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Playing Powder-Puff Politics

By Beth L. Pinsker

WHEN my brother invited me to accompany him to a White House reception for David Donald, the Charles Warren Professor of American History, I bragged to my friends I was going to give President Bush my full analysis of the Panama invasion.

When I actually went to the reception over vacation, however, I found that "Washington Wives" (or sisters) didn't get to meet anyone famous--just other wives. And the only classic power-brokering we did was trying to get a good place in front of the Ladies' Room mirror.

But while Washington wives may move on the slow track, they do so with a skill and charm that their often incompetent husbands sorely lack. They must make up for their husbands' professional tendency to talk for hours without saying anything.

AT first I was disappointed when I found myself shoved aside with the wives of the people who I had intended to meet. I feared spending spend the whole evening idly discussing hors d'oevres or powdering my nose. The chatter, however, turned out to be far from idle. Washington wives follow a secret code of behavior that transcends the traditional hierarchy of big business for the men and chit-chat for the women.

The wives are responsible for initiating conversations in a natural way. After all, a first-year Congressman from Nebraska cannot just go up to Chief Justice Rhenquist and introduce himself. If his wife admires Mrs. Rhenquist's necklace, however, she has an excuse for an introduction. The men can pretend that they are just passing time until their wives are finished.

The master of the smooth introduction at the reception was Sally Atwater, the wife of the Lee Atwater, chairman of the Republican Party. My brother and I were being ignored until Mrs. Atwater bumped into me. She was about seven months pregnant, and bumping into people was her perfect excuse for introducing herself.

Lee Atwater, on cue, started to talk to my brother, and Mrs. Atwater continued talking to me. We didn't have one big conversation as people in equal socities should do; we didn't even pay attention to one another. I ended up hearing about the Atwaters' vacation in Puerto Rico, their children and Lee's latest accomplishments at the Republican National Committee.

The only thing that my brother learned was the name of the wing where the reception was held.

This exemplified a general pattern at the reception. While politicians talked about meaningless topics such as their latest pay raise, the wives frantically tried to give out (and receive) real information. Their prime function was to tell as many people as possible about their husband's latest achievement.

A typical introduction: "I'm Betty and my husband Harold was just sworn in as the Undersecretary to the Council of the Subcommittee to investigate mail fraud. He was responsible for the arrest of 300 illegal catalogue delivery services last week."

I was obviously a newcomer to the game. My most spectacular response was "My brother can bench press 275 pounds."

My lack of proficiency at powder puff politics left my brother and me in constant retreat. We were even desperate enough to try to talk to the correspondents covering the event, a step that the experienced wives were never forced to take. But the society reporter would not talk to us.

As the evening wore on, I decided that life as a Washington Wife was not for me. I didn't like the deceit, the pressure or the other unseemly qualifications needed to help a politician. I also didn't relish the thought of doing all the work and getting none of the credit.

The best I could hope for as a Washington wife to be the First Lady. But all Barbara got to do was answer a few press questions about her health.

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