Suburban Virginia Becomes Prime Nesting Spot for Bush’s GOP Flock
Almost as soon as Joe Allbaugh arrived from Texas to serve in the new Bush White House, he was here at the Three Pigs Barbecue, looking for a decent barber and a jumbo minced pork sandwich, hold the slaw.
“Where can I get a haircut like this?” implored Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees natural disasters, but none so momentarily pressing as his famously prickly buzz cut that was fast growing out.
Like many in the new, Southern-bred administration, the recently transplanted Allbaugh--whose hair is so flat they could land Air Force One on it--was searching for the comforts of home in a sprawling metropolitan area where some salons charge $200 a pop and barbecue is considered foreign cuisine.
He found them in Virginia, newly dubbed political celebrity capitol of the world, where Allbaugh recently bought Vice President Dick Cheney’s townhouse--down the street from the Three Pigs.
For eight years, Clinton Democrats flocked to the liberal strongholds of Washington’s trendy Georgetown neighborhood or the nearby suburbs of Maryland. Many shunned the Old Dominion--a fortress of conservatism where the backyards are big, the schools are good, the taxes are low and the GOP controls every statewide office, the Legislature and both Senate seats.
But when George W. Bush came to town, the hot neighborhoods abruptly shifted south to Alexandria (where White House senior advisor Mary Matalin moved), Arlington (where presidential counselor Karen Hughes lives) and most notably McLean--where word of mouth spread from Republicans here since Bush’s father was president, commencing a parade of newcomers so long it made front-page news in Austin, Texas.
Secretary of State a Fan of the 7-Eleven
Cheney, a fixture at the meat counter of the Someplace Special Giant Gourmet, lived in McLean for years until he got the job that came with a house in Washington. His walled brick townhome went to Allbaugh--one of the famous “iron triangle” of Bush’s most trusted aides--in the East Coast equivalent of one celebrity actor handing off a Beverly Hills mansion to another.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell likes to kibitz at the 7-Eleven. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) grocery shops in wrinkled khakis. The wife of White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. is associate pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in McLean, which Clinton prosecutor/nemesis Kenneth W. Starr used to attend. U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy are practically neighbors.
“If you’re coming from Texas, and you tell your friends you’ve moved to Maryland, then you’ve crossed the Mason-Dixon line,” said Marcia McAllister, executive editor of the McLean Times.
To say that anybody who is anybody in Republican politics wants to live in McLean is an exaggeration, but only a slight one. Real estate prices are at peak--it’s a challenge to find anything less than $400,000, and many homes cost more than $1 million. Motorcades have become frequent and Texas plates ubiquitous. One local supermarket recently started carrying little chocolate cowboy boots.
Otherwise, it is hard to tell that this unincorporated town of 39,000--eight miles from the White House, although the traffic makes it feel a lot farther--is where Washington’s rich and famous can be found buying cotton balls at the drugstore.
A store used to carry T-shirts that outsiders thought bordered on delusional: “Rome, Paris, London--and McLean.”
“But maybe that’s becoming more and more the case,” mused real estate broker William “Kip” Laughlin, who predicted that the new administration has cemented a robust housing market for the next four years.
McLean has always been upscale. Before its latest incarnation as a Republican enclave, it was best known as home to the Kennedys. Ethel Kennedy still has the house on Hickory Hill, site of many touch football games. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ stepparents had a house here once. The residents turn a practiced blind eye to the VIPs who roam the strip malls, regardless of party affiliation.
“I don’t feel right naming names,” Amy Burns demurred when asked to list her most famous clients at Burns Brothers dry cleaners, a low-slung eyebrow of a building that has hardly changed since her father opened it in 1949.
Jack and Bobby Kennedy had their shirts cleaned there. Dan and Marilyn Quayle remained customers even after he was elected vice president and moved to Washington. There’s a months’ long waiting list of customers--generals have tried to pull rank, without success. If Bush wanted his shirts cleaned, he’d have to stand in line.
In McLean, they live by the mantra: Make no waves, tell no tales, and when you see a famous face, “politely ignore,” McAllister said. “McLean is not the kind of place where people gawk.”
It is where Dolly Madison retreated during the War of 1812 when the British were ransacking the White House. And McLean still prides itself as a getaway from the madness of the federal city. So, when broker Laughlin spotted Powell buying bagels at 7:45 New Year’s morning, he exchanged brief pleasantries, then shut up. The McDonald’s in downtown McLean has only one arch; residents resisted a second as showy. When the Austin American-Statesman recently pronounced McLean “drab,” some here were flattered.
“We like it drab. We work hard to keep it drab. That’s what they don’t get,” said Mary Ann Mostafavi, owner of Box Office Videos next to the Three Pigs.
Despite its stodgy exterior, McLean--and its like-minded sister suburbs--is hardly a conservative bastion. Bush took the state, but his Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, carried the more citified northern end. The McLean Times endorsed him.
Even the Tree Top Toy Store that Bush used as a backdrop to roll out his $1.6-trillion tax cut proposal is owned by a Democrat who didn’t vote for him and is not at all convinced of the wisdom of his plan. All of which owner Carol Segal candidly told the world as the president stood by.
“I’m pretty concerned. I think we tried this before,” she later said warily. “But when the president asks to come see you, you kind of have to say yes.”
GOP Controls Virginia, Much to Aides’ Liking
It is the GOP-dominated politics of the state to which the Bush glitterati relate. The National Security Agency, the FBI and the CIA are all Virginia-based.
Indeed, Virginia is the closest thing to Texas that migrating Texans are going to find, even though it isn’t close at all.
As William Faulkner once wrote, “Virginians are snobs.” Yes, they ride horses in the outer reaches of Fauquier County, but they ride English, not Western. The predominant denomination in Virginia is Episcopalian, the church of the elite. Northern Virginia has one of the highest concentrations of graduate degrees anywhere in the country.
“Most Virginians would recoil at any comparisons to Texas,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. “Roping steers in northern Virginia would be frowned upon.”
Overall, however, Virginia is still a very conservative state. (It took the Legislature 57 years to retire the state song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” despite lyrics that included the words “darky” and “massa.”)
And it’s the friendliest country that the GOP faithful are likely to find around Washington, where they had to pass a law to keep the district council from being monopolized by Democrats.
Like nomads everywhere, the newly arrived Bush set seems to be finding a home in Virginia. When last spotted at the Three Pigs, Allbaugh’s ‘do was intact.
“It was definitely shorter,” a waiter said.