Set up in his trendy Dupont Circle condo, devouring all the perks of A-list society, and impressively navigating the intricate machinations of top-level politics, young Ben Krause seems to have it made. The fast-rising speechwriter for the newly inaugurated Charles Sheffield, Ben is living the ideal Washington life --- and is sharing it with his girlfriend, White House staffer Gretchen Burns. There's just one snag: Gretchen is sleeping with the president.
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About the Author
Erik is married to Laura D'Andrea Tyson, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers and the National Economic Council during President Clinton's first term.
They live in Berkeley, California, with their son, Elliot. This is Erik Tarloff's first novel.
Read an Excerpt
"Don't shit where you eat," is the way my girlfriend Gretchen says it. Maybe that's the Midwestern version. I learned a British variant from my grandmother: "It's a foolish bird that fouls its own nest." My grandmother's rendition has the advantage of refinement, but Gretchen's is undeniably pithier.
Gretchen has a lot of these sayings, adding up to a kind of coarse folk wisdom. They come accompanied by a certain measure of irony, even self-satire, since a good part of her youth and adolescence was spent in Washington, and she graduated from Georgetown; she isn't exactly fresh off the farm. In fact, her father, Arnie Burns, was an eight-term Congressman from Illinois, the southern part of the state, and she attended elementary school in the District, at Sidwell Friends. But after her parents divorced, she went back home to Illinois with her mother--it didn't feel like home to Gretchen, of course--and finished high school there. She continued to spend most summers in D.C., however. Part of the custody agreement, painstakingly negotiated to no one's satisfaction. "What a treat!" she says about those summers now. "My plane would land at Dulles just when everyone in his right mind is leaving. Including, sometimes, Dad." So anyway, she has a kind of Washington sophistication as part of her armature, but those Midwestern roots go pretty deep, too, maybe deeper than she realizes. When she says things like "Don't shit where you eat," I think it represents something authentic about her, no matter how much detachment she pretends to.
Which is something I like about her,incidentally. I don't necessarily like the sayings themselves--my own upbringing was too fastidiously bourgeois for that--but I'm awfully fond of the person who's comfortable expressing herself that way. I like the home-spun side of her more than the sophistication, to be honest; the latter, paradoxically, seems more provincial. When she talks knowledgeably about the intricacies of the legislative process or whether an Under Secretary outranks an Assistant Secretary, it's like a person from Detroit holding forth about auto assembly. No doubt someone needs to know that stuff, but it isn't awfully interesting. It's the other Gretchen I fell in love with, the girl who rode horses and did chores and developed a tomboy sexiness that works better with Levis than with evening wear. The sophisticated side seems brittle, second-hand, learned. And there are other people who do it more convincingly.
But since Gretchen and I live in Washington now--we have a condo near Dupont Circle--and since we're both working in government these days, this provincial expertise of her has its uses. In the beginning, she virtually acted as my Sherpa, whispering relevant information in my ear when we socialized. "That's the House Minority Whip," she might murmur as the worthy in question approached to gladhand us by the buffet table. It was indispensable, really: God knows how many gaffes she saved me from committing in the early days of the Sheffield Administration, the period when we were all being assessed.
And what I liked best was, she wasn't awed by the powerhouses we'd encounter. If my first impulse was to feel small and insignificant in their presence, to feel like a high school civics student on a spring trip to Our Nation's Capital, she helped put everything in perspective. She'd known them, or people just like them, since girlhood. "Their barns don't smell like Old Spice, either," she'd say later. Another Gretchenism. My British grandmother would have put it differently, but she shared the same fierce refusal to be intimidated by the high and mighty. She'd been active in the trade union movement in Manchester; she was a life-long Communist to whom the British class system was a constant source of outrage. Her capacity for outrage was bottomless, and provided an exuberant white-hot rage which may have been her only true joy.
And Gretchen shares some of that outrage, in her own way. Even though her father was Republican, he was the kind of small-town Republican who never felt comfortable around the East Coast establishment types at his party. Not that he was one of those progressive Republicans in the LaFollette mold; it's more that he was full on an inchoate sullen resentment, and distrusted any agglomeration of wealth or power or privilege. This wasn't political with him, it was a peasant's instinctive, small-minded wariness. He detested Franklin Roosevelt--those class resentments of his didn't make him sympathetic to the New Deal--but at least according to Gretchen, in 1948, in the privacy of the voting booth he actually cast his vote for Harry Truman. But maybe that's uncharacteristic wishful thinking on her part. I can easily imagine him finding Tom Dewey hard to stomach, but it's tough for me to picture him crossing over to the enemy. When Gretchen told him she had become a Democrat--this was when she was in college, naturally--he was pretty irked. He thought of Democrats as Irishmen and Jews and Negroes and AFL-CIO socialists and disreputable college professors; not an assemblage he cared to have anything to do with.
"You mustn't go thinking daddy's some kind of crusty old character."
Gretchen cautioned me once, early in our relationship, when I expressed and interest in meeting him. "You know, a cute, crotchety curmudgeon or something along those lines. He's a nasty, closed-minded bigoted bastard. He finally lost his seat because, even though his district was pretty nasty and closed-minded too, he was finally just too much for them. An embarrassment."
I guess it's pretty obvious Gretchen has a few problems with her father. That she's turned out so wonderfully is a miracle.
She and I met during the first primary season. We were working for different candidates at the time, neither of us, ironically, for Charles Sheffield. Mine was the bien pensant liberal sacrificial lamb the party manages to provide every election cycle, the one who raises the most money in L.A. and New York, and her was the year's bloodless technocrat without a message beyond enlightened common sense. (It's interesting how the field of presidential candidates every four years is like a summer repertory company, or a commedia del arte troupe, variations on the same stock characters.) She and I bumped into each other for the first time at one of those free-for-all candidates' forums that purport to be debates. She was wryly dismissive about her own candidate's performance ("Bit the weinie," was her critique), and similarly disrespectful toward mine, but she made me laugh and she was cute and tough and rowdy, and she had a beautiful ass, you could tell that even through her midnight blue business suit, and so I worked like a son of a bitch to get her to meet me in the hotel bar for a drink after our respective melancholy pep-rallies. And then, because she was bored or because I cranked up the charm or because everybody gets so lonely on the road, she came back to my room with me. A lovely night, even though both of our chosen candidates had bitten the weinie. We talked on and off till almost dawn, between bouts of love-making that grew in ardor as the night wore on. Very little of our conversation concerned politics.
Of course, there's a lot of pairing-up among campaign workers, you're all thrown together all the time and you're traveling in this enclosed bubble, but by morning it already felt different, much me important than one of those "help-me-make-it-through-the-night" kinds of encounters. And we realized that we were in love well before the California primary, by which time both of our candidates had dropped out, and we had gone our separate ways, she to New York, I to Boston. But a couple of weeks later we were still missing each other awfully keenly--it was a relief to discover this was no short-lived campaign romance, since we'd both had our share of those--so she flew up to join me. Just for a brief visit, ostensibly. We watched the results of the California primary in my apartment drinking jug wine and eating pretzels and jeering at Chuck Sheffield, our erstwhile common enemy and now our presumptive candidate. His one surviving opponent wouldn't acknowledge it, but it was obvious to everyone else: Sheffield had sewn up the nomination that June night. Gretchen and I knew we'd be voting for him in November, we even knew (although we weren't ready to admit it) that within a week or two we'd both be vying to get positions in his campaign. It was now the only game in town. But nevertheless, he seemed much to assembled for our taste, too calculated and fraudulent, even in a profession defined by calculation and fraud. We were stuck with him, and he looked like a winner, but we had some misgivings; even his slightly cool style of campaigning, which I later came to admire, originally struck me as unattractive, arrogant and aloof. The night of the California primary was going to be our last chance to jeer at him without qualms, and so we indulged ourselves freely, amid much hilarity, yelling disparagement and throwing pretzels at the screen.
By that time, we had already begun talking about living together. The only real question was, what city were we going to be doing it in? Events ultimately answered that question for us.
And now, more than a year later, Gretchen and I are both working in the White House, we have a nice yuppified condo near Dupont Circle and a congenial circle of friends, we go for Saturday walks along the tow path and Sunday bike rides in Rock Creek Park, we shop at Sutton Place or Neam's Market when we give dinner parties, we manage to visit friends in the country, West Virginia or Maryland or Virginia, once or twice a month. It's an ideal Washington existence, really except for one awkward fact: Gretchen is fucking the President of the United States. And I don't know what the hell to do about it.
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