The first two years I lived in Washington, I was "the wife." My husband was an editor at the Washington Post, but my career lottery number had yet to come up. Tagging along in the modest swirl of D.C. cocktail parties, I was the half of the couple who watched people's gaze drift during conversation as they searched the room for someone a little more plugged in. No one remembered my name or asked for my card or paid for my lunch. I was unexpensable. My husband twice received handsome engraved invitations to presidential dinners. For those events and many others, I was the perpetual plus-one.
No one here wants to be "the wife." Especially not the husband. Being "the wife" isn't about the power structure inside the marriage. It's about where you fit in outside it.
At least I was able to show up. For many in Washington--Congressmen and Senators especially--being married to someone in the de facto auxiliary club of this company town means the spouse doesn't live in the city at all. A lobbyist friend (people do have them, even now) recently rattled off six current and former legislators who had come to Washington married to a "high school sweetheart type" back home and then found themselves married a second time to someone a little more "in the game"--a staff member or lobbyist, usually. My friend added, for emphasis, "Newt Gingrich has done it at least twice." People don't just want not to be "the wife"--they also don't want to be married to her.
That's because, along with whatever dream it is that brings people to Washington in the first place (universal health care, peace in the Middle East, unlimited think-tank cheese plates), one of the perks is the power marriage. Few are aiming for a truly high-wattage pairing on a par with Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn's or James Carville and Mary Matalin's. The hope is to be an equal partner in a couple where you make a difference while also making loads of money and not getting indicted, if you can manage it. Both of you don't have to be famous; you just both have to have a slot in the gigantic circuit board of connections that make Washington go. Perhaps it's less a power marriage than a power-grid one.
Of course, younger staff members are not usually thinking about marriage when they cruise the dark, surprisingly dank bars of Capitol Hill. If they consider--however dimly--the consequences of these more brief entanglements, they aren't thinking in terms of securing earmarks so much as they are of securing company for the night. Sheer physical appeal (and proximity) may be what accounts for most of the attraction, but neither the youthful carousers nor the not-so-youthful ones would be in the District if they weren't also interested in playing a, well, deeper game. This is not to say that someone's power or influence can make him or her attractive if last call can't. But sometimes the favors a person can do you aren't as important as simply understanding what favors you need.
Everyone in Washington understands this anthropology--which is why no one wants to do anything about lobbyists and the lawmakers who love them. Whether it's by temperament or circumstance, half a dozen legislators (including both Senators from North Dakota and Representatives John Dingell of Michigan and Roy Blunt of Missouri) as well as untold numbers of staff members are married to lobbyists, and apparently that's just fine. Maybe it has to be.