Joan Braden has led three lives. A key aide on both Kennedy presidential bids, she served as a consumer adviser to the U.S. State Department while sustaining a 41-year marriage to commentator Tom Braden and raising eight children--the family portrayed in the book and television series “Eight Is Enough.” Her new book, “Just Enough Rope” (Villard: $19.95), chronicles her life, including her friendships with such notables as Nelson Rockefeller, J.F.K., R.F.K., Jacqueline Onassis, Henry Kissinger and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Staying in Los Angeles with Anne and Kirk Douglas, Braden sat to chat about Washington society. Well-tanned, with sky-blue eyes, she punctuated her conversation with discreet dips into her purse for chewing tobacco.
Question: What has been the biggest change in Washington social life since the Kennedy Administration?
Answer: The Kennedy Administration was very young and relaxed, though protocol was still a very serious thing then. It’s very much less serious today. Washington is less formal than it used to be. There has certainly been an unwritten rule that any private entertaining is private, and all conversations are off the record. That hasn’t changed.
Q: What are the major differences now between Washington society and that of New York or Los Angeles?
A: Washington is a company town, in the sense that Detroit is. There is one business in Washington--that is government. There is more cultural interest in New York. New York tends to go out for dinner, but Washington tends to stay home for dinner parties. And there are fewer stars in Washington, so having a star at the dinner table is interesting; not because they’re a star, but because people are always delighted to find how intelligent they are.
Q: How seriously are Hollywood figures taken when they come to testify before Congress or fight for a social change?
A: They’re always taken seriously. . . . Many stars are very bright, and people forget that. But, as in any kind of lobbying, one big step forward is to be known. I do think that all people should very selectively decide what they’re going to fight for and what they’re going to say.
Q: Leaving aside the Op-Ed columnists, how important are gossip columnists considered in Washington?
A: Well, when it comes to someone like Zsa Zsa Gabor, I might read it once just to know what people are talking about. But you don’t pay much attention to it; you don’t have to. But I don’t think there’s any real gossip columnists in Washington anymore, like Maxine Cheshire or “Ear on Washington.” . . . In a terrible way, what used to be fun gossip has become devastating gossip. Look at Barney Frank. And I must say I don’t get any pleasure out of it. Or Gary Hart . . . I know him well, I like him. But Gary was a fool. . . .
Q: Now that the former President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, have re-entered the private sector, how are they perceived in Washington?
A: As you can imagine, there was a lot of complaining about the Japanese trip--$2 million and why did he take it, should he have taken it? And a lot of feeling that Mrs. Reagan was not serious about “Just say no” to drugs. I think every First Lady decides . . . on some priority that she’s going to spend more time on than something else. And I think Mrs. Reagan decided on drugs, and I think that was good. . . . But there were so many things that happened (during the Reagan Administration) that made one feel sad. Washington is mean . . . I don’t mean that it’s mean , but it’s so public. After all, there’s no President in Hollywood or Los Angeles.
Q: Washington is a mean town?
A: . . . Once you’re out, you’re out. In Washington, you can be a very important senator, and you get defeated, or quit, or whatever, and the thing to do is not stay in Washington . . . (where) so much business gets done over dinner and you might have to invite someone who you don’t like but who currently sits on the Foreign Relations Committee or whatever, rather than invite a friend who isn’t in the position.
Q: Your book details some frustrations you’ve had about being a woman in Washington when few women held important jobs and about how you thought press coverage was occasionally sexist.
A: I had lunch with Tom in New York recently, and he said, “Joannie, I wonder why we never practiced birth control?” And I said, “What a funny time to bring it up!” Well, I’ve always worked, and I’ve been a mother, and a wife; I’ve done it all. . . . I never thought that I had ever been held back by being a woman, until I wrote this book. . . . Women have to work hard, still, just to compete.
Q: How do you feel about Patrick Buchanan, your husband’s conservative adversary on “Crossfire”?
A: Pat is, as you know, a very strong Catholic, and I can see reasons why he is how he is. But he’s one of the very few conservatives I’ve ever met with a genuine sense of humor. He’s not only funny; he has wit. But his view of things is almost totally different than mine. . . . Sometimes I watch “Crossfire,” and Pat will say something, and I’ll pound my fist and say, “Tom, say something!” He just makes me so mad!