Power, Politics — And Party Planning

'Party Favors' cover
Party Favors
By Nicole Sexton and Susan Johnston
Hardcover, 256 Pages
The Lyons Press
List Price: $24.95

Read an excerpt.

Nicole Sexton

Nicole Sexton is the former director of finance for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. hide caption

itoggle caption

In an era when bookstores brim with memoirs, tell-alls and doorstopper biographies by politicos past and present, we still tend to think of the tart political novel as province of the Democrats. The Grand Old Party's tastes run strictly to Clancy-esque thrillers and mothballed war stories.

But we're in a bipartisan moment. If Nicole Sexton's Party Favors is any indication, the act of reaching across the aisle is spreading to the Barnes & Noble literature section.

Delightful works of political fiction, such as NPR host Scott Simon's Windy City and, of course, Joe Klein's seminal Primary Colors, traverse the minefield between a politician's public and private lives. Sexton, the former director of finance for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, illuminates a similar landscape. But, as befits a champion checkbook-wrangler and schmoozer, she and her co-author, playwright Susan Johnston, set a breezy how's-the-wife-and-kids tone that stops just short of handing the reader a cold drink.

Temple Sachet is a Southern belle on the deb track who gets pulled into politics after she organizes a run of local, record-breaking fundraisers. A devastating combo of brains, blondness and sheer will, she rockets, in just a few years, through county and state elections to rise to the position of second-most-powerful Republican fundraiser in the nation. "It took two gays and a bigot to put me there," Temple acidly remarks, "but apparently in the Republican Party, two parts homo-nepotism with just a splash of racist scandal equals a powerful new job."

Temple also blithely deconstructs other hypocrisies of her chosen trade, such as the strategic placement of donors into tiers ("Team Victory, Force GOP, the Patriots, and the Upper House. Each level had its own particular brand of fanaticism.") and the character-revealing cash-raking styles practiced by her colleagues ("Shark," "Professional," "Crash & Burner").

Had Sexton been a Democrat rather than a Republican at heart, Party Favors would have simply been an act of literary pandering. Still, her point isn't for right-wingers to fly the conservative coop. "I'm a good capitalist, I am," Temple tells us. "I spend. I earn. I love meeting people who came from nothing and now own half a city." Temple's quarrel isn't with the party's platform, but with its practices — how her colleagues skim 90 percent off the take, sexually harass interns and publicly scorn her gay mentors and colleagues, upon whom they all depend.

It's not about being Republican or Democrat. It's about not being greedy, ignorant or a hypocrite. "Why," Temple asks, "was I raising $95 million for senators without fully understanding their platforms?" In an election year, that's surely something we can all get behind.

Excerpt: 'Party Favors'

Party Favors
By Nicole Sexton and Susan Johnston
Hardcover, 256 Pages
The Lyons Press
List Price: $24.95

Prologue

Gray Two is So Not Tall

Everything about the dinner had to be absolutely 110 percent fantastic. First and foremost, I needed to look amazing, which I did, in my most conservative, but still va-va-va-voom, belted, black silk YSL suit accessorized with a stunningly bright turquoise Hermes scarf, since I'm Southern and able to pull off risky wardrobe choices with my colorful bursts of personality.

Second and even more important, my staff needed sharp eyes, fast hands, and tip-tip-tippy toes. Majority Leader Ivy's historic three-story brownstone was not only filled to the gills with one hundred of my top-tier Team Victory donors, it was also bursting at the seams with irreplaceable antiques curated by his refined, intelligent, and Parisian wife, Genevieve. I'd instructed my junior staffers to stay in service overdrive: "Donors will be drinking; sloppiness is bound to ensue. I need all eyes on the relics. Thank you." My pre-party pep talk had been taken to heart. The young ones were zipping around, unseen and unheard, effectively anticipating the accidental bumpings of Mrs. Ivy's precariously placed artifacts.

Third and most critical of all, I needed happy donors. A happy donor equaled cash money green. An unhappy donor equaled bye-bye Senate seat. These Team Victorys were my most privileged, most pampered, most jaded, and hardest to impress givers. They hadn't ponied up fifty grand per couple just to meet Majority Leader Ivy or his wife. Most already knew the six most powerful senators, those in Leadership, I'd secured specifically for the evening. They weren't even there to chat up President Gray or his grumpy, grumpy V.P. who cursed people under his breath and always showed up with a badly bonked head or sprained ankle. No, my Team Victorys weren't interested in handshaking. They paid to see the house.

Donors love themselves some houses. They will pay out their a-double-s to see if there's a hamper with dirty clothes, if the fridge is covered in family pictures. They will do everything in their power to sneak a glance at that marital bed. Nosy, nosy, nosy. Since taking the job that catapulted my career from little old me to Big Money Babe, I'd become D.C.'s version of Robin Leach, offering check-writers a glimpse of the Republican Senate's "champagne wishes and caviar dreams." For a hefty price, of course.

Big bucks meant big donors expected big parties to big-time rock-there'd better be A-list entertainment, free-flowing top-shelf booze, plentiful hors d'oeuvres plus a catered sit-down dinner, unfettered access to politicians, and there absolutely, no doubt about it, had to be a click line. Because clicks are donor crack.

Every donor, no matter the size of their wallet, wants a picture of themselves smiling with Someone Important. Even if they are Someone More Important and they already have fifteen identical pictures, they will stand in their cocktail dress or tux, waiting like an anxious kid braving a monster roller coaster.

The click line itself is just a cleaned-up carnie trick, a frenetic hurricane of pushing and smiling and shaking and flashing and clicking and pulling and pushing and smiling and go, go, go, go, go, go until every last donor has had their twelve seconds with a Hot Shot. It's ludicrous. Not the slightest bit glamorous. And yet, if I'd ever even suggested throwing a fundraiser in D.C. sans click line, I would have been run out of town as a heretic.

Which is why, in a house full of priceless museum treasures, I had one hundred donors and all my staff squeezed into the well-carpeted, less fragile, "books don't break when they fall" library. I'd vetoed the conventional, tacky blue velour pipe-and-drape backdrop and opted instead to put Majority Leader Ivy and Genevieve on a toe mark in front of their mahogany shelves filled with leather-bound tomes. My donors were beyond happy. They were click-crack wild, high from the unprecedented inner-sanctum access. Their clicks would appear more personal, more intimate, more real. They'd frame the photos and nonchalantly prop them on baby grand pianos, on mantles beside the obligatory posed "whole family wearing white on a Cape Cod beach" shot as if Ivy and his wife were just that: family. This was overdose material.

Despite the increasingly claustrophobic conditions in the library, my party was running like a well-oiled machine. I flitted about the room making sure donors had drinks, staffers were strategically placed, and the senators were schmoozing with civilians and not one another. All I needed was for President Gray to arrive. Where, oh where, was my little Gray Two?

Genevieve caught my eye and motioned me to her side. She whispered her forgetfulness softly in my ear, "J'ai oublié son nom," knowing my childhood in New Orleans afforded her both the discretion and privilege of her native tongue.

I whispered back, "His name is William, William Sifkin."

Genevieve nodded and greeted Mr. Sifkin like a long-lost friend. I stepped back slightly and wedged myself awkwardly into a tight hallway between two open pocket doors, discreetly whispering names when requested and smiling, always smiling. I had no idea I was standing in the Presidential Hold.

In a shuffle so swift I had no time to yelp, Advance jostled me backwards and slid the pocket door in front of me entirely shut. I spun to find myself tit-to-tat with Gray Two, the pocket door behind him already closed. And tit-to-tat isn't easily done with me. Though petite in stature, I am, as Mom politely describes in mixed company, "generously endowed."

From the light spilling under the doors, I could see President Gray smiling his shocking white toothy grin. He snickered nervously through his veneers, as seemingly startled by our inadvertent "Seven Minutes in Heaven" as I was.

"How are you tonight, Mr. President?" I hoped my question might lessen the outrageously uncomfortable physical awkwardness of being pressed together like sardines. Neither of us could even lift our arms to shake hands.

The president continued snickering. "I'm fine, Miss Sachet. And how are you?"

"I'm fantastic, sir." Which was such a lie. Just because Secret Service had no qualms about stuffing me in a closet with the leader of the free world didn't mean I had the time to stand around chit-chatting with the man. Outside our spontaneously constructed confinement, there were donors needing appeasement, senators sniffing out dollars, staffers expecting supervision. Heavens to Betsy, Genevieve needed names! I tried my best to remain calm as my brain overflowed with potential emergencies. "I hope they let us out of here soon."

President Gray shrugged and the movement pulled my suit sleeves up over my wrists, where they stayed since I could not readjust them. He said, "Welcome to my life," and we fell into a long, strained silence.

Stuck. Minute One.

It struck me odd. The president was so not tall. Maybe, maybe he had two inches on me. Yes, I'd met him before, numerous times, but never this up close and personal. It was always a walk-and-talk, or a nod in passing, or an approach while seated, or a surrounded-by-staff situation. I'd spent more time with his uncle, Gray One, when I was a Ray of Hope. His uncle had been a tall man, impressive. This Gray had amazing, TV worthy, shellacked helmet hair but wow, was he a shorty. His height, or rather lack of it, made him seem much less . . . well, presidential. I thought better of commenting aloud and bit my tongue.

Stuck. Minute Two.

The rhythmic inhalations and exhalations of the president's breathing lulled me into a much-needed meditative state. In the year since I'd moved back to D.C., I hadn't had two solid minutes of nothingness. Ever. I was always on the run, in chauffeured cars, dashing from meeting to meeting, party to party, while simultaneously typing e-mails, returning voice mails, and multitasking in a haze of utter distraction. Two minutes of stillness? That meant I was either asleep or dead. I closed my eyes and allowed my breathing to deepen and enter into my lungs not as hurried huffs but as long, slow draws of life.

Stuck. Minute Three.

Old memories and long-suppressed emotions bubbled up from my core; a molten brew of fiery anger, disappointment, and confusion. This president had tricked and used people I adored. This president had lied to the entire country just to save his own hind end. This president had built his entire career on a long series of shady deals and broken promises. What in the world was I doing locked in a closet with this awful man?

Stuck. Minute Four.

I could not stand one more second of my forced confinement. I gritted my teeth to stop the questions rising in my heart from spilling straight out of my mouth: How did I let myself get so deeply embedded? Why was I raising $95 million for senators without a full understanding of their platforms? When had I stopped believing in candidates and started counting chairs? Worse than that, when did I stop caring whether politicians were actually good people? Everything had moved so fast. I'd gone with the flow of life, and life had taken me to the top of the Hill. My values, my integrity, my personal beliefs, I'd pushed them deep into a closet and now I was literally standing in that closet, face-to-face with the blue-suited, helmet-haired, white-toothed shorty that symbolized my self-betrayal.

How did I even get here?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.