Point and Clique

Politics and policy.
May 7 1999 3:30 AM

Point and Clique

How the Poms, the Jocks, and the GOP Band rule Washington High School.

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Gaze around the sprawling Washington High campus at lunchtime, and the social geography is clear. High on the Hill, the Jocks and the Poms are eating in style, elbows up on linen tablecloths. "You wouldn't dare come here if you didn't know the people," chirps Mary Martha Corinne "Cokie" Roberts, head of the pompom squad (hence: Poms) and a leading contender for prom queen. "Once you're in with the girls and guys on the Hill, everyone is really nice. Once I made ABC, it was like I was just in."

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One table over, her close friend John McCain--nicknamed the "General" for his aggressiveness on the football field--echoes Roberts' sentiments. "All the Jocks and Poms party together, and everyone cares what we think about stuff. It may be unfair, but that just the way Washington is."

But down the Hill, deep in a basement cafeteria, the tables are Formica, the eyeglasses are thick, the ties are clip-ons, and the hair isn't quite coiffed. Here's where you'll find the Badgers, who are--and there's no nice way to say this--Washington's losers. "We have nothing against the Hillies," says Jacklyn, a GS-11, as she taps her ubiquitous identity badge nervously on the table. "But they have something against us. One day they pass a law that says raise seed-corn allowances. The next day they pass a law that says lower seed-corn allowances. Then, no matter what we do, they make fun of us and call us names like 'bureaucrats' and 'paper pushers.' It's not fair. It really hurts."

Never have such social divides seemed so unbridgeable--and so alarming--as they have since the tragedy last month at Columbine High School. Littleton has focused the public's attention on just how bewildering and even dangerous this maze of social hierarchy can be. Americans are realizing that our schools are fraught, filled with feuding social groups and organized according to unforgiving Darwinian principles. Beneath the gleaming surface of winners is a seething mass--the anti-social, the alienated, and the exploited.

Consider Washington High, a wealthy, self-important institution inside the Beltway. It's like any high school anywhere in the United States. A few days' wandering its marble halls reveals homogeneity on the surface--where did they find so many identical dark suits?--but alarming divisions below.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

"After Littleton, I immediately thought of Washington," says pompom squad co-captain Timmy Russert. "We have outcasts like the Badgers and the Wingers. A lot of the victims in Colorado were in popular groups. I'm kind of scared that popular groups here might get targeted."

"Washington isn't immune to the pressures that have spoiled the rest of America," says longtime Washington High civics teacher Robert Strauss--"Old Mr. Strauss," as everyone calls him. "Of course everything was better 40 years ago, when youngsters listened to their elders and helped each other out."

Washington High, like Columbine, has an absolute social hierarchy. The apex of the pyramid--a world away from the lowly Badgers--is student body president Bill Clinton, a fun-loving kid who transferred to Washington just a few years ago. He and his sidekicks, especially Al Gore and Bobby Rubin (treasurer, math whiz, and "Most Likely to Succeed"), mix easily with almost everyone. (Because they hang out smoking and whistling at girls behind the school's white administration building, they're called White Housers.)

Besides the White Housers, the two other leading cliques are the Jocks and the Poms, who have a friendly rivalry about which group is more important. The Jocks--aka the Players--include "General" McCain and "Leader" Trent Lott. They're stars on the field in the only sport that matters in Washington, political football. They lay down the social law. "We rule!" shouts Lott, gleefully. The Poms, by contrast, are Washington's cheerleaders. They tell everyone else about what the Jocks have done and why: "Everyone knows who we are," gloats Billy Kristol.

There are two challengers to these top dogs. One is the Band, sometimes called the House Republicans. They play and talk in unison. The leaders of the Band socialize with the Jocks--before he was expelled last year, Band leader Newton Gingrich briefly challenged Clinton for Most Popular--but rank-and-file Bandits detest the Jocks and Poms. Gingrich has been replaced as Band leader by percussionist Tommy DeLay. (DeLay also calls himself a Goth, in honor of his historical heroes.)

The other challenger is the Townies, who loathe Clinton. The Townies have been going to school in Washington forever, and they hate the popular newcomer who has displaced them in prestige. "Bill Clinton is just so tacky. Have you seen the way he hits on girls? Did you hear about him and that girl Monica? It's gross," says Sarah Quinn, as she loiters in the parking lot of the Four Seasons with her longtime boyfriend Ben.

The Jocks, the Band, the Townies, and the President don't agree on much, but they all love the Gulchers. The Gulchers--Bob Livingston, Haley Barbour, Tommy Boggs--are Washington High's most successful graduates. They work on K Street, but drop by the old school every day to cruise the parking lot, pick up girls, tell shaggy-dog stories, and deal tobacco, liquor, and guns to current students. They drive fabulous cars and pick up every check. "The Jocks say they rule Washington. But we own Washington," says Gulcher Vernon Jordan, flashing a smile and a wad of Ben Franklins.

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B ut for those who aren't so popular, Washington High is a forbidding place. The popular kids, for example, mock the Wannabes, the mobs of freshmen and sophomores who aspire desperately to become Jocks. The Wannabes will do anything for the Jocks, and the Jocks exploit them mercilessly, forcing them to write briefing papers, answer mail, field phone calls, fetch dry cleaning, and play chauffeur. In exchange for this drudgery, the Jocks occasionally deign to nod in their general direction. If a Wannabe gets paid a small stipend for this work, she belongs to the Staffers. If she's not paid, she's an Intern. Staffers are cooler than Interns.

The Nerds, who hole up in the economics and computer classrooms, have an even more hopeless position. They're entirely ignored by the popular Washingtonians--except when Jocks or White Housers need someone to do their homework for them. Then, the Nerds do what they're told. Jacob Lew, who runs the Management and Budget Club, sighs about this injustice. "I mean, it's totally unfair. I spend months figuring out exactly how much money they have and what they can spend. I'm the one who does all the work, and what do I get in return? They laugh at my charts, and they don't even know my name." ("Jacob Lew? Who's Jacob Lew?" asks Clinton.)

Some Washingtonians try to disappear from the social hierarchy. The Badgers hide in their cafeterias. The Drama Club meets in Dupont Circle, far from Washington's social center. Led by arty kids such as Chris Hitchens, "Mo" Dowd, and Leon Wieseltier--who also edits the Washington literary magazine--the Dramatists profess disgust with everyone on the Hill and in the Gulch. "They're so stupid and hypocritical and fake," snorts Dowd. "We keep our distance from their pointless little world." 

The debate team, likewise, avoids social intercourse. "We choose not to consort with others," declares team captain Bill Rehnquist, known as the Chief. "Frankly, it would just waste our time and embarrass them."

No matter where you go on this beautiful but troubled campus, Timmy Russert's question echoes: Is Washington another Columbine? Nowhere does it resonate more than on the edge of campus, in a dark corner of a building known as the "Courthouse." The Courthouse is the home to Washington's proudest outcasts: The Wingers. "They think we're freaky. They harass us because they think we're freaky," mutters Laurence "Larry" Klayman, the most garrulous of the Wingers. "They harass us. Well, we'll show them what harassment really is. Does Bobby Rubin know what a deposition is? 'Cause I'm gonna show him ..."

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