occupation: washington wife

They have big hair, huge dinner parties and zero status. Julia Watson on the power partners
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It's 7.30pm and the guests arrive promptly. Once coats have been taken by the Philippino butler, the visitor's book signed, and the green baize board glanced at for table placements, the Washington couple moves smoothly into the reception. Washington husband works the room, eyes swivelling over the assembly while here and there offering the Washington Manoeuvre. This is a grip that places the left hand upon the receiver's upper arm so that, having warmly shaken his hand, he can then propel the person aside and slide on to meet the next.

Washington wife hovers nearby. While joining with other Washington wives in a gregarious display of laughter, amazed brows and quizzical frowns, she will surreptitiously be checking out the party planning. Are the flowers by Allan Woods, or has his popularity ebbed in favour of Potomac Florists? Have Design Cuisine supplied the waiters, or only the Thai spring rolls, the black bean pate with goat's cheese, and the tiny barquettes of baba ghanouj? Because next week, Mrs Washington Hopeful is giving her own intimate catered dinner for 46 close friends and she mustn't get a detail wrong or Tallahassee here we come.

This summer, Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Dole broke Washington's first unspoken rule: they gave speeches. Washington wives, like Victorian children, should be seen and not heard.

Being a Washington wife is the toughest non-role in town. And while Hillary may find it galling to be relegated to the ranks of political spouse, at least she is the nation's First Wife. Thronging Washington and its surrounding suburbs are hundreds of wives from the US and abroad, brooding over the fact they have no rank at all.

These are the wives of congressmen and senators, of state department officials and foreign journalists and businessmen. Before they were called upon to follow their husbands to the capital - or to the USA in some cases - many were holding down good careers. But they have no jobs in Washington, and therefore no status.

The wife of one recent British correspondent, a fully qualified lawyer, had "Spouse" defiantly printed on her card, while a lobbyist's wife replies "Domestic Consultancy" to the query "and what do you do?"

"What does your husband do?" is a question asked much more frequently, even of Susan Smith Dale, despite her full time job on the Republican National Committee. She sympathises, however, with the wives who may neither work nor rest on their laurels. "So much business here is done in social settings. You only have two years in congress to make an impact, four if you're in the Senate. Then if you lose an election, you get sent home." To Idaho, or Butte, Montana, or one of the Dakotas.

"You can have a decent life in Paris and not work," says Smith Dale. "But politics are Washington's oxygen. Everyone understands that you have to be part of it."

Alice is a lobbyist's wife and was formerly a publisher's marketing manager. "I've done 64,000 miles in four years, car-pooling the kids around Bethesda," she says. "What would I have to talk about over dinner?

"Washington is certainly full of opportunities," she concedes. "There are courses at the museums I go to, and I've joined a couple of book groups. We get together every two weeks, discuss the book we have chosen," she shoots up her brows "discuss our sex lives. But what I really want is to work. If you don't have a job, you're wallpaper."

Marla, whose husband is a senator's chief counsel, left a local government job on the West Coast to find no job in Washington. "So I thought, what the heck, I'll take class es in interior design, get a certificate maybe, practise on my own home. Only my realtor advised me that if we had to quit town suddenly, the house would never sell with faux finishes." Attached precariously to political posts, incomers live in houses uniformly painted vanilla and not infrequently filled with rented furniture. "You just don't know how long you've got here," explains Marlene. The comfortable suburbs of Chevy Chase and McLean buzz with wives in pantihose-pink Ford Taurus estates driving from the supermarket to PTA meetings. It almost seems to Susan Smith Dale as though a school's activities are devised as much for the involvement of mothers at a loose end as for the benefit of the children. "I go to some of the meetings, and there are these women who live and breathe the school's life. It's desperate, but you have to take what you can get."

And not only women suffer. Some Washington spouses are male. Erik Tarloff, a screenwriter, is the husband of Laura D'Andrea Tyson, Clinton's chief economic advisor. "I don't think I have ever felt so marginalised," he says of his early days in Washington. "People would want to talk to Laura and they would interpose themselves between us to monopolise her, turning their backs to me."

Diplomatic dinners are the worst, he says, with conversations of "surpassing banality" concerning the weather. But having once witnessed a ferocious row over the pudding between a senator and two ambassadors whose countries were at loggerheads, Tarloff has come to the conclusion that "meaningless chatter keeps us out of war".

The best attention-drawing tactic for a jobless spouse is, as Princess Di would concur, to break into the charity field. In America, fund-raising is the jemmy. While Princess Di is limited to pressing failing palms and stroking withered cheeks, Washington's fund-raisers can throw parties. Big ones, for big money. For these, there is not just the matter of who should cater, but what to wear.

A week before serious events such as the fund-raising National Symphony Orchestra Ball, the Georgetown grandes dames can be found in the general changing room of Loehmann's Bargain Back Room, squabbling over beaded lampshade gowns, while the younger wives fly to New York and the racks of Oscar de la Renta. For normal formal, Saks, Neiman Marcus and Lord & Taylor are the hunting ground. Sales times are a zoo. No one pays full price for anything unless they absolutely must.

You can pretty well spot a wife's political allegiance by the way she dresses. Democrats favour layers in earth-tone shades worn with flat suede pumps, freeform garments with tunics over flowing skirts suggestive of the Flower Fairies of the Autumn. Older Republicans admire the Joan Collins Dallas look. Republicans in their prime wear tight tailored designs, short skirts that skim their buttocks, tottering heels, Wonderbras and boned corsets. They adore Donna Karan, and "George", as those who buy them often enough like to teasingly to call their Armanis. Democrats enjoy white wine spritzers and ethnic food. Republicans drink gin, spend money on their hair and make-up, smoke like chimneys and order red meat, even if they don't actually put it in their mouths for fear George's dress will become too snug. "Democrats live within the limitations imposed by political correctness," observes Susan Dale. "Republicans don't take themselves so seriously."

Make an impact, though, and a couple could stay on regardless of who is in power, transmuting into a consultant or lobbyist. Then the chewing- gum thick invitation cards from the hostesses of Georgetown and the embassies of Kalorama will continue to drop through the brass-plated mail box. Grocery shopping will still translate as forays into Sutton Place Gourmet for minuscule cauliflowers and plum-sized aubergine to scatter over the tablecloth of the next, catered dinner party. Because even without rank, this has to be better than Butte.

And maybe, for the massed ranks of Washington wives, the future is not so bleak after all. "It's changing generationally and in other ways," observes Tarloff. "Increasingly, women tend to be more accomplished and less likely to subsume their personality in their spouse." As Hillary and Elizabeth have shown. Perhaps Washington had better get used to hearing from wives.

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