Not many people know this," Susan Berg is saying, "but that first time — with the intern — that actually happened IN the White House pool.'
She watches my eyes widen, as I absorb this. "'Can you imagine?" she smiles, her hazel eyes dancing. "The most powerful man in the World, alone, in a swimming pool, with an intern! And nobody found out about it!'
"But I've never heard THAT story about Hammond before" I say, looking around the room to see if anyone is eavesdropping. She's one of the most recognizable reporters in Washington, and we're at dinner at Jaleo, a downtown hotspot known for its tapas and its gossip.
“Because I’m not talking about Bud Hammond,” she says with a smirk. “I’m talking about JFK.”
I stop scribbling. “Oh.”
She came across the story in the galleys of a new JFK book she’s reading, she explains. The intern, now a grandmother in her sixties who lives in Pennsylvania, had finally confessed to having been JFK’s long-term mistress. (Well, one of them, anyway.) And true or not, because she’s Susan Berg, the story has special resonance for her.
“I think there’s a reason nobody knew about it until now,” she says. “Actually two reasons. One, virtually all the White House reporters at the time were men. And two, their editors were also men. Nobody wanted to be the one to call him out, to bring down a handsome, popular president with a young beautiful wife for something they all would have done too, if they were him.”
“You really believe that?”
She gives me her “disdainful” look, which we’ve all seen on TV. “Are you trying to fool me, or just yourself?”* * *
Flash forward four decades, to when another handsome, popular President was besieged by rumors of sexual infidelity, while his loyal wife stood beside him despite everything. That was the story a young female columnist named Susan Berg brand new to the op-ed page, told the world.
She nabbed a Pulitzer for her efforts, one of the youngest journalists ever to do so. She was already the youngest op-ed columnist the Globe had ever employed, male or female. But Pulitzers have a cost, particularly when won by beautiful young women. The old guard seethed. “She’s the worst thing to happen to political journalism in my lifetime,” one Washington veteran told me (anonymously, of course).
Even the old Watergate hands grumbled. They’d spent their careers combing through boxes upon boxes of official documents, “following the money” and cultivating their own sources to help them uncover fraud and abuse of power. And not incidentally, win their own Pulitzers, just like their idols Woodward and Bernstein. Now this girl had beaten them to the game, taking one of the most sensational stories to come out of Washington in decades, maybe ever—and making it indelibly her own. It was the ultimate get. And it was right under their noses the whole time.
“I mean, every woman in America had Bud Hammond’s number,” she says, taking a sip of chilled Albariño. “They knew he was a seducer. That’s what male politicians do. What no-one really understood is why she stood by him.”
This is the question she wrestled with in her columns, which the Pulitzer committee said “explored the personal dimensions of politics in a way that has never been done before.”
“Look,” she goes on, “some say every President since Adams has cheated on his wife—in the White House itself, I might add. But in some ways, it mattered less a century ago than it does now. Because now, American women vote. And many of them make more money than their husbands. They’re not trapped by economics the way their mothers once were.”
So the "Bitches Will Rule?" I ask cheekily, quoting the title of Berg's most recent book. She ignores the comment. "And the President is not merely the commander-in-chief anymore; he's got to be the husband-in-chief, too."
"If he's sticking his prick in a cheerleader from Duke," she says, tightening her grip on her fork, like a weapon, "that matters. We don't have to accept that anymore, from our husbands or from the man we put in the top job."
Around us in the restaurant. I sense ears perking up, heads swiveling our direction, as if shocked to hear a woman use that kind of language. But maybe that's Berg's point—that we're not so far along in our sexual equality as we like to think. She's here to break the news.* * *
It seems shocking, but more than a decade has passed since her series of columns attacking Elaine Hammond for standing by her man. In the storm that ensued, the Washington Globe stood behind her all the way, defending her against criticism from the White House (which banned her for six years) and veiled threats from the special prosecutor, an attack dog at the bidding of the Republican-controlled House.
She moved off the front page to write a biweekly column, occupying sixteen inches of prime real estate here at the Globe. Her column remains a D.C. must-read, particularly among people who insist that they never read Susan Berg.
And her attentions, like the rest of the country's, have turned once again to the former first lady, Elaine Barrish Hammond, the ex-president's ex-wife and, more importantly, now the globe-straddling Secretary of State. At the moment, Berg is working on a long-running profile of Madam Secretary, which is why she had to cancel our meeting three times.
Those must be some awkward interviews, I say, trolling again.
"She says she never read my columns," she says. "And I don't blame her. Some of them were pretty mean."
That they were. Like when she called Elaine Barrish Hammond "the moral equivalent of the Taliban women's auxiliary." What exactly did she mean by that?
She thinks about it a moment, and tells a story. "When Elaine Barrish graduated from law school in 1978, at the top of her class, her commencement address got a ten-minute standing ovation," she says. "Ten minutes. She could have done anything. She could have changed the world. And she spends the next three decades standing beside this guy who cheated on her again and again and again. And not just staying with him—defending him! Loyalty is one thing, but by staying with him for so long—when she could have been so much more—Elaine said her husband's conduct was forgivable."
"And it wasn't. Because. It. Never. Is."