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Suburban Virginia Becomes Prime Nesting Spot for Bush's GOP Flock

Politics: Aides find all the comforts of home in low-key but pricey McLean and nearby towns. VIPs and Texas license plates are everywhere.

April 08, 2001|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

McLEAN, Va. — Almost as soon as Joe Allbaugh arrived from Texas to serve in the new Bush White House, he was here at the Three Pigs Barbecue, looking for a decent barber and a jumbo minced pork sandwich, hold the slaw.

"Where can I get a haircut like this?" implored Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees natural disasters, but none so momentarily pressing as his famously prickly buzz cut that was fast growing out.

Like many in the new, Southern-bred administration, the recently transplanted Allbaugh--whose hair is so flat they could land Air Force One on it--was searching for the comforts of home in a sprawling metropolitan area where some salons charge $200 a pop and barbecue is considered foreign cuisine.

He found them in Virginia, newly dubbed political celebrity capitol of the world, where Allbaugh recently bought Vice President Dick Cheney's townhouse--down the street from the Three Pigs.

For eight years, Clinton Democrats flocked to the liberal strongholds of Washington's trendy Georgetown neighborhood or the nearby suburbs of Maryland. Many shunned the Old Dominion--a fortress of conservatism where the backyards are big, the schools are good, the taxes are low and the GOP controls every statewide office, the Legislature and both Senate seats.

But when George W. Bush came to town, the hot neighborhoods abruptly shifted south to Alexandria (where White House senior advisor Mary Matalin moved), Arlington (where presidential counselor Karen Hughes lives) and most notably McLean--where word of mouth spread from Republicans here since Bush's father was president, commencing a parade of newcomers so long it made front-page news in Austin, Texas.

Secretary of State a Fan of the 7-Eleven

Cheney, a fixture at the meat counter of the Someplace Special Giant Gourmet, lived in McLean for years until he got the job that came with a house in Washington. His walled brick townhome went to Allbaugh--one of the famous "iron triangle" of Bush's most trusted aides--in the East Coast equivalent of one celebrity actor handing off a Beverly Hills mansion to another.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell likes to kibitz at the 7-Eleven. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) grocery shops in wrinkled khakis. The wife of White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. is associate pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in McLean, which Clinton prosecutor/nemesis Kenneth W. Starr used to attend. U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy are practically neighbors.

"If you're coming from Texas, and you tell your friends you've moved to Maryland, then you've crossed the Mason-Dixon line," said Marcia McAllister, executive editor of the McLean Times.

To say that anybody who is anybody in Republican politics wants to live in McLean is an exaggeration, but only a slight one. Real estate prices are at peak--it's a challenge to find anything less than $400,000, and many homes cost more than $1 million. Motorcades have become frequent and Texas plates ubiquitous. One local supermarket recently started carrying little chocolate cowboy boots.

Otherwise, it is hard to tell that this unincorporated town of 39,000--eight miles from the White House, although the traffic makes it feel a lot farther--is where Washington's rich and famous can be found buying cotton balls at the drugstore.

A store used to carry T-shirts that outsiders thought bordered on delusional: "Rome, Paris, London--and McLean."

"But maybe that's becoming more and more the case," mused real estate broker William "Kip" Laughlin, who predicted that the new administration has cemented a robust housing market for the next four years.

McLean has always been upscale. Before its latest incarnation as a Republican enclave, it was best known as home to the Kennedys. Ethel Kennedy still has the house on Hickory Hill, site of many touch football games. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' stepparents had a house here once. The residents turn a practiced blind eye to the VIPs who roam the strip malls, regardless of party affiliation.

"I don't feel right naming names," Amy Burns demurred when asked to list her most famous clients at Burns Brothers dry cleaners, a low-slung eyebrow of a building that has hardly changed since her father opened it in 1949.

Jack and Bobby Kennedy had their shirts cleaned there. Dan and Marilyn Quayle remained customers even after he was elected vice president and moved to Washington. There's a months' long waiting list of customers--generals have tried to pull rank, without success. If Bush wanted his shirts cleaned, he'd have to stand in line.

In McLean, they live by the mantra: Make no waves, tell no tales, and when you see a famous face, "politely ignore," McAllister said. "McLean is not the kind of place where people gawk."

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