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A Political Crash Course: The Capital's Rule Book

How to do things correctly inside the Beltway

Washington's organizing principles - its habits, traditions, and methods of operation - are under scrutiny this summer as never before.

Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld's complaint that "Washington Rules" are blocking his nomination as ambassador to Mexico has launched a nationwide op-ed debate about the extent to which US politics is a cozy power game. At the same time, Senate campaign-finance hearings have explored a money system where fund-raisers appear in party headquarters carrying bags of cash.

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Nobody ever talks about The Code of Dubuque, the Waco Way, or a San Francisco System. Are there really Washington Rules? If so, what are they?

"Rules? Sure, I got one for you," says a veteran of numerous political offices as he munches a lunchtime ham and cheese. " 'Cooperate with the FBI before your boss does.' "

On one level it's obvious that a cultural conglomeration that might be called Washington Rules exists. Human societies tend to exhibit unique traits, based on their circumstances. The nation's capital is no different from Boston's Beacon Hill.

Washington Rules, so defined, stem from the codified (the Constitution) to the informal (never wear brown suits). They can be high-minded, as in the Declaration of Independence. Or they can be mundane, as in the Lobbyist Lapel Rule: Wear a lapel pin identifying your special interest. Otherwise, politicians will never remember who handed them that check.

But Mr. Weld seemed to imply that Washington Rules are something a touch more, well, sinister - a nonpartisan conspiracy of incumbents that's denying him a nomination hearing.

It's an opinion that the United States public appears inclined to agree with, if polls are any gauge. Inside the Beltway, it's made many a touch defensive - including some people willing to support Weld's nomination.

You don't get a job at Microsoft by insulting Bill Gates. Why should you get to be envoy to Mexico by insulting Jesse Helms?

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"There's a lobbyist in town who's drawn up an exact set of rules for nomination hearings," says Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution senior fellow in government studies. "No. 1 is 'Be incredibly deferential,' "

Voters expect Washington to be run in a more high-minded manner than a corporate snake pit, however. Their tax money pays for it, after all.

So those in the hinterland might be interested in the actual Washington Rules - rough guidelines that many on Capitol Hill and in the Clinton administration agree exist.

No. 1 is what Slate magazine editor Michael Kinsley calls "The First Law of Scandal": The scandal isn't what's illegal. The real outrage is what's legal.

The truth of this dictum has been amply demonstrated by the Senate campaign finance hearings. Whether Chinese money illegally filtered into US politics has yet to be proved, but the picture of endless (and legal) party contribution-grubbing provided by the hearings is truly daunting.

Other well-known rules:

Make yourself an outsider. Voters don't like career politicians. They prefer the image of a rugged figure sent in to clean up Washington's swamp. This results in such sights as Lamar Alexander, former Education secretary, making flannel shirts the symbol of his unsuccessful campaign for president.

Follow the money. A classic bit of bureaucratic wisdom, dispensed by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's Watergate source, Deep Throat. It helps unravel who supports a particular action - and who doesn't

If you're asked a tough question, answer another one. A good politician, confronted with an uncomfortable inquiry ("Senator, why is your staff composed entirely of convicted felons?") will just change the subject. ("I'm glad you asked that. I do support peace and freedom, no matter what my opponents say.")

Release bad news on a Friday. People are interested in getting ready for the weekend, not in hearing the latest outrage. And if it's the Friday before a three-day weekend, so much the better.

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