Joyce Carol Oates has had a prolific literary career, with countless published novels and multiple Pulitzer Prize nominations to hold to her name. But the 77-year-old author's Twitter account is an unholy mess that sometimes feels like a parallel between Mia Farrow’s frazzled-grandma-on-the-internet shtick and Lil B's unfiltered-philosopher routine.
When Oates visits DC, though, the tweets get especially uncomfortable. One of her most curmudgeonly posts came during the 2013 National Book Festival. Oates apparently felt threatened by a segment of the city's population a feeling leveled only by a perceived inability to access firearms.
Delusional & very angry individuals in Washington, D.C. wandering the streets shouting at startled tourists. Good they can't afford guns.— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) September 23, 2013
Washington City Paper interpreted Oates's tweet as targeting homeless individuals, leading the alt-weekly to ponder if the award-winning author is also a "homeless hater."
It’s an unexceptional May night whose possibilities seem more or less drained—the kind of night when even a Nationals game against the woeful Marlins looks like a high point—when Jordana Parra stops outside CBS Radio’s box at the ballpark. Parra has just recognized Tommy McFly’s voice.
After a quick back-and-forth, Parra is invited into the box to meet McFly, who cohosts the weekday morning show on CBS’s local affiliate, WIAD, with Jen Richer and Kelly Collis. Richer snaps a few photos, which later turn up on Facebook, and records a phone greeting for Parra’s son.
Are hugs exchanged? You’d better believe hugs are exchanged. This is a moment to celebrate: The Tommy Show has added a new member to “the Fresh Family.” (WIAD is marketed as 94.7 Fresh FM.) “It felt like I’ve known them forever,” Parra says.
Since the 1978 publication of Jackie Oh!, her brash, gossipy biography of former First Lady Jacqueline Onassis, Kitty Kelley has been on the firing lines, weathering scalding reviews but also tabloid headlines, magazine covers, and political cartoons that decry (and make hay from) her bestselling, pre-TMZ treatments of subjects like Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan, and the British royal family. Rather than let them rankle, Kelley frames and hangs them in her tiny Georgetown powder room. With good humor, she says: “What better place for all this but in the loo?”
All photographs by Dan Chung.
The author known as Zane has published 39 books. She has invented characters like Soror Ride Dick and described them as they partake in weekend-long mega-orgies, have sex at mattress stores, and lick unlikely foodstuffs off unnameable body parts. She has landed more than a dozen books on the New York Times bestseller list. In all, more than 5 million of her books are in print.
Along the way, the author of The Sex Chronicles, Dear G-Spot, and The Hot Box has become a one-woman erotica cottage industry. As a pioneer of the gritty genre publishers euphemistically call “urban fiction,” she heads her own imprint at Simon & Schuster. She has been named executive producer of two shows on Cinemax, including Zane’s Sex Chronicles, which at the time was the network’s top-rated adult series. Last year, one of her novels was turned into a major motion picture. Another was adapted as a play. This past February, she launched Zane’s Literary Salon, a satellite-radio show. She has hatched plans for a bookstore and a lingerie line and has discussed an idea for a restaurant chain she would call Zane on Main. “I thought of that name because every town has a main street,” she told me. “Don’t you think that’s cute—Zane on Main?”
When Bob Boilen came up with the idea for NPR’s All Songs Considered online radio show and podcast, the notion of streaming music over the internet was hardly obvious. This was 1999, when the FM dial still ruled how we all found new music.
But the musician—his old band was the first to play the 9:30 Club, in 1980—and crafty then-director of All Things Considered (he scored his first job at NPR by exaggerating his tape-cutting skills to a young Ira Glass) was clearly onto something.
By the time Shaun McCutcheon arrives at the main event, all the good seats are taken. It’s day two of the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)—the annual pilgrimage that right-wing die-hards make to Washington each winter—and 51,000 square feet of ballroom are bustling with would-be presidential candidates and conservative activists: old men in tricornered hats, soldiers in uniform, and women in big government sucks buttons. McCutcheon takes the only empty chair he can find, way in the back behind a college-age woman texting a picture of Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal.
While Jindal and, before him, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker hammer Democrats (on terrorism, on health care, on education), McCutcheon listens quietly. When Sarah Palin marches to the podium, however, he lets loose. “Here we go!” he says, rising to his feet, bursting into laughter and applause. “Celebrity-style politics!”
It’s McCutcheon’s fifth or sixth Palin sighting, but there’s something about her today that captivates him.
“Are those Louboutin shoes?” he asks me.
I haven’t the slightest idea.
“Look at those shoes—are those Louboutins?” he repeats 20 minutes later as the speech wraps. “That’d be a good question, wouldn’t it be? They’re four-inch heels.”
During her eight years on the DC Council, Muriel Bowser was known as a cautious, even meek legislator. Campaigning for mayor last year, she stuck to well-rehearsed lines and ducked questions with the agility of Muhammad Ali.
Meek no more. In her first few months in office, the mayor has morphed into Boss Bowser. In special elections this spring, she endorsed two former aides, Brandon Todd and LaRuby May, to run for her own empty council seat and the late Marion Barry’s. The pair then received nearly half a million dollars in campaign donations from many of the same sources Bowser had counted on in the mayoral election. Todd handily won her vacated seat in Ward 4. In Ward 8, Barry’s seat narrowly went to May.
For about a year now, a peculiar turf war has vexed George Washington University’s Foggy Bottom campus.
It’s not the subject matter—two rabbis squabbling over who can lead the university’s Jewish students—that makes the scrum unusual. Nor is it the specifics of the quarrel, which has involved insults, name-calling, dueling religious organizations, and allegations of untoward, alcohol-fueled socializing. Rather, what makes the fight truly exceptional is where it’s unfolding.
Campus spats are regularly resolved in off-the-record academic committees. Feuds involving prominent political operators are typically swept under the rug by pricey PR firms. And face-offs between Jewish clergy, in particular, tend to be handled in private rabbinical courts.
But this battle, which involves all three, is taking place in DC Superior Court, for all the world to see.
In one corner: Levi Shemtov, who is among the country’s best-connected and most politically savvy rabbis. Shemtov has supervised the koshering of the White House kitchen, lit the National Menorah alongside Vice President Joe Biden, and for more than two decades has run American Friends of Lubavitch (AFL), the Washington arm of the world’s most successful Jewish outreach organization.
His antagonist: Yehuda “Yudi” Steiner, Shemtov’s former underling—a young talmudist 13 years Shemtov’s junior whom the older man picked in 2008 to be AFL’s campus emissary to GW.
Both rabbis are affiliated with Chabad, a movement founded 250 years ago in Lyubavichi, Russia, that promotes an intellectual and soulful approach to Orthodox Judaism. The group could have a significant effect at a place like GW, home to the fifth-largest Jewish population among private US universities, according to the website Reform Judaism. Nearly a third of GW’s 10,000 undergraduates are Jewish, the site’s data shows, yet before Shemtov installed Steiner, Chabad had no dedicated rabbi working on campus.
Shemtov expected big things from his young hire. The alliance, however, didn’t work out as expected. And while it’s easy to see the falling-out as merely a standoff between two proud men—or a tale of a mentor’s betrayal by his wayward protégé—the stakes may actually be higher.
“This city is a gold mine of Jewish souls,” Steiner says. Who provides spiritual guidance to its college students is no trivial matter.
• • •
Levi Shemtov is one of Jewish Washington’s great political operators. A Hasidic Jew with square spectacles and a gray-streaked beard, he has a booming voice and the self-assurance to match. “I’ll give you a quote,” he’ll say before supplying a choice line and then hinting, not so subtly, “That’s a good one.”
The rabbi’s political ties stretch back to 1975, the year his father founded AFL, Chabad’s link to Capitol Hill. The group isn’t an official lobby; it’s more of a soft power outpost that gets to burnish the image of Chabad while connecting Jewish political leaders more closely to their faith as well as to one another. Shemtov took over AFL in the early 1990s and has been a fixture ever since.
“It’s hard for me to think of any political Jewish person in Washington that doesn’t have a relationship with him,” says Steve Rabinowitz, a PR executive and longtime friend of the rabbi’s.
Shemtov also cuts a profile that’s particularly impressive to the kind of student who opts for college in the nation’s capital: He may be devout, but he’s also connected, “the Jewish ambassador in DC,” according to Nicolo Nourafchan, who met the rabbi soon after coming to GW in 2001.
In public, Shemtov can display his insider ties and his religious devotion at the same time. As a Hasid, for instance, he clasps hands with male leaders (including President Obama) but is forbidden from showing the same courtesy to women he meets (including Michelle Obama).
“He’s not willing to compromise his values, even when it’s the First Lady extending her hand,” says Nourafchan, who came from a not particularly religious Jewish family before arriving in DC.
At the time, Hillel was the only Jewish organization at GW. Nourafchan wasn’t interested in the group. It charged about $15 for Shabbat dinner—the Friday meal that marks the start of the Jewish sabbath—and he wanted something more focused on spiritual enrichment. So in 2002, he asked Shemtov if he would put up money for events on campus. For the rabbi, the answer was easy: Funding social gatherings was an obvious opportunity to galvanize hundreds of students a year. Before long, he was spending an average of $1,000 a week to cover Shabbat for anywhere from 50 to 300 at the State Plaza Hotel’s ballroom.
Shemtov rarely attended, but many GW students availed themselves of the chance to go to Shabbat at his synagogue in Dupont Circle, where they could rub elbows with former US senator Joe Lieberman or former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, among other Jewish names in Washington. For students like Nourafchan, who dreamed of making it big in the policy world, davening with Beltway notables was no small thing.
The partnership flourished for a few years, but after Nourafchan and his friends graduated, interest dwindled. When David Spier, a Modern Orthodox Jew from New York who had selected GW partly because of its demographics, got to campus in 2006, he was “shocked at the lack of Jewish community,” he says. Like Nourafchan before him, he and a few friends went to Shemtov for help. This time, they asked for more: a dedicated rabbi to guide them in their growth as Jewish adults.
Unlike chapters of Hillel, which are often affiliated with schools, Chabad frequently operates independently and offers more spiritual guidance. Chabad rabbis open their homes to students and offer an escape from campus—adherents will tell you it’s like family, or mishpocheh. Spier realized that many schools across the country, such as the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and UCLA, had Chabad emissaries—why not GW?
The idea made sense to Shemtov. “I wanted to be a pioneer,” he says.
Chabad hires are usually family members who can be trusted to fall in line. But Shemtov decided to break from tradition. He had met Steiner at a New York event and been impressed. While the young rabbi didn’t come from his bloodline, there was no reason to question the man’s loyalties—his enthusiasm for the job was unmistakable. Says Shemtov: “He seemed to be really energetic and would carry through.”
• • •
Steiner was 26 then, just a few years removed from rabbinical college. He’d spent time doing religious work in Eastern Europe before he got the offer in 2008 to move to Foggy Bottom—a thrill, he says: “There was a tremendous need. GW was one of the last campuses of its Jewish-community size to get a permanent Chabad presence.”
It’s not hard to see how Steiner might be an appealing campus figure—the cool rabbi who posed for selfies with students. He’s cheerful and can come off as unassuming, his tone soft and his voice gentle. When he meets a woman, he bows in deference. When he talks about students, it’s with a protective air.
On taking the job, Steiner saw all kinds of possibilities for bonding with GW kids beyond weekly Shabbat dinners. He went on a day cruise with a group of freshmen; his wife, Rivky, led a ladies-only trip to an apple orchard in Germantown. Steiner quickly earned a reputation as someone who inspired remarkable devotion. “I wouldn’t be married, or be the person I am today, without Rabbi Steiner,” says Spier, who now runs his own hedge fund in New York.
The problem was that tending to the souls of GW undergrads was only part of Steiner’s job description. According to Shemtov, when school wasn’t in session, his employee was supposed to work directly for AFL, doing things like research and data entry, leading prayer at the Dupont synagogue, and making visits to hospitals and prisons—distractions, in Steiner’s opinion.
There was also the issue of funding. On most campuses, Steiner says, the rabbi on the ground forms ties with students and then, after they’re alumni, hits them up for money for Chabad. Shemtov, however, wanted to manage a lot of the relationships with donors himself, some of whom he saw as crucial to maintaining his operation. He says he worried that Steiner would “try and change the [employer/employee] dynamic—and more—once he achieved a certain comfort level.”
Indeed, as Steiner’s popularity grew, he yearned for more freedom from his boss, and the men began to cross swords. In November 2011, Shemtov refused to give the young rabbi a new contract allowing him more independence. Steiner says that’s Shemtov spinning—that his boss fired him. He took Shemtov to a beit din, a legally binding religious court, and as a result he got his job back in 2012.
The new employment contract negotiated under the beit din, however, granted a significant concession to Shemtov. It said that he was the “ultimate rabbinic and executive authority” of Chabad in Washington and that his employee could never operate an independent group if their alliance ever were to dissolve—a compromise Steiner says he made because he wanted to get back to working with his flock. The power structure was thus set; even though his ambitions had expanded, Steiner ostensibly had no real way of going around his boss.
• • •
Despite the friction that had come to define their relationship, the rabbis might have soldiered on for the good of their cause had rumors not begun traveling around campus about Steiner’s “improper use of alcohol,” according to court records. Students had gotten their hands on booze at Chabad-sponsored events, Shemtov alleges in court filings. Steiner denies the allegations. A university official declined to comment.
The mere appearance of wrongdoing had the potential to cause serious trouble, judging from a similar run-in at another school. In 2012, Northwestern University disaffiliated with a Chabad group in Evanston, Illinois, after receiving multiple reports of inappropriate alcohol use, which included serving to minors. And when local and state Chabad branches filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the school, it caused more harm than good. An appeals court dismissed the lawsuit last year, making clear the organization was in the wrong on multiple occasions, including the time a minor was hospitalized after getting drunk at a Chabad house.
That sort of scandal could be particularly embarrassing to a widely admired public figure like Shemtov. So after he heard the rumors about Steiner, he went into damage-control mode. “I strongly urge you to . . . just cut the alcohol at Chabad GW,” Shemtov e-mailed Steiner in February 2014, later adding, “If you will stop and think this through for a moment, perhaps you will realize that this is more for YOUR sake than mine.”
Steiner admitted by e-mail to “one incident” but refused to discuss it with Shemtov. He was annoyed that his boss seemed to be interrogating him and condescending to him. “I’m demanding a modicome [sic] of respect,” Steiner wrote.
The tension combusted on a Saturday night in the spring of last year. Shemtov believed Steiner had launched a Chabad GW alumni group in violation of their contract, and he demanded that the young rabbi cancel a fundraiser, unauthorized in Shemtov’s view, that was supposed to raise money from these alums. Steiner initially refused to back down, insisting no such group was ever formed.
Shemtov kept pressing him. “Not gonna play well for you if this goes public,” he warned Steiner in an e-mail, insinuating that Steiner’s alleged dishonesty would be exposed. “You might want to consider . . . quitting while you’re ahead.”
By August, Shemtov was fed up with his insubordinate protégé and fired him for mucking up basic administrative tasks—failing to transfer data and financial contributions on time, among other things. Steiner, however, refused to leave campus. Instead, he went rogue and founded his own Chabad organization, Jewish GW, so he could keep on kibitzing with students.
Thus, the nuclear option: Shemtov filed his suit in DC Superior Court, demanding Steiner relinquish his post and stop doing Chabad work in Washington.
Until then, the infighting had been a secret, even to the kids at GW. “I look at you as my children,” as Steiner put it, “and I don’t think it’s valuable to involve you.” Taking a dispute to a civil court represented a dramatic break with tradition. The backlash—from both community leaders and GW students—was swift. Rabbi Mendel Sharfstein of Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn e-mailed Shemtov insisting the lawsuit “be immediately removed from the secular courts.” (In his defense, Shemtov says he consulted with numerous rabbinical authorities and was advised to sue.) Nearly 1,500 people signed a Change.org petition describing Shemtov’s actions as “reprehensible” and “an embarrassment.”
Jamie Weiss, a student leader of Chabad, says she and others spoke to Shemtov by phone and declined his request to talk in person. Things quickly escalated. “He told us that we don’t have a right not to meet with him,” she says. “He told us that we drink from his well, that ‘everything that you have on campus is because of me.’ He’s not used to having younger people speak to him the way I did.”
Shemtov denies raising his voice and brushes off the incident. “Let me give you a quote,” he says. “Juvenile outburst. No big deal.”
Alumni have taken sides, too. Nourafchan, a corporate lawyer at Sidley Austin in New York, is backing Shemtov in spirit. Spier, the hedge-funder, is backing Steiner with money. He and another alum, Joshua Sasouness, are covering most of the rabbi’s annual $200,000 budget, which includes his salary. They also helped secure a pro bono lawyer to fight the lawsuit.
Late last year, a civil-court order barred Steiner from conducting Chabad activities within a mile of the school—a crude hand drawing on a Google map etches out the exact turf the court granted to Shemtov. Steiner has since appealed the injunction, arguing that it violated his First Amendment rights. If the courts end up barring him from GW permanently, he says, he’ll unleash a more ambitious endeavor: a program targeting every Jewish student in Washington. “This isn’t going to get in our way,” he says of the lawsuit.
Shemtov is irate about the trespass. “[Steiner] looks like the biggest victim,” he says, “when in truth I’m the biggest victim.” (No fewer than three high-powered flacks have contacted Washingtonian on Shemtov’s behalf.)
GW, which was never officially affiliated with Chabad, is staying out of the feud. But it’s no secret which person students see as mishpocheh. On a Thursday evening at winter’s end, a fresh status popped up on the Facebook page of Steiner’s group announcing a student Shabbat to his 1,469 followers. “Looking forward to seeing everyone!” the post read. “Come help us cook for dinner tonight at 7:30 in the apt!”
This article appears in our May 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
In the annals of arts-funding fiascos, the 2010 midterms may not have rivaled the 1989 “Piss Christ” controversy—when a government-subsidized photograph by that name had Jesse Helms and fellow conservatives in Congress up in arms—but they certainly cast a pall. Republicans had hacked away at the National Endowment for the Arts after last winning the House of Representatives, back in 1994, and their stance hadn’t exactly changed since then. In 2011, they voted to lop off a quarter of the agency’s $168-million budget.
Within the small community of advocates for federal arts dollars, the cut went over like William Shatner singing jazz standards. “We knew we weren’t going to be able to hold onto that [funding] when the new Congress came in,” says Robert Lynch, president of the advocacy group Americans for the Arts. “But the House brought it down to $124 million. That was a significant loss.”
Lynch had already booked actor Kevin Spacey to deliver his group’s annual lecture on arts and public policy, an event traditionally followed by a day of lobbying. He soon drafted Spacey to help him restore the lost funds. And so it was that Lynch, Spacey, actor Alec Baldwin, and Charles Segars, an executive producer of the National Treasure movies, found themselves shuffling through Capitol Hill offices to make their case.
Spacey was by all accounts in virtuoso form. “The congressman would be at the door to his office, or her office, and we would be ushered in,” recalls Segars. “And the first thing Kevin would say—he’d look on the wall and go, ‘Hey, great piece of art! Who’s that from?’ The congressman would take his glasses off, lean into a plaque on the wall that said ‘The 12th grade class of such-and-such local high school made this mural.’ ” At which point Spacey launched into his spiel. He would explain how every dollar invested in the arts creates $9 in federal tax revenue and would catalog all the theaters and museums staffed by the Congress member’s constituents—he had been thoroughly briefed—that benefited.
During one meeting, a crusty Southern Republican lawmaker derided arts funding as “an entitlement,” provoking a Spacey monologue worthy of Keyser Soze, his character in The Usual Suspects. “How can something that increases math and science scores, that greatly decreases high-school dropout rates, that greatly decreases crime rates be an entitlement?” the actor said, according to Segars. Spacey specifically pointed to an after-school arts program in the representative’s district that, he said, had boosted school enrollment. When he finished, the lawmaker turned to an aide, slightly shell-shocked, and bleated, “Hey, you’ve got to get me those numbers.”
In the end, Spacey’s crew helped change enough hearts and minds to restore $30 million to the NEA budget. Four years later, it looks like a classic case of celebrities having their way with star-struck Washingtonians—the cool kids deigning to dine with the math nerds for some help on their homework. (Naturally, the “entitlement” congressman asked Spacey and Baldwin to pose for a picture before they left his office.)
And for good reason. No celebrity has more cachet in Washington these days than Spacey. His Netflix political drama, House of Cards, is required viewing for anyone hoping to partake in cocktail-party conversation. The fundraising galas he has recently held here for his foundation—which hands out grants to aspiring actors and directors—have attracted a rarefied collection of politicos and media big shots, many of whom also crawl over themselves to make cameos on the show. The spoof he filmed for the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner—with Spacey, in full Frank Underwood form, grilling the likes of Valerie Jarrett and John McCain—circulated in Washington for months.
But consider this: Spacey’s 2011 trek to the Hill on behalf of the beleaguered NEA came two years before House of Cards even premiered. His arts-funding triumph can’t be explained by a hit show that flatters the town’s self-image. What it can be explained by is Spacey’s regular, if little-noticed, presence in the city for the better part of 20 years. His success as an influencer—whether for someone else’s cause or his own—owes itself to his long-gestating persona as a friend to pols and an earnest admirer of Washington. The opposite, in other words, of his cold-hearted House of Cards character.
Indeed, it’s what happened just before that day of congressional lobbying that’s perhaps most revealing about Spacey’s method. “He wanted to bike around the city—we found him a bike,” says Lynch. “Part of his way, I think, is taking the city in in a more personal way.”
Celebrities have been descending on Washington for generations. Everyone born within a decade of 1970 can probably summon Elvis Presley’s endlessly documented visit to the Nixon White House that year. Michael Jackson visited the Reagan White House in 1984 for an event to combat drunk driving and returned in 1988. But for many years, the visits were arranged by entertainment managers and agents—people without much insight into how Washington functioned. As a result, they had little value other than a short-lived spurt of good PR.
By the 1990s, a small group of consiglieri was beginning to serve celebrities who wanted to influence politics or policy in some concrete way. It was a natural moment for the emergence of a more meaningful Hollywood/Washington nexus. Bill Clinton—who aggressively canvassed the entertainment world for money and support—was President. And with the rise of the internet and the proliferation of cable TV channels, the media landscape was making it easier for stars to draw attention to causes that might not have previously registered. When David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, and Jeffrey Katzenberg founded DreamWorks SKG in 1994, they brought on a grizzled former political operative named Andy Spahn to advise the studio. The same year, a former Carter White House aide named Margery Tabankin opened a consulting boutique that advised Barbra Streisand and a few other clients.
After George W. Bush took office, though, the White House wasn’t as welcoming to Hollywood. Suddenly, stars with a cause needed to make their appeals through more formal channels. The celebrity-adviser business grew more institutionalized, evolving from obscure niche to bona fide industry. In the first decade of the 2000s, a number of former White House officials expanded the Tabankin model and opened full-service consulting firms to advise celebrity clients on their Washington and philanthropic activities. In other cases, celebrities created foundations and put teams of political operatives on the payroll. These consultants engaged in elaborate “power-mapping” exercises, instructing the stars on where their efforts would be best targeted.
The example of U2 frontman Bono, widely regarded as the godfather of the form, nicely illustrates the evolution. In the 1990s, Bono was part of an international group of celebrities working to raise awareness about the importance of Third World debt relief. Calling their methods rudimentary would be generous. “I’d been there for the first meeting between Clinton and U2 during the  campaign,” says Mike Feldman, a former senior adviser to Al Gore. “Bono would fax me handwritten notes and ask if I could deliver them to their offices.”
The rock star’s second try at the Washington game was very different: In 2004, he and a coalition of humanitarian groups launched the ONE Campaign to shine attention on developing-world problems like AIDS and unfair trade. By that point, the effort had drawn in a passel of senior political operatives, including Bush campaign strategist Mark McKinnon and former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry. They gave Bono and his co-conspirators entrée into just about every government office in Washington.
Today, stars such as Ben Affleck, George Clooney, and Eva Longoria are widely admired for their effectiveness at promoting pet causes—eastern Congo, Sudan, and immigration reform, respectively. They all retain high-priced consulting firms run by Washington veterans. They all receive a return many times over on their investment, in terms of the professionalism and savvy it affords them.
And then there’s Spacey, who has managed to become state-of-the-art by operating as a throwback. Unlike the Afflecks and Longorias, he employs no power-mappers. He has no West Wing veterans on retainer. The Washington figures who help execute the 55-year-old actor’s designs on the city are simply friends and acquaintances he’s accumulated from his many years of being present.
On a Monday evening last September, Spacey took the stage at Sidney Harman Hall before a large crowd of well-heeled Washingtonians. It was for a good cause: the Kevin Spacey Foundation’s philanthropic efforts in the arts. Spacey kept the audience rapt during a two-hour performance, sprinkling au courant House of Cards references and bang-on Bill Clinton impressions between musical numbers like “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Luck Be a Lady.” (Spacey—who starred in a biopic about singer Bobby Darin—has a remarkable voice, only slightly hobbled by the cold he was nursing.) He brought the house down after breaking out a harmonica for a rendition of “Piano Man.”
Two particular things about the event stood out.
The first was how fluent Spacey is in the language of Washington-insiderdom. He welcomed the crowd to “an evening to benefit the Frank Underwood super-PAC” during his opening riff. “I do apologize if you were misinformed about the intentions of this occasion,” he joked, to knowing laughter.
The second notable feature was how much the gala had changed in the year since its first iteration.
Back in 2013, Spacey had primarily leaned on his own Washington network to pull off the event. He landed his friend Ashleigh Banfield of CNN, who’d recently scored a House of Cards cameo, as emcee. He persuaded Steny Hoyer and Kevin McCarthy, the Democratic and Republican House whips at the time—both of whom he’d grilled while preparing for his Underwood character—to donate a joint lunch to the event’s silent auction. (It sold for $10,000, according to the Wall Street Journal.) Spacey acquaintances such as Chris Matthews, Andrea Mitchell, and Greta Van Susteren packed the audience, and the event grossed $135,000.
It was a respectable total given the cause, but nothing that would turn heads among Beltway veterans. After it was over, a Spacey aide who oversees his foundation contacted executives from Ovation TV, the cable arts network that Segars runs. The Ovation crew realized the actor was leaving all kinds of money on the table and offered to up the foundation’s game—to put “some structure into place for a bigger benefit committee,” according to one person involved.
The lesson for Spacey: The way to project force is not merely to tap your friends but to tap your friends’ friends, too. Washington, after all, tends to observe a relatively strict division of labor: The political and media big shots provide what passes for glamour. The anonymous lobbyists, lawyers, access capitalists, and assorted henchmen deliver the cash. If you target only your A-list pals, you necessarily limit your haul.
And so Spacey’s most recent event became a sophisticated Washington fundraising apparatus of the type that would inspire feelings of inadequacy in Frank Underwood himself. Ovation connected the Spacey Foundation with two longtime lobbyists, Lyndon Boozer of AT&T and Melissa Maxfield of Comcast, whom it enlisted as the event’s vice chairs. Boozer and Maxfield, in turn, helped procure a handful of additional backers, including Nathan Daschle, then a top official at Clear Channel and the son of former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, and Hunter Biden, the Vice President’s son. There were industry underwriters, such as the video-game lobbying group Entertainment Software Association (a subtle nod to one of Underwood’s after-hours indulgences) and the American Resort Development Association. After a buzz-building reception on the roof of Georgetown’s Capella hotel in July—where guests like White House social secretary Jeremy Bernard and lobbying heavyweight Heather Podesta stamped Team Spacey with the imprimatur of the establishment—the gala snared a few more prominent vice chairs, including Lockheed Martin lobbyist Larry Duncan.
The glossy material the organizers prepared for prospective contributors touting Spacey’s “unique, one-night-only concert” at Harman Hall testifies to their ambitions. They noted that “the open floor plan and intimate seating areas will ensure the great and good of arts, business, entertainment and politics can mix effortlessly” and that “by joining this unique event you will at once align yourself and your brand with Kevin Spacey, recently ranked 74 in Forbes Celebrity 100 of the world’s most powerful celebrities.” The minimum price to become a vice chair like Lyndon Boozer and Nathan Daschle was $50,000.
Spacey himself was an enthusiastic participant. He approved the venue and okayed the vice chairs. Whereas congressmen Hoyer and McCarthy had gotten away with donating a lunch in 2013, Spacey pressed them into service as “honorary co-chairs,” giving the 2014 event instant visibility. Instead of Ashleigh Banfield as emcee, Spacey’s big get was Adrienne Arsht, the banking magnate and Kennedy Center board member who lives in Massachusetts Avenue Heights and agreed to chair the event.
The actor also brought his unique brand of fanaticism to rehearsals. At the time, he was filming the third season of House of Cards in Baltimore, an all-consuming commitment that occupies him for upward of 12 hours a day. Yet Spacey was determined to hold a two-to-three-hour run-through of his entire act for several nights in the week before the gala. “We rehearsed on the set of House of Cards,” says John Nave, the event’s production manager. “We stood by in the afternoon, and his assistant would give us a call and let us know when to come up.”
No detail was left unattended. The biggest donors received tickets to an intimate thank-you reception the Sunday before Thanksgiving at Arsht’s DC home, where they could meet a pair of Spacey Foundation scholarship recipients. Spacey himself came back to town to schmooze the great and the good of business and politics a final time. He had much to be thankful for. With Arsht’s help, he’d grossed around $800,000 for his foundation, six times the prior year’s showing.
In the summer of 1996, Amy Harris was a twentysomething aspiring screenwriter pitching in on Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign. She and a friend were at a Clinton fundraiser in New York when they spotted Spacey, unaccompanied, in the hotel ballroom. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, he’s just wandering around by himself,’ ” Harris recalls. “ ‘Why is Keyser Soze running around with no one taking care of him?’ ”
It turned out Spacey hadn’t been cultivated by the campaign. He’d received a relatively standard solicitation and simply responded to it.
Harris approached one of the Secret Service agents manning the VIP room and got Spacey backstage, where he met the President. Inevitably, the two men chatted so long that Clinton held up a group of donors waiting to speak to him. Spacey was hooked.
“He was really invested once he clicked into the Clinton-Gore world,” says Harris, who went on to work at the White House. He was reliably keen to pitch in on a fundraiser or a presidential event. “I did celebrity outreach, and people are like, ‘Get me tickets to this. What can you do for me?’ ” says Harris. “This was very much about ‘What can I do to help?’ ”
Spacey’s fixation on Washington doesn’t derive from being a political junkie: No one who’s known him here describes him as a C-SPAN addict or an obsessive reader of Politico. Rather, he’s a student of power—of who has it and how that person exercises it.
It’s why he spends so much time talking to political figures about their craft, as when he hung out with Ron Klain while portraying the former Gore chief of staff in the 2008 HBO movie Recount. Spacey later spent several hours at a federal prison in Cumberland, Maryland, deposing Jack Abramoff in advance of playing the corrupt lobbyist in Casino Jack in 2010. “He’d done his homework,” says Larry Latourette, the Abramoff associate who brokered the meeting. “He was a sophisticated consumer, and Jack Abramoff was not a bad teacher of one sort of school” of wielding influence in Washington.
Spacey first met Steny Hoyer at the start of production for House of Cards in 2012 and was preoccupied with how a House leader bends the rank and file to his or her will. Hoyer recalls: “He was essentially asking, ‘How do you talk to members? How do you . . . deal with them in terms of convincing them?’ ”
This fascination with the mechanics of power helps explain some of Spacey’s odder political commitments over the years. In the late ’90s, House minority leader Dick Gephardt’s aides noticed that Spacey had become friendly with President Clinton. They cold-called Spacey’s assistant and put Gephardt on the line. “Fifteen minutes later, Kevin Spacey called back,” recalls David Jones, Gephardt’s chief fundraising staffer at the time. “That rarely happened for a star.” It was even rarer for a bona fide sensation like Spacey, who had won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects a few years earlier.
To the amazement of Gephardt World, Spacey was game to headline a number of fundraisers for the House Democratic campaign arm. “We weren’t exactly a magnet for celebrities,” says Steve Elmendorf, Gephardt’s then chief of staff. “It sort of surprised me that we ended up with him. Usually we had sort of the likes of the Tony Bennetts and Michael Boltons.” (Spacey’s only hint of diva-like behavior was his standing request to stay at the posh Jefferson hotel.) In 1999, Spacey was starring in the Broadway play The Iceman Cometh. He gave the House Democrats a block of tickets for a performance, then appeared at a reception for donors after the show.
But Spacey’s Washington Rolodex wasn’t all Presidents and Congress members. As a Hollywood veteran, he understood that the people who run the world are just as often the people sitting outside the corner office as inside it.
“DC and LA are both one-industry towns,” says a former White House aide. “The most important person in any office is the executive assistant.” Spacey, in keeping with this insight, was solicitous of even the most obscure political staffers.
Take Harris, the young Clintonite: After they met in New York, the pair exchanged numbers and he told her to keep in touch. Harris assumed that was the last she’d ever hear from the actor. But sure enough, Spacey called a few months later saying he was coming to DC and asked what she was up to. “I could put together a dinner,” Harris said, not entirely sure what a 25-year-old White House apprentice had to offer an Oscar-winning actor. Nonsense, Spacey told her. He’d prefer to do whatever she and her friends typically did on the weekend, which in this case was hang out at Cities, the venerable club then in Adams Morgan.
Several former junior political aides have similar memories of these encounters—at dives that catered to twentysomethings, at Cafe Milano in Georgetown, the full range of DC haunts. “There were a couple times I remember being out at Stetson’s and Kevin Spacey was with us,” says Brian Turetsky, another junior Clinton aide from the ’90s, referring to the no-frills U Street bar.
It didn’t seem to bother Spacey that casing out Washington at the level of detail he craved sometimes meant demeaning himself, at least by celebrity standards. The week before the ’96 election, Spacey visited Clinton-Gore headquarters in downtown DC. To keep up morale near the end of a dreary race, the campaign had a ritual in which a different employee would be introduced to a crowd of onlooking colleagues, NBA-arena style, each afternoon. “The Department of Scheduling and Advance proudly presents today’s profile in courage,” Turetsky would announce, before revealing the person’s astrological sign, favorite food, and the source of his or her political crush on Clinton. The staffer would then burst through a doorway covered by butcher paper, to raucous applause.
When informed of the goofy ritual, Spacey was determined to participate. He grabbed an advance-team baseball hat from a supply closet and let Turetsky do his thing. “Today’s profile in courage is an Oscar winner . . . .” Turetsky began. A picture of Spacey just after he burst through the butcher paper shows an expression of pure joy.
But of course, no student of power would be fully satisfied until he got a close-up of the capo di tutti capi. Spacey never seems to tire of spending time with Clinton. They were once card-playing buddies and have remained close—lunching at a McDonald’s in London, touring Africa to raise awareness about AIDS. When Spacey brought the House Democrats to see The Iceman Cometh, he had only one condition. “He asked that we get Clinton there, which we did,” recalls Gephardt. “We filled the theater and made good money for the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee].”
Clinton, for his part, got his money’s worth as well. “It was the unabridged version, like five hours long,” says Jake Siewert, Clinton’s last White House press secretary. “Most of the people there are like, ‘Really, I didn’t sign up for this.’ You have fundraisers paying 20 grand. But Clinton loved it.”
Spacey did, too. Whereas many actors crave presidential face time as a way to flatter their egos (another former Clinton aide remembers getting a call from the agent of an actor on the cheesy ’90s sitcom Saved by the Bell, announcing that “he’s in town—can he see the President?”), Spacey’s interest seems not so different from that of many Washingtonians: There’s a rush to being in the presence of a world-historical figure.
The year after they met, Spacey asked Amy Harris to be his date for a White House cocktail party. “I remember walking into the huge, beautiful lobby in front,” she says. “The Marine Band was playing. Right behind us, walking in, Gregory Hines started tap-dancing.” Spacey was so awed by the grandeur of the moment that he told Harris, quite earnestly, he’d never forget it. “We’re both like, ‘Holy shit. This is not a normal life occurrence,’ ” she remembers. “Even as a celebrity, a big actor, he loved it.”
In the end, it’s hard not to notice that Spacey first became truly interested in the capital in 1996. The year before, his high-school pal Dean Devlin had tried to cast him in a role he’d written with the actor in mind: President Whitmore, the ex-fighter pilot who battles space invaders in Independence Day. But according to the Hollywood Reporter, the studio said, in effect, no way. “We literally had an argument,” Devlin told the magazine, “and the executive, who’s no longer there, said he just didn’t think Kevin Spacey was a movie star.”
Spacey, then in his thirties, was increasingly renowned among critics, directors, and actors thanks to his masterful performance in 1995’s The Usual Suspects. But among Hollywood executives, it was as if he had to prove himself all over with each new project. He was quite obviously being held back by a lack of imagination bordering on outright discrimination in Hollywood, something that would happen again and again. When director Sam Mendes set out to cast Spacey as his lead in American Beauty a few years later, the studio resisted on the grounds that he wasn’t leading-man material.
Though Mendes eventually got his way and Spacey nabbed his second Oscar for the performance, the actor has never quite gotten over the humiliation the studios inflicted on him. “Unless it’s Martin Scorsese, and it’s a really significant role, f--- off,” he told the Hollywood Reporter last year. “I’m not playing someone’s brother. I’m not playing the station manager. I’m not playing the FCC chairman.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that having been denied a fake-President role he badly wanted and by all rights should have had, Spacey went east in search of a real President. And when he got there, he discovered that the political world would love him, often for the same reasons Hollywood wouldn’t: He was smart, even a bit nerdy; he was meticulous; he worked hard at his craft.
Hollywood paid lip service to being a meritocracy, but Washington actually was one, at least as far as Spacey could tell. Truth be told, Washington probably liked that he was a movie star who didn’t look like a movie star. It made him less threatening, more accessible. It’s often said that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people. In this case, it was Hollywood for an ugly Hollywood person, too. Who really needed the pikers in Southern California, who only pretended to be powerful, when truly important people—the President! the Vice President! the Democratic leader of the House!—would embrace him?
Even Spacey’s success with House of Cards shows how badly he wants to stick it to Hollywood. Though he and showrunner Beau Willimon initially brought the project to network TV executives, each one they approached insisted on a pilot first, something Spacey considered a diversion at best, and demeaning at worst, according to a speech he gave in 2013. “We know what works, and the only thing we don’t know is why it’s so difficult to find executives with the fortitude, the wisdom, and the balls to do it,” he said. To make the show the way he and Willimon wanted it, Spacey turned to Netflix: a movie-streaming company with zero record of producing original content.
Spacey may have worked hard to stop caring what people in Hollywood thought of him, but the opinion of political Washington matters to him intensely. When Neera Tanden, a former administration official who now runs the Center for American Progress, sat with Spacey at a 2012 dinner and asked what he was up to, Spacey told her he was filming a series for Netflix. In Baltimore.
“I tried to hide it from my face, but I was like, ‘Oh, my God—what happened to your career? You used to be a big movie guy; now you’re making a show for an online—I don’t know, movie-reproduction thing,’ ” Tanden recalls thinking. “I said, ‘Oh, that sounds great.’ I thought I needed to buck him up.”
A couple of years later, Tanden ran into Spacey at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner after-party. He hadn’t forgotten their conversation and needled her about it. “He was a little bit like, ‘You didn’t seem that impressed with the show when I told you about it,’ ” Tanden remembers.
In fact, it would be hard to explain the Spacey Foundation’s Washington presence if not for his desire to be loved by the locals. The foundation itself is headquartered in New York—and there are certainly better places than DC to go searching for wealthy benefactors. For that matter, arts education, while exceedingly noble, is hardly so cosmically important an issue that it requires the attention of people who run the country. But if what you want is to show that you command the attention of the most powerful people on the planet, Washington is the place to do it.
The end of Spacey’s House of Cards spoof at the 2013 correspondents’ dinner—the highest-profile gathering in the world’s most influential city—was epically revealing in this regard. “Well, have a wonderful evening, and I’ll see all of you at the Bloomberg/Vanity Fair party. That is, those of you who got an invite,” Spacey-as-Frank-Underwood joked in the spoof. “Oh, and Mr. President,” he added, “welcome to Nerd Prom.”
As the C-SPAN cameras panned the audience at the Washington Hilton, there was hardly a straight face in sight. But no one was wearing a bigger smile than Kevin Spacey.
This article appears in our May 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
The April 15 deadline to claim charitable tax deductions brings out the best in Washingtonians: Local do-gooders gave nearly $6 billion to charities in 2012, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. And why not? A sizable chunk of our donations goes to our neighbors, the top executives of charities based in the area. We rounded up total compensation for the largest such organizations, according to their most recent IRS filings.
United Way Worldwide*, Alexandria
Brian Gallagher, CEO: $1,096,721
Number of employees making more than $300,000: 8
Goodwill Industries International*, Rockville
Jim Gibbons, CEO: $639,085
Number of employees making more than $300,000: 2
American National Red Cross*, DC
Gail J. McGovern, CEO: $597,961
Number of employees making more than $300,000: 14
Marine Toys for Tots Foundation*, Triangle
Henry P. Osman, CEO: $229,377
Number of employees making more than $300,000: 0
Salvation Army World Service Office**, Alexandria
Ellen Farnham, CFO: $115,017
Number of employees making more than $300,000: 0
*Data from 2013; **Data from 2012
This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.