Back in a brief and long-ago stint as an assistant press secretary in Washington, D.C., a sex scandal involving then-Sen. Mike Gravel, D-Alaska, taught me an important lesson about U.S. Senate staff, or maybe the incident just underlined an observation already forming after months in the nation’s capital.
The observation was this: Senate staff are among the most sycophantic, self-suffering or self-serving people you are ever likely to meet in this country, and because of this largely and generally untrustworthy.
Some of them – the self-suffering – truly believe they are doing God’s work and will thus do almost anything to hang onto their position beside, behind, beneath or anywhere else in or near the sphere of influence of the senator for whom they work.
The others – the self-servers – are little different from the upwardly mobile careerists you find in journalism or most anywhere else in business or government today. All are self-involved to lesser or greater degrees and motivated to succeed in whatever way they have come to define success.
Power, money, fame, influence, sexual conquest – any, some or sometimes all and more qualify as somebody’s definition. Everyone is driven by something, and it is safe to say the number of people in the world interested purely in doing God’s work – even in the God business – is fairly small.
Yes, there are exceptions. There are always exceptions.
And among the political class, to be fair, the percentage of those with good intentions (in their own minds if not necessarily those of others) might actually be higher than in the American population as a whole, but the vast majority of the well-meaning still share one thing in common with the self-promoting.
Nearly everyone recognizes a simple, political reality in D.C.: Nobody gets anywhere by pissing off a boss, especially if the boss is a U.S. senator.
A few might give the boss up if they knew for a fact he, or she, committed murder. Short of that, nearly all can be counted on to faithfully play the role of the company man,” even if they are women.
Thus it is hard not to laugh when journalists treat the staff of former Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., as if they were reliable and unbiased sources of information without so much as a wink to capital-city reality. Biden, as no one in the country could possibly have missed, is now accused of sexually assaulting a young woman – then 28-year-old Tara Reade – in 1993 when she was a member of his staff.
“Reade’s account has been denied by longtime Biden staffers whom she worked for at the time,” Asma Khalid duly reported for NPR when the story broke.
Of course, they denied the story. This is what Senate staff do. Past, present, probably even future.
Let me say here clearly that I have no idea what Biden did or didn’t do, and I believe in the American principle that people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Biden is unlikely to be proven guilty. There are no witnesses to what happened.
We are forced to believe either Biden or Reade. After decades as a reporter, I’ve listened to people bend the truth so many times, or just make things up, that I find it hard to believe anyone in cases such as this.
I’m more sympathetic to Reade’s case than Biden’s case, but sympathy is an emotion not a fact. And the facts here are just about impossible to discern.
When I was working in the Senate in the mid-1970s, Biden was a young, good-looking, up-and-coming senator devoted to environmental issues and consumer protection. A lot of young people – myself included – admired him. Time magazine named him one of 200 “Faces for the Future” in 1974 when Time magazine mattered. And he shared with Gravel an interest in nuclear safety and security.
Way back then, Gravel – who’d become a national figure after reading the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record – was already concerned about terrorism, although nobody thought about terrorists turning commercial airlines into bombs.
Gravel feared they’d build suitcase-size nuclear bombs, blow up a major U.S. city, and then hold the country hostage by threatening they had bombs hidden in other cities and would detonate those bombs in turn if the U.S. didn’t cooperate with their demands.
Gravel had a good imagination. He also had a strained relationship with wife Rita, a former Miss Alaska, and a reportedly healthy sexual appetite, which is how he came to be involved in a sex scandal that had its roots in a disagreement between Rep. Wayne Hays, D-Ohio, and his girlfriend at a wedding reception Hays was hosting in the Capital.
As recorded by The Downfall Dictionary, the madness began this way:
“…Hays was preparing for a second marriage and holding a wedding reception in the House Administration offices. The 14-term Ohio congressman had invited his staff to the ceremonies, with the exception of a buxom 33-year-old blonde named Elizabeth Ray. When she showed up anyway, Hays got into a heated argument with her and summoned the Capitol Police to escort Ray from the building. Hays’ blunt attempt at damage control ultimately did more harm than good; immediately after the incident, Ray went to a phone booth and placed a call that kicked off a series of events leading to Hays’ resignation.”
Rays call went to the Washington Post, where reporters had been having a field day chasing the sexual shenanigans of Congressmen. Ray knew about the Post because two years earlier Hays had warned her that he wouldn’t let happen to him what happened to Rep. Wilbur Mills, D-Ark.
Mills was the passenger in a car with a stripper named Fanne Foxe when D.C. police pulled it over at 2 a.m. because they thought the driver was drunk. Foxe bolted and tried to swim across the D.C. Tidal Basin to get away.
Drunk stripper flees car, leaves behind Congressman, and goes for a 2 a.m. swim was a story that couldn’t be ignored. Mills, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and his relationship with Foxe promptly became big news which killed his political career.
It also left Ray with a clear idea of who to call when she wanted to settle a score.
The Post hit the jackpot when a bitter Ray informed reporters Marion Clark and Rudy Maxa that Hays was using his Congressional office account to pay her $14,000 a year to be his mistress.
Gravel entered the scene after the former Miss Virginia revealed to authorities investigating her relationship with Hayes that her former employer, Rep. Kenneth J. Gray, D-Ill., had once also ordered her to have sex with Gravel in order to secure his support for converting Union Station, the Capitol’s railroad depot, into a National Visitor Center.
Gravel chaired a Senate subcommittee Gray wanted to support the plan.
Gravel did it
“The sexual encounter between Miss Ray and the Senator (Gravel) took place on Aug. 10, 1972…during a small party on Mr. Gray’s houseboat, the 50‐foot River Queen,” the New York Times reported in June 1976.
“After the incident, according to the source, Miss Ray recalled that Mr. Gray had told her: ‘That was for the National Visitors Center.’ The $44‐million facility was one of Mr. Gray’s pet public works projects.”
Gravel denied any encounter, saying he couldn’t recall ever meeting Ray even though another Senate staffer said she saw the two together. Gravel’s staff was predictably all in with Gravel’s claim.
I remember sitting through staff meetings to boost the spirits of the embattled senator, and wanting to gag when female staffers assured Gravel they knew the story was false because he was such an attractive man he could have any woman he wanted without trading a vote.
Then came the note. I don’t remember who found it, but it ended up in the hands of my direct supervisor – Gravel’s press secretary, who shall remain nameless. She was a wonderful woman sometimes lacking in situational awareness.
I’m not sure my memory of the note from Gravel to Gray is exact to the letter, but the note generally said this:
“Thanks for dinner. The dessert was great.”
Dessert was underlined three times. That part you don’t forget. And if you knew Gravel, you knew he rarely sent handwritten and signed thank you notes to anyone. All but one of those in the office who saw the note knew what it meant. It would have taken a good reporter only about two seconds to hypothesize the meaning and begin asking questions.
One can only guess a copy of the note was made to keep as a record of the senator’s years in office, as copies of most things are made to keep records of the careers of senators. Biden reportedly dropped off 1,875 boxes of photographs, documents, videotapes and files plus 415 gigabytes of electronic records at the University of Delaware in 2012 when he left the Senate to become vice-president to President Barack Obama.
It has been suggested those records might contain a reference or references to Reade. Biden doesn’t want anyone digging around in them because someone might find something that could be used against him now in his run for president.
It’s almost certain similar problems would have emerged for Gravel if the Gray note had gone beyond his office. Any reporter worth her notebook would have been unable to avoid asking exactly what kind of “dessert” would warrant a triple underline.
That would surely have led for a request for an accounting of how many handwritten and personally signed thank you notes Gravel dispatched in a year. The number might well have been a goose egg. It was generally a staff responsibility to take care of that sort of thing.
Gravel’s press secretary was headed for the Senate press gallery to deliver copies of the note “proving” Gravel’s innocence – or so she believed – when she was intercepted by Gravel’s chief of staff. He had a different idea, and it wasn’t “Why would the Senator send such a nice thank you note if anything untoward had gone on?”
The note disappeared. The scandal faded away. And the whole story disappeared until 2008 when Gravel with help from Joe Lauria authored “A POLITICAL ODYSSEY:
The Rise of American Militarism and One Man’s Fight To Stop It.”
The publisher, Penguin Books, described it as a candid portrait in which the former two-term senator from Alaska “expounds on his views of the military-industrial complex, the imperial presidency, postwar US foreign policy, and corporate America; critically assesses figures he worked with, such as Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy; and reveals the private life behind the public persona.”
Included in the private life revelations was the confession that yes, Gravel and Ray had sex, but Gravel insisted it never changed his vote.
People lie. People cheat. Men push themselves on women; sometimes they go way behind what is acceptable. It is the nature of our species.
And sometimes people actually tell the truth. I never thought Gravel traded his vote for sex. He liked fancy building projects.
He once famously envisioned a huge, Teflon-dome on the south side of what was then Mount McKinley National Park covering a temperature-controlled “Denali City” complete with hotels, shopping centers, condominiums and a golf course.
It was a real-life version of the set for “The Truman Show’‘ decades before the movie appeared on the big screen. Gravel could dream big. He was and still is an interesting character.
Whether his former staffers ever got the memo he’d finally corrected the Ray story in his book and told the truth, I don’t know. Some of them might still be claiming their old boss’s innocence because in the nation’s capital the boss is never wrong, and once that lesson is learned, it seems to stick forever.
The interns Reade supervised have said she left Biden’s office abruptly, and yet no one in authority there seems to have a clue as to why. About that part one really has to wonder. It doesn’t mean Biden did anything. It does mean there is one pool of character references who should largely be ignored.
And then again, the country has become so partisan it might not matter. Nobody really wants the truth.
The Trumpsters convinced only two years ago that Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who leveled sexual assault charges against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, was a liar are sure Reade is a truth-teller.
And the Trump Resistance, which has been trying to oust a duly elected president since he walked through the door of the White House, is busy painting her as unreliable, the politically correct way of calling someone a liar.
This is sadly where we are at. It’s almost enough to make one yearn for the old days when the sex scandals involved people wanting to engage in sex instead of the opposite.