In D.C., breakfast can outpower power lunch Over bacon and eggs, careers get scrambled

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Breakfast has become the meal of choice in this town where power means never having to say you're sleepy.

But as the coffee and news have flowed among politicians and journalists, lobbyists and business executives, Washington's power breakfast has taken on a new dimension: Lately, it has become the place where political careers are scrambled, fried and over-easy.

Just last week, two prominent men -- both of whom, most likely, wish they'd overslept -- damaged their careers by putting more than Rice Krispies in their mouths at early meetings with reporters.

At breakfast Wednesday, House Speaker Newt Gingrich turned himself into the butt of a week's worth of jokes by saying he toughened up a budget bill Republicans sent to the White House because he didn't like the way he was treated by President Clinton on a trip aboard AirForce One.

Two days later, Adm. Richard C. Macke, the American military commander in the Pacific, jettisoned his 35-year naval career with a few unfortunate words uttered around another breakfast table with reporters.

He said the three U.S. servicemen who conspired to rape a 12-year-old girl in Okinawa were "stupid" because they could have hired a prostitute for the money they spent renting the car in which the crime was committed.

Before most people had arrived at work last Friday and poured their first cup of coffee, Admiral Macke was toast.

"Breakfast in Washington?" muses Republican strategist Ed Rollins. "Best to have it at home. It can be very dangerous to one's health."

Mr. Rollins learned that lesson the hard way.

At an infamous breakfast with reporters in November 1993, he boasted that, as campaign manager for Christine Todd Whitman, who had just won the New Jersey governor's race, he spent $500,000 to suppress black voter turnout.

He later retracted the comment, saying he had gotten carried away at the breakfast.

But the remarks ignited a furor and derailed his career, temporarily at least.

"Without exception, people are stupider in the morning -- even stupider than they are after a few drinks at dinner," says columnist Diana McLellan, an observer of Washington customs and an avid luncher who shuns breakfasts.

Both Mr. Rollins and Mr. Gingrich committed their gaffes at Washington's premiere power breakfast, the "Sperling breakfast," an hour-long, on-the-record, Q-and-A for reporters started in 1966 by Christian Science Monitor senior columnist Godfrey "Budge" Sperling Jr.

The Sperling breakfasts are still organized and presided over by the 80-year-old newsman and held about twice a week.

They take place at the elegant Sheraton Carlton and have featured everyone from Al Gore to the Dalai Lama. About 40 journalists sit around a table set with pink napkins and silver, asking questions and scribbling notes between forkfuls of bacon and eggs.

"No matter how guarded you are when you go in, there's an informality to it," says Mr. Rollins, explaining why guests often say more than they had planned. "You know most of the people in the room. It's not adversarial.

"You get relaxed and conversational and you forget -- foolishly -- that there are tape recorders running, and people are going to go out and they're going to do stories."

Since his fiasco, Mr. Rollins has declined all invitations to return.

Mr. Sperling agrees that the nonadversarial nature of his breakfasts contributes to the forthrightness of his guests. But he believes the early hour may also play a part.

"Public officials haven't been hammered around all day," says Mr. Sperling, approaching his 2,800th breakfast. "They're fresh. They come in with a little more confidence, and we benefit from that confidence -- maybe over-confidence."

Ironically, his celebrated breakfast began as a lunch. After Mr. Sperling and a few of his journalist friends invited a new senator, Charles Percy of Illinois, to lunch in 1966, they decided to repeat the event with New York Mayor John Lindsay as the guest.

But there were no rooms available at the National Press Club for lunch, so he asked about booking a room for breakfast. "No one ever has groups in for breakfast," he recalls being told by the employee.

"Let's give it a try," he responded.

Since then, the Sperling breakfast -- which recently assembled in the State Dining Room of the White House when President Clinton was the guest -- has been the site of not only gaffes, but news.

Many journalists recall a 1968 breakfast with then-Sen. Robert F. Kennedy at the height of the Vietnam War. Grilled about whether he planned to enter the presidential race, the senator repeatedly said it was "inconceivable" that he would run.

But after someone rushed into the room with a bulletin about the start of the Tet offensive by the North Vietnamese, a bloody turning point in the war, he appeared to change his mind on the spot.

Of course, the Sperling affair isn't the only early-bird game in town. All over town -- at the Hay Adams Hotel near the White House, the Old Ebbitt Grill across from the Treasury Department, the Capitol Hill Club if you're a Republican -- the city's workaholics are stretching their day by conducting business over bagels.

"It's a huge phenomenon in Washington," says frequent breakfaster Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard, a new conservative magazine. "Breakfast has become part of the working day."

On Capitol Hill, there are numerous breakfast groups for members, including prayer breakfasts in both the House and Senate and breakfast fund-raisers.

Former Treasury Secretary and Senator Lloyd Bentsen fell prey to the dangers of the early morning repast by forming a breakfast club before his 1988 re-election campaign, at which high-fliers were invited to break toast with the Texas lawmaker -- for a fee of $10,000.

After being questioned about the propriety of such a meeting under campaign finance rules, Mr. Bentsen admitted he committed a "doozy" of a mistake and disbanded what came to be known as the "Eggs McBentsen" group.

Some breakfasts, of course, go off without a hitch. Mr. Barnes says that for every breakfast where news is made, there are five others where nary a note is taken.

Still, Dr. Steven Worchel, a psychologist who studies political behavior, believes biorhythms, or internal clocks, may make some people more accident-prone in the morning. He also says people may face the morning with more energy -- and less caution.

"As you go through the day and are constantly battered by people questioning you, you get more cautious," says Dr. Worchel, a professor at Texas A & M University.

"It's like a fighter. In the later rounds, after being hit by a few good punches, he will have his guard up. When he's starting out, the punches of the day before have faded."

In the wake of the Gingrich and Macke gaffes, Washington's early risers seem to have both dukes up, cognizant of the dangers that discussions over danish can pose.

This week, when Gen. Dennis J. Reimer, the Army chief of staff, was the guest at the defense writers' breakfast -- the same place where Admiral Macke had self-destructed only days before -- reporters piled up their $20 checks for the breakfast in front of the general's plate.

"It's a contribution to your retirement fund," a reporter joked.

Peppered with questions about Bosnia, General Reimer was careful to make no news.

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