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Capitol punishment: how the Hill's religion of the revolving door cost me my job in a Senate office.

Business As Usual: Bill Clinton says he's going to clean up Washington, but the people with the money clearly don't believe him. Last week the Republican lobbying firm of Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly hired for an undisclosed six-figure salary Michael Lewan, assistant to Democratic Senator Joseph Liebennan of Connecticut. Lieberman, who is close to Clinton, is often held out as an example of the new idealism. Perhaps on his next television appearance he will explain why his former aide is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and why Lewan was so quick to take the money and run. --The New Republic, December 14, 1992

Ten days before this appeared on Washington newsstands, Lewan, with tears in his eyes, broke the news to Lieberman's staff, which he had led since 1989. "They don't represent South Africa," Lewan joked of his new firm, trying to lighten the moment, "and that's about where my ethics end." I was new to Capitol Hill, a speechwriter in Lieberman's office, so Lewan's announcement didn't affect me deeply. Others cried as Lewan spoke; he was a popular figure at the center of the senator's staff, a veteran who had kept the operation together. He would be missed. The rest of that day at the office--the Friday before Thanksgiving--was mixed with mourning and congratulations.

That night, I went to dinner with my beau, Michael Lewis, a writer at The New Republic. I told him what Lewan had said and where he was going. It was, after all, the story of my day; I was g about the effect on my co-workers, especially a group of legislative assistants who had befriended me: Barbara, Sarah, Nina, and Joyce. I had walked to the Metro that night with Barbara, and I could see how much Lewan meant to her.

Michael Lewis cared more about the political angles of the story. He said it was outrageous that Lewan was crossing over from public service to private interests--not only to a lobbying firm, but to a mostly Republican one, with a Watergate dirty trickster on its letterhead. Lewis saw this as a textbook case of Washington's revolving door. "This is a news story," he said. "We ought to put it in the magazine."

"You wouldn't do that," I said, not thinking he was serious.

But he was. On Monday afternoon, while I was working in the senator's office, Michael Lewis called. He told me that he had written a short, unsigned editorial note for the magazine, criticizing Lewan's move and challenging Lieberman to say something about it. But he wouldn't run the piece if I objected, knowing it might put me in a bad position with the office since my relationship with Michael was fairly well-known.

I had to decide then and there, and I decided not to ask Michael to drop the story. I didn't feel I had the right to tell him not to write about a piece of public information; Lewan had, after all, said we were free to tell others about his decision. I didn't feel as strongly about Lewan's going over to the private sector, but thought public information is just that. On Tuesday, Michael and I flew to California for Thanksgiving; the issue of the magazine with the Lewan note in it wouldn't appear until the end of the week. That same Tuesday, the news about Lewan's job change appeared in Lois Romano's gossip column in The Washington Post, which alleviated any doubts I had that this was indeed a story, fair and square, in the public domain. But Washington was about to drum me with one of its oldest cultural truths: The instinct to keep up appearances and protect the boss will drive otherwise fully formed adults into a tribal hysteria. That hysteria cost me my job--all for a paragraph commenting on something that, by the time The New Repubic appeared, had already been publicized.

Capitol games

When I returned to work on Monday, Lewan called me into his office, pointed to the item and asked me what I thought he should do about it. I didn't answer the question he didn't ask: Did I know who wrote it? When I mentioned it was in the Post, Lewan said that he himself was the "source" for that story. "Lois [Romano] is a friend of mine," he said. Clearly, The New Republic story had rankled the office; one staffer referred derisively to "your boyfriend's rag." Two men in my office and I debated the merits of leaving the Hill to lobby the Hill. They saw nothing wrong with Lewan's move and equated lobbying with the right to legal counsel. "I'm a lawyer, and right now I have only one client, and his name is Joe Lieberman," said one. "But that won't always be true."

Lewan called me in again that week. I really want to know who wrote this, he said. I told him the way it had happened: I had told Michael Lewis the news, since Lewan himself had said that we were free to tell others. I had done it without any idea that it would be published. And I was sorry it had happened that way. Then I was in for a rebuke. Lewan said I had broken "bonds of trust" with my colleagues that would take time to rebuild. I would have to explain everything. This was going to end up in a Republican negative campaigning file.

I then met with two top staffers. This was Lieberman's first significant negative publicity since he was elected in 1988 and increasingly, the sense in the air was that I, not Lewan or Lewis, was responsible. Still I had not leaked anything; I had just reported a piece of news. Would Lewis have written the note if I hadn't told him the news? He says yes. Lewan's move was also reported in National Journal and Roll Call that same week.

I made an appointment to see the senator the next day. By then I started to feel a chill setting in. To understand what followed, remember how Capitol Hill works: The cult of personality, of fealty to the Representative or the Senator (the capital letter is always implied) overrides everything, including rational thought.

I sent a computer note to Sarah, asking her if we could talk. No response. When I ran into her, she said simply, "I'm too crazed."

Then I asked Nina if she wanted to go to lunch.

I've got to catch up, she said.

Barbara, I noticed, had not said a word to me.

So I ate lunch alone and prepared to see the senator.

When I went into his office, he shook my hand, which I took as a bad sign. How are you? he asked. "A little dismayed," I answered. And then I made my point as clearly as I could.

I told Michael Lewis about Michael Lewan's move ...

Probably everyone did that night, Lieberman said.

.. and I can promise you and everybody else that confidential information will never end up in The New Republic, but I can't be held accountable for how the magazine covers something that's clearly in the public domain.

That's fair, the senator said. He said he told Lewan that it was something he had to expect, that "a hundred journalists could have written that story." We parted on friendly terms; I thought everything was settled. But when I spoke to Jim, the press secretary, again, the staff's mood had turned black. He said that "three unnamed people" had complained about me and asked how they could be sure what they said wouldn't end up in The New Republic, as if I were some sort of double agent.

If Friday was chilly, Monday was frozen. Nobody would look at me, much less speak. It was a week of staff forums; we met every morning to hear guest speakers in the Appropriations Committee room in the Dirksen building. That morning, Lewan read us a statement, apparently produced over the weekend, on conflicts of interest: "Sometimes we take for granted that all of our Lieberman family fully understands or appreciates these standards. . . . Acceptance of employment carries an obligation of loyalty to the senator. Each employee has the obligation to carry on his or her personal affairs in such a way as to avoid the possibility, or even the appearance, of a conflict between responsibility to the senator and the employee's own self-interest." The irony of his lecturing on ethical conflicts of interest was lost on me just then.

In the afternoon, I offered to bring in banana bread to contribute to the office breakfast one morning, and the woman in charge accepted the offer. A little later, I received a computer note at my desk: "Banana bread won't do it. I don't think anyone will want to eat it."

Why not? I wrote back.

"Because everybody is hurting too much," she replied, again by computer.

The next afternoon, I ran into the senator in the elevator after he addressed a Progressive Policy Institute panel. I told him that things were getting worse, and that I might need to ask him to repeat to the staff what he had said to me on Friday. I already have, Lieberman said. I've told them to come talk to you.

The next day, the senator's secretary told me that she had prayed that morning "not to give in to the mentality of the mob." But the worst was yet to come. Nina and I met in the atrium of the Hart building. Sarah, Joyce, and Barbara came along. I started out by asking what they thought I had done wrong.

Wait a minute, Barbara cut in. Let's get this clear. Do you mean to say that you don't think you've done anything wrong?

No, I said.

I am mad at you for so many reasons, Jamie. I was doing you a favor by not speaking to you until now, because last week I was ready to do serious damage. We included you as a colleague. We included you and you betrayed us, everyone in this office, which we built up from the ground.

There was no way, in their minds, that Michael Lewis could have written that story without my eager help. There was "a certain spin on the story," said Sarah, "which he couldn't get anywhere else."

Nina said, We've been thinking back to some of our conversations with you, and Kert--let's say Ken, but it could have been anyone--said that you asked whether the new administrative assistant would be a woman, and whether the senator was good about hiring women.

And you asked how the senator voted on Clarence Thomas, another chimed in.

Yes, everyone has a story like that, said Nina.

So I sat there, silently, while Barbara kept on: Why are you still here, Jamie, if you think so little of us? And another: This is what blows my mind more than anything: that you are supposed to make the Senator look good. And now look at what you've done.

Barbara's last words to me were: I won't try to hurt you, Jamie--which was a big relief--but stay out of my way. Is that distinction clear to you?

What was clear was that it was all over, not just between me and Barbara, but between me and everyone there. They rose up as a group, satisfied with a job well done. I had, in their minds, broken the code and was now associated with the enemy--in this case, a critical press. As I sat there, I realized that however civilized they appeared, they were fundamentally a tribe. The rule was, don't do anything, however peripheral, that might hurt the chief.

Staff freeze

The next day, I barely made it to work. The senator was scheduled to speak to the staff that morning, and he was addressing everyone when I walked in. The senator was the only one who could turn things around. But I suspected he wasn't going to take a public stand on my guilt or innocence, and I was right about that.

My next stop was to visit a woman who worked in another office on Capitol Hill. On hearing my story, she said, "You broke the biggest rule."

"But all that seems to matter here are appearances," I said. "Not action, but the appearance of action."

"That is always all that matters," she said. "The way something looks, not the way it is."

The next morning was Friday. I noticed that doors were uncharacteristically shut around the office. I had just turned on my computer when I heard Bill Bonvillian, Lieberman's chief counsel, behind me. "Jamie, can Jim and I talk to you?" Bill laid it out nice and clean for me. He had never seen anything like this in his life; he had never expected it and I was clearly miserable, judging by the look on my face when I walked into the staff meeting the day before. Nobody is getting any work done. People we've worked with for a long time say they can't work with you. We think the only way to go is for you to resign. We'll keep you on the payroll for a month. This is a good time to look for a job in Washington, and we'll help you find one.

Jim, the press secretary, was quick to point out, It's not the story. It's the staff reaction to the story.

I'm on trial here I said, and, even among lawyers, I've been convicted by gossip and whispers.

Yeah, well, the trial's over, said Bill.

Over the weekend, I decided I wasn't going to do anything, much less resign, without speaking to the senator. Bill said he would try to arrange this, but unfortunately the senator was "incommunicado in Disney World" for the next two or three days. He returned to the office on the following Wednesday, and I spoke to him on the telephone in the late afternoon.

The senator, again, was as friendly as he could be. I began by saying I had never been disloyal to him. "I take you at your word," he said, and "life is full of many chapters." He didn't want to force me out. I had to make my own decision about this. But "relations were so ruptured," as he put it, that perhaps it would be for the best. This should be the worst thing that ever happens to you, he said, quoting his mother. He would be happy to speak for the quality of my work.

When I spoke to Bill afterward, he said he would look into a "severance package." He had mentioned earlier that it would be a good thing for me to write a letter of resignation. Looking it all over, as I have many times since it happened, I do not pretend to be a First Amendment heroine. New to Washington, I stumbled into a culture I didn't understand. Michael Lewan is now at his lobbying firm, and the tribal dance goes on.
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Author:Stiehm, Jamie
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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