Washington Stories: This town needs a dirt-dishing, muck-raking, scandal-rich rag

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The Independent US

Now that we have our own major league baseball team, dare one hope that this city's other most glaring need will finally be met - for an old-fashioned gossip rag to cut the local surfeit of overlarge egos down to size?

Now that we have our own major league baseball team, dare one hope that this city's other most glaring need will finally be met - for an old-fashioned gossip rag to cut the local surfeit of overlarge egos down to size?

Washington DC has many virtues, but an ability to laugh at itself is not among them. True, "Desperate Housewife" Laura Bush did her carefully rehearsed little number the other day, poking fun at Dubya at the annual White House correspondents dinner, and the fawning hacks duly rolled in the aisles.

The sad truth is, however, that the capital of the free world has rarely been as buttoned-up as now. The current administration, relentlessly on-message and ruthless in its punishment of anyone who lets slip even the tiniest unauthorised titbit, is part of the problem. But only a part. Cabinet secretaries, senators and congressmen and sundry other movers and shakers - everyone takes themselves so-o-o seriously.

The great days of Washington hostesses and Washington dinner parties were when JFK was President. For the past 40 years it's been downhill all the way. One small oasis is Wonkette, a Capitol-Hill based blog that broke the story of the Senate intern-turned-escort known as "Washingtonienne." But oh for an old-fashioned British red-top.

Look not to the deathly serious Washington Post to fill the gap. Is there a more thankless job in town than diarist of the Post, and his revealingly named column "The Reliable Source"? Alas, the column is far too reliable.

But then again, if it weren't, the hapless diarist would find his every slightest error taken apart in public by the paper's in-house ombudsman.

"Wanted: a Gossip Columnist Who Hates Gossip" ran a spoof Post vacancy ad, in the glossy Washington Monthly the other day. It might have added, "In a newspaper that hates gossip". But rescue may just be at hand. This autumn brings the launch of Capital File magazine by Jason Binn, publisher of Los Angeles Confidential among other things. The aim, Binn says, is to report on the lives of Washington's great and good "outside the office". The material is unarguably there; though they may have trouble admitting it, those senators and congressmen are mortals like the rest of us. The question is, will the Capital File be filed sufficiently sharp?

Has so tiny an aircraft ever caused so much trouble? The cardiovascular-obsessed George Bush was out in Maryland indulging his new passion of mountain biking on Wednesday, when that minuscule Cessna chugged mistakenly to within a couple of miles of the White House, before being scared off by a couple of F-16s. Days later, the White House was still having to fend off that Nixon-era question: "What did the President know and when did he know it?" It transpires that biker George wasn't told about the incident until 36 minutes after the official all-clear. But shouldn't a head of government be told when his capital city is feared to be under attack? And at a purely personal level, would any husband like to be kept in the dark when his home could be hit and his wife has been swept off into a top-security bunker? "The protocols put in place after September 11 were followed," Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman repeated like a mantra, claiming moreover that the Cessna seemed to be displaying "no hostile intent". No hostile intent, reporters demanded - then why were 30,000 people evacuated, almost at gun-point? A White House answer is awaited.

A small piece of DC history has vanished. After its money-laundering activities on behalf of General Pinochet and the President of Equatorial Guinea, Riggs Bank deserved no sympathy as it was swallowed up this weekend by upstart PNC of Pittsburgh. But Riggs was Washington's own bank, counting among its customers presidents, ambassadors and frontiersmen like Davy Crockett, and it helped to finance the 1867 Alaska purchase. It's sad to see it go.

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