Ellen McCarthy and Mary Miller met in the second grade at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart on Rockville Pike. And they are still friends today, despite the vast political differences dividing their families. Ellen’s father, U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968 as an anti-war activist. Mary’s father, U.S. Rep. William Miller of New York, ran for vice president with Barry Goldwater, “Mr. Conservative,” in 1964.
What brought them together was living in Bethesda for most of their early years-the Millers on Radnor Road; the McCarthys on Hampden Lane. Their parents became friends as well, creating bonds across party lines that are far less common today. Many members of Congress now keep their families at home, for a wide variety of reasons-easier plane travel, more working spouses, lower living costs. Some fear “going Washington” and losing touch with their voters. But this trend, McCarthy says, does “terrible things in terms of the fabric of the Congress.”
As a senior staff member of the House Administration Committee, McCarthy briefs new members of Congress on life in the capital, and she always urges them to move their families here. But many spurn her advice, and the result, she says, is that members “don’t spend any time with each other, they don’t get to know each other as people, and I think it’s a loss to the country.”
I totally agree. My in-laws, Hale and Lindy Boggs, moved to Bethesda in 1952. Hale was representing Louisiana in Congress, and my wife Cokie, then 8 years old, walked into a house on Bradley Boulevard, sat down in the front hall and said, “I love this house, I want my daddy to buy it.” Fifty-six years later, we still live in that house, and though we are journalists, not politicians, we understand what Ellen McCarthy is talking about. One of our best sources on Capitol Hill was the father of a boy who went to school with our daughter. We worked (unsuccessfully) together to keep Radnor Elementary School open, and sat through endless piano recitals on Sunday afternoons. Those suburban experiences formed ties of trust that carried over to our downtown relationships.
The McCarthys changed houses and schools many times in the 1950s-Ellen says she completely missed decimals- before settling in the Edgemoor neighborhood. She recalls walking to the library on Arlington Road and the Hot Shoppes on Wisconsin Avenue (and in later years, ordering lemon freezes that she and her buddies occasionally laced with “illegally procured Seagram’s Seven”). The area was home to many large Catholic families, and there were 50 or more kids living on just a few blocks of Hampden Lane. McCarthy still has friends in Edgemoor and, at a recent party, she told a woman where she used to live. “Oh, I know,” the woman replied acidly, “the neighborhood is still recovering from your gang.”
McCarthy remains a resident of Bethesda, in the Westgate neighborhood between Massachusetts Avenue and River Road, and the woman who used to walk to the Hot Shoppes says, “I love the fact that I can walk to four Starbucks within a mile and a half.” She and her husband, also a congressional staffer, raised their only child in a house they’ve owned for more than 30 years, and their small, dead-end street closes off for regular block parties- Mother’s Day, Labor Day, Christmas And Hanukkah. “I like the hometown America feel within the neighborhood,” she says.
One of Cokie’s good friends growing up was Libby Miller, the older sister of Ellen McCarthy’s friend, Mary. Now a political analyst for the local public radio station in Lynchburg, Va., Libby says that when her father was first elected to Congress in 1950, he initially decided to leave his family home in Lockport, N.Y. But he quickly changed his mind: “He didn’t want to be alone every night; this was not a life that appealed to him. So after a couple of weeks, he came home and said to Mom, we have to look for a house.”
Political families that don’t move to Washington, says Libby, now Libby Miller Fitzgerald, deprive their children of many special experiences. She fondly remembers White House teas with the Johnson and Nixon girls and serving as a Cherry Blossom princess. “You don’t get picked for your beauty or your talent,” she laughs, “but it was a fairy tale week. We had these fabulous escorts from the Naval Academy and West Point, handsome guys in these wonderful uniforms.” At age 12 or 13, she and Cokie were in the same dancing class and the tallest girls in the room.
Most of the boys were “pretty puny,” so when the teacher allowed the girls to pick a partner, Cokie and Libby “made a beeline” for the same fellow, the strapping son of a congressman from Texas. “I slipped on the floor trying to race over,” Libby says, “total embarrassment.” (Cokie remembers it differently. She says she fell, not Libby.)
Mark Shriver is a native Marylander, not a newcomer. The Shriver homestead in Carroll County, just south of Gettysburg, Pa., dates from the late 18th century. Mark’s father, Sargent, married Eunice Kennedy, the sister of President Kennedy, and when JFK asked his brother- in-law to head the Peace Corps in 1961, the Shrivers rented a large farmon Edson Lane in Rockville. Their sheep and cattle grazed near the oldWoodward High School (now Tilden Middle School) on Old Georgetown Road, and Mark and his siblings rode horses on a large open field that is now White Flint mall. The Kennedys were known for their Virginia connections, but Mark’s father stayed loyal to Maryland, joking about the ancient “oyster wars” between the two states. “Going into Virginia, crossing the American Legion Bridge, was a big deal when I was a kid,” Mark says.
That loyalty was passed on. Mark represented Montgomery County for two terms in the Maryland legislature before mounting a losing campaign for Congress in 2002. He now runs relief programs across the country for Save the Children, but is raising his three kids near Montgomery Mall, only two miles from where his parents live in Potomac. “I wanted my kids to grow up knowing their grandparents,” he explains. And although they can’t ride horses through White Flint, they are only a few minutes from the trails of Cabin John Park.
Like the Shrivers, the Boggses were Democrats, but their next-door neighbors, Sylvia and Ab Hermann, were Republicans, and Cokie occasionally baby-sat for their daughter, Jo Ann. Ab ran the Republican National Committee, and he and my father-in-law were great pals.
They’d take long walks together in the evening, and Jo Ann mourns the loss of those cross-party friendships: “There was much more closeness among all members of Congress, we did things socially, you hardly see any of that anymore.” In 1975, Jo Ann married a lobbyist named Bill Emerson, who, five years later, returned to his native Missouri and won a seat in Congress. JoAnn spent more than 15 years as a congressional spouse and formed close ties with wives from both parties: “There was an automatic bonding; we were weekend widows living here.” When her husband died during the 1996 campaign, Jo Ann replaced him on the ballot and last fall was elected to her seventh term in Congress. Emerson now lives in Georgetown, but she returns to her old neighborhood to shop at Bruce Variety, the store where she bought Barbie doll clothes as a child. Bradley Drugs no longer has a lunch counter, so Jo Ann can’t get her favorite grilled cheese sandwiches there anymore. But give her the coleslaw and corned beef from Bradley Food and Beverage anytime.
Steve Roberts, who teaches journalism and political science at George Washington University, wrote about his own childhood in his latest book, My Fathers’ Houses. Send ideas for future columns to email@example.com.