The Party Politics of Sally Quinn

Maggie Hennefeld

Before the  conservative Tea Party made a pun out of American politics, emptying out histories of collective struggle and liquidating the American social safety net in one jubilant protest (because chucking valuable resources into the Boston Harbor is mythical and fun), there was Sally Quinn. The Washington Post  moderator and writer for the “On Faith” site and “The Party” column (which the Post killed in print in February 2010) and wife of the Post’s former Executive Editor Benjamin Bradlee, Sally Quinn has always felt comfortable occupying that blurry nether-zone between serious journalism and social entertainment, between party politics and festive gatherings involving large numbers of influential politicians. 


As the story goes, Quinn was supposedly contacted by Bradlee after he heard about a pajama party she had thrown to celebrate Barry Goldwater’s election to Congress. Quinn’s job interview with the Post was short and sweet: “Can you show me something you’ve written?” asked Bradlee, the paper’s managing editor at the time. “I’ve never written anything,” admitted Quinn. Bradlee then related this gaping hole in Quinn’s resume to editorial-page editor Phil Geyelin, who replied, “Nobody’s perfect” (as cited by Evgenia Peretz in “Something About Sally,” July 2010 Vanity Fair).


Under different circumstances, those interviewing skills might have landed Quinn the gig of John McCain’s running-mate circa 2008. (Sarah Palin should have taken notes for her recent, ironically titled documentary, The Undefeated.) In her 1997 book, The Party: A Guide to Adventurous Entertaining, Quinn takes a vague thesis statement about the potluck that would win over Capitol Hill and peppers it with anecdotes about inebriated encounters with well-known politicians. As Harry Jaffe wrote in, it all started when a 17-year-old Quinn attended a Washington cocktail party and was  “patted on the bottom…by a randy Sen. Strom Thurmond….”


Sally’s longstanding journalistic commitment to the politics of “entertaining,” which increasingly serves as an impetus for the entertainment value of American politics, have had surprisingly wide-reaching implications for the powers-that-be. Ever ambitious Quinn would not stop short of the executive branch: Quinn is well-known for her vendetta against Hillary Clinton (as documented in Jaffe’s Salon story), which escalated in 1993 after the freshly inducted First Lady snubbed an invitation from Quinn, fittingly, for a dinner party. Quinn had designs to take Clinton under her wing by introducing her to all of the right sorts in Washington.


Quickly disillusioned, Quinn spent a good majority of her journalistic career defaming Hillary Clinton about everything from her marriage, to her hair cut, to her need for a spiritual reawakening. In a 2008 column for the Post, “Retreat, Hillary,” Quinn laments that Clinton (then an accomplished senator and serious contender for president) sacrificed her personal authenticity for the desire to ride her husband’s coattails: “When she ran for Senate and won, it was largely because of her marriage to Bill Clinton. When she ran for President, she had the same problem. It was never just Hillary Clinton.” Perhaps if Bill had already been president when he and Hillary met or, more realistically, if they had met at a pajama party, would this have convinced Quinn of the current secretary of State’s personal “authenticity”? The ironies abound.

 In a January 28, 2010 piece in Media Matters, Jamison Foser also reports that Quinn “makes the extraordinary claim in her January 26 column that Carter lost his re-election campaign due to his failure to attend Washington dinner parties. Not only that -- according to Quinn, Ted Kennedy ran against Carter because of it….”


The journalistic mileage that Quinn has culled from a slippage between various designations of the word “party” no doubt bears important object lessons for our current political moment. The conservative Tea Party movement that emerged partly in response to the election of President Obama (also known as the “astroturf” activism rallied by Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks lobbying arm), has used the increasingly sensationalist appeal of American party politics as a platform for weakening the central authority and federal solvency of American political government. Quinn’s various libelous gaffes—such as the time she wrote a made-up story about President Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, walking into a room with his fly unzipped—might appear unrelated to the Tea Party’s sweeping neoliberal movement to liquidate the collective potential of American politics. Yet, perhaps Quinn’s zest for “privatization” of everything from financial governance to high-ranking cabinet members’ genitals represents an incipient form of Tea Party ideology.


Quinn also seems particularly drawn to serial Sarah Palin-bashing  and Palin’s inability to manage the conflicts between her public and private lives. In the wake of Palin’s resignation as governor of Alaska, Quinn castigated Palin’s “Peculiar Family Values” (July 8, 2009) in a piece that focused on the domestic disruptions for the Palin clan wrought by Sarah’s political ambitions. “This is a woman who accepted the nomination for vice president with a three-month-old special needs child (all studies show that the mother’s role in infancy, especially for these children, is crucial) and an unwed 17-year old daughter pregnant by another high-schooler.”


Between Palin’s “Bridge to Nowhere” and disastrous run for vice president, epitomized by a comically inarticulate interview with Katie Couric, it is indeed peculiar that Quinn would reframe Palin’s failed gubernatorial career as yet another case of maternal lack. Quinn herself suffered significant media critique several months later for writing a column about accidentally scheduling the wedding of her son to take place on  the same day as the wedding of her husband’s granddaughter.


Quinn’s journalism for the Post—her column “The Party” (R.I.P. 2010) and her “On Faith” site does not stray far from her peculiar brand of socialite politics. Quinn uses her own contradictory investment in ethical morality and avowal of atheism (“Removing Labels”, July 2, 2008) as a platform for criticizing the failures of various politically visible women to live up to their own religious ideals. From articles such as “Hillary’s Two-Way Street” (May 6, 2008) and “Does Christine O’Donnell Have a Prayer?” (Nov. 2, 2010), Quinn’s columns often joke and pun their ways out of the paradoxical questions that they pose about societal gender double-binds.


In an essay titled “Sally Quinn on First Lady Michelle Obama’s Embracing, Embraceable Arms,” (May 10, 2009) Quinn defuses the gendered notion of domestic life as a respite from the trials of civil and state affairs, quite literally, by rhapsodizing about the merits of Michelle Obama’s arms:


“She has come under attack for exposing her arms. They are toned and muscular, burnished and beautiful. That has to be threatening to some. For some men, often, a strong woman makes them feel diminished. For some feminists, the idea of an educated woman not taking on a full-time serious job is a frightening throwback. They are wrong. Nothing could be more empowering than to see a woman with all of the attributes of Michelle Obama embrace her children the way she does.”


Whereas Quinn downplays the important office of First Lady in order to make a rather cosmetic point about the political symbolism of maternal strength, her coverage of women in politics often takes the opposite tack: condemning politically influential women for letting their personal affairs seep onto the public stage.


Perhaps Quinn’s problem is not so much a lack of individual authenticity, of which she accuses Hillary Clinton, as her keenness to forego the critical contemplation of societal contradictions for the opportunity to make a good pun. Quinn’s endeavors in journalistic snark have targeted a broad range of women in politics: Hillary Clinton (“Hillary’s Two-Way Street” May 6, 2008 and “Retreat, Hillary” June 10, 2008); Christine O’Donnell (“Does Christine O’Donnell Have a Prayer?” November 2, 2010); and Sarah Palin (“Sarah Palin’s Priorities” September 3, 2008), as well as digs at her daughter, Bristol (“The Unholy (s)election of Bristol Palin” November 22, 2010). Quinn’s rhetoric hinges on a critique of women’s fundamental difficulties holding their private conduct up to the standards of their political and moral ideals.


Sally Quinn’s pioneering flair for mixing politics and entertainment, exemplified by her tendencies to slip willy-nilly between different uses of the word ”party,” resurrects and negates the Second Wave feminist adage that “the personal is political,” except with a sad neoliberal twist: for Quinn, the political is relentlessly personal. Then again, in the words of Osgood Fielding III in the 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot (and the Washington Post editors who hired her): “Nobody’s perfect.”


Author Bio:

Maggie Hennefeld hails from Brooklyn, NY and currently lives in Providence, RI, studying in a Modern Culture and Media Ph.D. Program at Brown University. She worked for four years during college as a writer and section editor of 34th Street, the weekly Arts and Entertainment magazine of The Daily Pennsylvanian. Maggie has published in academic journals including Screen, Media Fields, and CUREJ. She plans to write her dissertation about early slapstick film comedy, gender, and the politics of modernity.

​Photo (above): Financial Times photos: Left to Right: Lionel Barber, Andrea Mitchell, Alan Greenspan, Sally Quinn

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