Jeff Nussbaum, speechwriter and deputy communications director for Sen. Tom Daschle, was walking with his boss after the taping of a radio address not long ago when the two were suddenly besieged by reporters. There were cameras, microphones and intrusive reporters everywhere, recording their every gesticulation. "This is what my sister's life must have been like," Nussbaum, 27, mused.
When Nussbaum took the job with the nation's leading Democrat and prospective 2004 presidential nominee last year, there were a number of things heading his way that he never anticipated. That his boss would go from being minority leader to majority leader because of the defection of one fed-up moderate Republican senator. That an office anthrax scare would paralyze his office for a time. Nor, surely, did he ever wonder that his little sister Cara's sex life might in any way affect his work. Now all three have happened, and while the latter is of least consequence, it has its moments of discomfort.
Nussbaum's younger sister Cara, 22, is one of the stars of the latest incarnation of MTV's voyeuristic 20-something reality show, "The Real World," which was filmed last summer in Chicago and began airing in December. And his sister's onscreen exploits have put Nussbaum somewhere between a rock channel and a hard place. Nussbaum, like most political press aides, is tasked with keeping discussions substantive and making sure that all information about senators' personal lives is left on the cutting room floor. In Washington, denizens are instructed to avoid anything that could even remotely be interpreted as scandal. But on "The Real World," Cara's sex life has become a major plot point this season.
The teasing began innocently enough. In October, dozens of Daschle staffers were exposed to a letter containing anthrax and the Hart Senate Office Building was quarantined, forcing Daschle's staffers to cram into his Capitol Hill leadership digs. In the communications office, a few welcome moments of levity were provided when office manager Chris Bois took a publicity still of Cara from the MTV Web site and fashioned it into wallpaper for his computer screen. Nussbaum knew it would likely get even worse when the show began airing. But Nussbaum, with his genuine, aw-shucks delivery, is a full-time spinner who is nothing if not smart beyond his years. Eventually he realized it might behoove him to apply some damage control.
Adhering to the age-old dictum of Washington scandal -- get it all out, get it out early and on your own terms -- Nussbaum took matters into his own hands. On the night of "The Real World" premiere he threw a bash at Stetsons, a dive with a widescreen TV in Washington's Adams Morgan neighborhood, and invited all his friends to delight in his misery. Nussbaum was confident that sweet Cara would live up to earlier MTV promotions that seemed to pitch her as the centered, sensible girl. He hoped that would be that.
Daschle press secretary Jay Carson praises his colleague's handling of the situation. "He got out in front of story," Carson says, as if Nussbaum had ordered the Watergate break-in. "He took a lot of steam out of those who would razz him on it."
An example: Having worked on the presidential campaign of Al Gore, Nussbaum even argues that MTV's casting process is just about as "grueling" as running for president. "Probably you have your personal life probed about equally," he says. Though for MTV "they don't check your tax returns."
No, in many ways -- particularly for poor Cara -- it's been far more intrusive. At the time she signed the MTV contract, Cara now admits, she didn't give much thought to how her behavior might reflect on her brother or anyone else. "I guess I didn't understand how selfish it was," she says. It's that earnestness that made her an appealing choice for MTV. Mary-Ellis Bunim, the co-creator and co-executive producer of "The Real World," says she was unaware of Cara's connection to Daschle, and that Cara was chosen because she "is a very compelling personality, and very likable." Thin and smiley, Cara does seem infinitely like the most reasonable and caring of the roommates, if a little, well, young and foolish. Cara says that the editing hasn't done them any favors. "The more I look at the show the more I see seven really selfish kids, self-absorbed and narcissistic."
But of the many subplots in this season's show -- will Kyle stay true to his long-distance girlfriend? Will gay alcoholic Chris fall off the wagon? Will playah Theo convert lesbian Aneesa? -- the most riveting has been Cara's active dating life, which has included, according to the Hook-Up Report on the MTV Web site, an unnamed "Rock Star," Jared, Jason and Nick.
"Newly single Cara is lonely and on a mission," the Web guide reports, "the Boy Hunt is on ... She feels lonely when she's not with someone and needs physical affection to feel good about herself."
"Jeff and I are pretty different," Cara says from her apartment in Los Angeles, where she's now pursuing an acting career. "Jeff's just in general more of a firstborn, Type A and I'm much more of a wild middle child. He's sort of more pensive and more focused and I'm sort of more spontaneous, and, you know?"
Before each show airs, a copy of each episode is sent to the cast members. The package that arrived at Cara's apartment on Monday, March 11, was not well received. In the episode that was to air the next night, Cara is shown in very intimate moments with Djordje, a friend of a fellow roommate in town for the night. Stunningly, the two are caught on a night-vision camera, in pre-in flagrante delicto positioning, with sheets covering up the appropriate parts, though Cara hovers above Djordje like a vinyl LP about to drop onto a turntable. The two discuss the fact that she will never see him again after that night. Djordje is then shown tossing a familiar wrapper onto the bedroom floor. Fade to black.
Even for envelope-pushing MTV, this was fairly scandalous stuff. Cara had watched previous seasons of "The Real World" and had never seen such a thing aired, though she assumed that previous cast members had similarly acted upon their hormones.
If they did, it wasn't captured as graphically as it was for Cara. "Cara has unusual courage and willingness to open her life," says Bunim. "She was very outspoken about having just left a relationship and wanting to explore her new freedom." As for Cara being stunned by the inclusion of her moment with Djordje, Bunim says, "certainly, after all these seasons, everyone knows how many microphones and cameras there are in the house."
Nonetheless Cara was shocked. She called Jeff, their parents and grandparents, friends and cousins, telling them not to watch the show. "It's brutal," she says. "It's explicit; it's embarrassing." Cara says that she's angry at herself "for not having this sort of reserved control that my brother has, for not having even a piece of that in me."
It did pose a unique problem for her brother. The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call had twice poked fun at Nussbaum for his sibling's growing stardom, and the buzz grew. According to Nielsen Media Research, the March 12 episode of "The Real World" was the 10th highest rated cable TV show that week, viewed in 2.85 million homes.
Some colleagues were sympathetic. "I, for one, have a younger sister, so I'm especially sensitive about giving him a lot of shit for it," says Carson. Carson's magnanimity aside, senior Daschle staffers seem quite sensitive to it all. After tentatively agreeing to allow me to ask the senator about his curious connection to the MTV hit, or at least to give me a written statement about the matter, Daschle's office suddenly rescinded the offer. It was, I was told, a pretty clear attempt to keep Daschle far from young Cara Nussbaum and her Generation Y misadventures.
"Our office is not commenting about this," Ranit Schmelzer, Nussbaum's boss in the communications department, offered tersely.
"I think people recognize that not only is my sister's life not my life," Nussbaum says hopefully, "but my life -- as boring as it is -- shouldn't reflect on Daschle." Like any good press secretary, he underlines the main point he wants to make sure I get clearly: He loves and is proud of his sister. "I would actually expect someone to talk about your family or your character. But I think people recognize that if you put a camera on yourself 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and give someone else sole editorial control, you'd be lucky to come out looking as good as Cara does."
Or as good as her brother. However much his superiors are freaking out about Caragate, Nussbaum seems to take it all in stride. "I'm sure people involved in politics have had siblings do things a lot worse," he reflects. "In fact, most presidents have."