

What always put this hearing over the top, though, was Rep. Edmund Wiggins, a conservative Democrat from some scary-ass, dry-as-dust district in western Texas, making his now-infamous presence known. Ever since 9/11, every single Member of Congress has tried to stake out their own little anti-terrorism turf to rail about; Wiggins had been pretty successful by targeting the out-of-the-way North Africans. Beginning in 2005 and in the time since, his choice seemed prescient as bombings in North Africa, and especially Algeria, began to skyrocket.

I always tried hard to ignore his racist rants, and almost never reported on them since they only served to piss off Arab clients some minimal amount more than they upset the State Department careerists they were aimed at. Mourad, though, couldn’t ignore them. As Wiggins got ready for his second round of questioning, behind me I heard Mourad in a low voice, “Oh, Jesus, here he goes.”

I leaned back and whispered, “How come you guys never say, ‘Oh, Allah, here he goes’?”

He glanced around before answering me. “We do not ever mockery our religion.” Leaning closer, he added in a whisper, “Asshole.”

I laughed lightly. “Hey, sorry,” I whispered back. “You don’t actually report back to the Ministry what this dick has to say, do you?”

“If only I were so lucky,” he responded. “The international media quote everything he says, to show what racists you all are.”

In the hall after the hearing, while waiting for Michelle to make her way through the crowd, I asked Mourad if he’d heard anything more about Kazakhstan or the Dungan. He chuckled, saying that his contacts in the Ministry had been surprised that he knew of their existence, since they’re virtually invisible even inside the country. “This is either the easiest client you’ve ever had, or there’s something strange going on,” he said. “I’d still be careful.”

“It couldn’t be going any smoother or easier,” I said as Michelle came through the hearing room door, looking glum. I turned to her and waved.

“Well, yes, that’s what I mean,” Mourad replied. I looked back at him. “Anyway, the guys from the Ministry want to meet with you sometime. They’re planning a visit sometime later this year, so I’ll put you on the list for the reception.”

“Jesus Christ Almighty,” Michelle interjected, “two of those in one day is unforgivable. Why do you make me sit through those things?” Several young girls, school kids by the look of them, here to see how government worked, blanched and hurried away down the hall in a pack. Sorry, girls, I thought, but this is how government works – mostly, it just pisses people off.

Mourad laughed and said his goodbyes. I looked at Michelle, still glaring at me, and responded, “Let’s go get a coffee.”

As we stood by the elevator, I asked, “So I take it this morning’s hearing was bad.”

“Awful. The Subcommittee is in firm agreement: they hate Koliba.”

That’s peculiar, I thought. I’d done that morning’s Africa hearing. “Sorry, Michelle, which Subcommittee were you at?”

Michelle scowled at me and, stepping into the elevator, smacked the ’B” button. Following her, I tried to look noncommittal, thinking to myself, how do I piss her off like that?

The foreign aid authorizing committees – House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations – each had a whole bunch of subcommittees, one for each region of the world. Each Subcommittee would hold its own sets of hearings, and its own mark-ups – the official title for a mass editing session – of any foreign aid bills moving that year, before sending the bills to the full Committee and then the Floor. Hearings set the stage for those bills, and gave a platform for committee members looking to get noticed. But with all the Subcommittees meeting at the same time, in no discernible order, we were always spread out across the Hill. I just couldn’t remember where she’d been.

“My God,” she finally said, as she stalked off the elevator. “Western Hemisphere, you sent me to Western Hemisphere” – the subcommittee on the Americas.

“That’s what I thought,” I lied. “But what the hell is Western Hemisphere doing talking about Koliba?”

“Chavez,” she replied.

Hugo Chavez, the Bozo-in-Chief of Venezuela? Mr. I-Think-I’ll-Poke-A-Stick-In-The-Americans’-Eyes? “What in the hell does Chavez have to do with Koliba?”

“He gave a speech last week praising Koliba’s willingness to stand up to American pressure on its internal affairs, especially from the ‘villains,’ he called them, in the Congress. They ended up yelling about both Koliba and Chavez. It was a disaster.”

“Great,” I said. “More people focused on Koliba.”

“Ed,” Michelle said, stopping to turn toward me, “you can’t be surprised. The guy is a monster.”

Dammit, I thought, just what we needed, Michelle joking around over what assholes our clients are. “Don’t ever, ever call any of the clients ‘monsters,’ or any other names,” I responded, leaning in so close that she pulled away. “I don’t care what’s going on or what they’re doing. They’re paying us to represent them in Washington, and the last thing we need is for people to hear that we think they’re monsters, or criminals, or whatever. Just keep your feelings to yourself, all right?”

She was furious, but she nodded. Only after a long pause and a stare, but she nodded.

“Thanks. And I’m sorry, but look around, okay?” The halls were a constant haze of movement, staffers coming through on their way in for weak coffee, or maybe just to get their heads out of their offices. It wasn’t mobbed, but it wasn’t empty either.

I looked back at Michelle. “Look, maybe we’re all thinking it sometimes, but we have to play this game straight. You say it once, it’ll roll right out the second time.” It was true, in this business it was easy to slip, easy to loosen up and forget, and once you did you couldn’t take it back. “We have to make it through the year. I know it sucks, but we have to make it through. Okay?”

“Fine,” she said, still glaring at me. After a long breath, she glanced around. “I’m going back to the office,” she said, turning to enter an elevator that had just opened. I stood waiting as the door began to close, undecided what to do next, but wanting her gone before I decided. The elevator door closed on her.

Oh well, I thought, staring at the closed doors, another cup of coffee couldn’t hurt. It might even tide me over until that night’s fundraiser.

* * *

“Oh, the Congressman will be so delighted you could make it, Mr. Matthews,” the pretty little bobblehead gushed.

Sure he will, I thought, especially when you tell him I just forked over six grand to get in the door for some free shrimp and mediocre wine. I smiled at her, though, and dutifully placed my nametag on my right lapel. “At least he’s someone I like,” I said, “which isn’t true at most of these things.”

She stopped dead at that, and stared at me. God, I hate fundraisers, I thought, meaning the people, the people who raise funds as opposed to the events – although those mostly suck too. But the people, they’re leeches, calling to harass you into attending their events, always asking for more money even when you’ve maxed out – “How about your wife? Is she supporting the Congressman this year?” – smiling through these events like we’re all happy, friendly and buddy-buddy when we hate them for sucking us dry. And they’re also the dimmest bulbs in the city.

Fundraisers and fundraising, the bane of a lobbyist’s life. Used to be they were an occasional annoyance, the periodic $250, $300 or even $500 check to a Member’s campaign committee. Starting in the mid-1980s, though, when Dick Gephardt and Tony Coelho decided their Democrats needed to catch up to Republican corporate money, the stakes got much higher. Over the next decade, Democratic Party politics was transformed into a vast money-making machine, during the period when Ronald Reagan and his ilk were transforming Republicanism into a conservative, semi-Christian cult of believers and non-believers, the Scientology of the American political system. When the believers took control of both Houses of Congress while G.W. Bush was in the White House, the culture of political money and the culture of belief for belief’s sake merged into one, allowing people like Jack Abramoff, Grover Norquist, Bob Ney, Duke Cunningham and the like to run rampant through the halls of power. Since then, the American body politic has been racing downhill on roller skates, with most of us just along for the ride. In the post-Abramoff era, those who survived, and often thrived, were the ones who recognized that the problem in the system wasn’t us, it was them, the goody-two-shoes House and Senate members who railed against the evils of lobbying while refusing to admit that we couldn’t corrupt them unless they were willing to take the money. By the time of this fundraiser, another serious effort at lobbying reform, one that would lead to yet another reform act, was well underway. But serious political reform? Or fundraising reform? Off the table.

Very few people actually said what they meant at fundraisers, but I always found it a great icebreaker. One time some stranger asked me what I did for a living, and when I told him I was a lobbyist, he called two friends over so I could repeat myself: “I’m a lobbyist.” They marveled at my actually admitting it, rather than using one of the code words: lawyer, consultant, strategic advisor, whatever, the weasel-words most lobbyists use to hide their true identities. Admittedly, when you were ranked below taxmen, garbage pickers and gravediggers among America’s most respected professions, you had an image problem. But c’mon, a fundraiser was a bunch of us all gathered together to snag some food and face-time with a Member of Congress in exchange for cash. What was the point of pretending?

The bobblehead had gotten her wind back, and with a smile was leading me directly over to The Honorable Rep. Will Richardson. Six thousand nine hundred dollars – or more precisely, six $1,150 checks from six different people, all of who could later be dunned for another $1,150 before the primary, let alone the additional $2,300 they’d be asked for before the general election – was a significant enough bundling of cash to get you brought over to the Congressman. While every U.S. citizen could give up to $2,300 per candidate per election, not many do, and with elections running $2 million for a Congressional seat and $10 million or more for the Senate, picking up $2,300 contributions one at a time was like spitting into Lake Erie. It was bundled checks, a group of checks from a whole batch of individuals, that were the only way to get noticed in Washington. So that was how we played it.

“Congressman, sorry to interrupt, but I’d like to introduce…”

Turning, Richardson flashed me his million dollar smile, the one that got him elected. “Ed,” he said, “how you doing, you crazy fool?”

“Great, Will. How are you?”

Glancing back to excuse himself from the suits he’d been talking to, and with a quick conspiratorial wink to the bobblehead, Will put his arm around my shoulder and began walking me away from the crowd. I went with the flow, and from behind me heard her voice saying, “Oh, you know each other.” Well, duh.

“Thanks so much, sweetie,” Will said without looking back. To me, he said with a laugh, “I thought I’d get you away before you bit her head off.”

“Yeah, right. What’s her name?”

He laughed. “Suzie?”

“Jesus, you’re banging her.” Will never knew the names of the help unless he was banging them. And ‘banging’ was the appropriate term here; ‘relationship’ wasn’t a word in Will’s vocabulary.

William Elliott Richardson, after Roger the second critical contact I’d made my first year in Washington, had always been something of a horndog. Six foot one, lean, lanky, always tanned, with a constant air of being in charge, of knowing, Will had that special swagger that the handsome seem born with. In my early days in Washington, we’d hung out a lot, back before I’d gotten married, when we could pair up for nights on the town hunting for ladies. We’d dress up in our power suits, Will in his blue button-down shirts with red ties, the combination that set off his olive skin the best, his monstrously ugly Yale class ring prominent on his right hand. Of course, I was more one of the Pips in these encounters than the Gladys Knight, more the guy who could be ditched if there was a woman on her own or could serve as a passable wingman on those nights when she was out with a friend. There was something minimally degrading about the whole thing, always playing second fiddle and always ending up with a fellow second fiddler, each of us knowing it. I never got much in the form of dates out of the relationship, but over time, the more I got to know Will, the more I liked him for his smart, serious approach to the business of politics and governance. If he couldn’t keep it in his pants – and from his knowing Suzie’s name he hadn’t changed in that sense – that wasn’t my problem.

“So whadja bring me?” he asked with a smile.

I laughed. “Six checks, sixty-nine hundred.”

“Nobody maxed out?”

“Hey, c’mon,” I responded. “We max out this early in the cycle and you’ve got no reason to let me into your next fundraiser.” He laughed with a shrug that said, ‘true enough.’

A waiter came by with glasses of wine and what appeared to be mineral water. I reached for the wine, but Will stopped me. “Bring my friend a glass of the Markham, would you?” The waiter turned back, and Will added to me, “The stuff on the trays is shit.”

I smiled my thanks.

“How do you get them to give to me, anyway?” Will asked.

“Hey, if I have to drop $25,000 a year in political contributions” – an informal (read: nowhere in writing) agreement we had at the company as the minimum we’d put into the pot – “I’m at least going to demand they shell out to at least one or two people who I feel like financing.”

He laughed, not quite as sincerely this time. “But what do you get?”

“Well, actually, now that you mention it, more than usual,” I responded lightly. “I’ve got a one-minute I could use dropped, and then I need to chat with you about a one-line amendment on Major Non-NATO Ally status for the UAE. It’s not something I’m ready to surface publicly yet, but it’s a major piece of our work this year.”

He scrutinized my face carefully, looking to see if what I was holding back. After a pause, he said, “You’re serious? About the amendment, I mean? I’m assuming your one-minute is just the standard bullshit.”

“Yes, I am, and yes, it is,” I responded, smiling, as I took an overly full glass of red wine from the returning waiter’s tray. The guy’s sharp as ever, I thought. It came from having been a staffer at one point; staffers know the details matter, while Members leave details to the staff. It’s the primary reason that many of the most effective members of the House and Senate were once staffers. “The one-minute’s just an innocuous statement about ethnic freedoms in the Stans, as a starting point for a new client we’re working on.”

Every day they’re in session, the U.S. House of Representatives begins with one-minute speeches that give Members the opportunity to stand in front of C-SPAN – well, technically, in front of the House, but since none of their colleagues are listening they’re only there because of the TV cameras – to spout some drivel about a local fire chief who retired, a basketball team that won the state championship, a one-legged dog that rescued an old lady from certain death in a fire. It’s total crap, but for lobbyists, it’s a gold mine: some Congressman talked about your client on the Floor of the House.

“Yeah, but the amendment? I’m guessing it’s something we need to talk over.” I nodded in response.

Will squeezed my arm, turning to his left in search of his next target. He’d got what he needed from me, and it was time to move on. “Set it up with Maureen,” his personal secretary, he said. “Just you and me, lunch. Let’s do Voce before they shut those free lunches down.”

Free for him, he meant. That lobbying reform bill I mentioned was targeting lobbyist-purchased meals, so we needed to sneak it in before the bill passed.

“Thanks for the Markham,” I responded as he began to walk away. As a last gesture, he pointed to the waiter and then to my glass, nodding, indicating I should continue to get the better wine. Ah, well, I thought, watching his back recede, at least I’d get some decent buzz on and could maybe make a meal out of the food trays scattered around the room. Charlotte was working late, so there wasn’t any reason to head home soon.

Besides, fundraisers have always been Washington’s best source for unfiltered gossip: a cross-section of people in the business who seldom cross paths, all standing around solely for the purpose of being seen, all desperate to impress. When you hung around with your friends in Washington, they would talk about the things they thought you’d be interested in. At a fundraiser, no one knew what I’d be interested in, so they’d talk about job openings, rumors on subcommittee assignments, or the latest young staffer whose raucous YouTube videos from college were worth watching.

I looked around, and saw Michelle from across the room – we made the interns pony up contributions too, although not usually as much as the rest of us, and hers had been one of the checks I’d dropped off. She stood in a small group of attractive professional women chatting together, all striking elegant poses and dressed to the nines, a couple of suits hovering around the outer edges of their circle trying to find a way in. The men in this town weren’t the only ones on the prowl most nights.

Well, I thought, if I’m going to waste an hour on mindless chitchat with strangers, I might as well spend it talking to beautiful strangers. Michelle wouldn’t be too happy to see me, but that was nothing new. Taking a fortifying gulp from my Markham, I headed on over.

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