Monday, December 10, 2007

Washington Social Diary

Washington. Sunday, December 9, 2007. Raw and gray. The Francis Scott Key Bridge, crossing the Potomac River.
Friday Dinner at The Source with Valerie Plame Wilson, and David and Michelle Baldacci

By Carol Joynt

It was to be a routine Friday night dinner out, but, truthfully, there’s not much that’s routine about dinner with the world’s current most famous ex-spy and one of the world’s bestselling thriller writers. What do Valerie Plame Wilson and David Baldacci talk about when meeting for the first time?

Their books, for one, because both have books freshly out on the market; Hollywood, because Valerie’s story will be a major motion picture and David’s first novel became a Clint Eastwood hit; the rigors of a book tour and how to find a hotel with a fitness center that’s open past midnight; and, well, because this is Washington and they are who they are, waterboarding. Torture as dinner conversation actually is not odd in the city that’s home to the Secret Service, FBI and, notoriously this week, the Central Intelligence Agency.

We dined at The Source and were seated only about 10 minutes when our table started to receive visitors. It can be like that when word gets around that both Valerie Wilson and David Baldacci are in the room. Washingtonians may be blasé about the elected and appointed officials who run the country, but Valerie and David attract a crowd. Jim Kimsey, AOL’s founder emeritus, sat down for a moment to say hello. He was having dinner across the way with not one but two young women: Victoria Michael and Pam Sorenson.
Carol Joynt, Valerie Plame Wilson, David Baldacci, and Michelle Baldacci after dinner at "The Source" on Pennsylvania Avenue, Friday, December 7, 2007.
Within minutes, Peter Greenberg was seated at the table next to ours. Peter has one of the world’s great jobs – the NBC “Today” show’s travel correspondent – and like Valerie and David he also has a book out, an updated version of his useful “The Travel Detective.” Like Kimsey, Peter was dining only with women: Katherine O'Hearn, executive producer of ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," Kim Luk of the Park Hyatt Hotel and Rana Walker, who all stopped by to meet Valerie and David.

Valerie was back in town as part of the promotional tour for “Fair Game,” her compelling memoir of her 20 years with “the agency,” and how she became the central character in a game of political kick the can, courtesy of the Bush Administration. Her drama has been all over the front pages and in the courts for the past three years, but the book is her first opportunity to tell the story as she lived it. By law, she had to pass the manuscript through CIA censors, and they redacted most time frame references so readers would not know precisely when she worked as a spy.
Wolfgang Puck's Washington restaurant, The Source.
Oddly, though, they let her retain a reference to shopping in a U.S. military PX in a foreign country that carried hit records from both Madonna and Sinead O’Connor. At dinner she laughed, “Now there was really only one time when they both had hit records. So, it’s all so silly and arbitrary.” Simply put: Valerie worked for the CIA as a covert operative from 1985 until 2006, when she retired and eventually moved to Santa Fe with her young twins and husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson. “We are so happy there. It is wonderful. Another world altogether.”

David Rosenthal at Simon and Schuster, her publisher, came up with a clever way to beat the CIA at their editing game. S&S kept in all the CIA redactions – there are whole pages with black lines through the sentences – but added an 80 page “afterward,” written by journalist Laura Rozen, that fills in the blanks. In fact, it’s helpful to read the afterward first.

Today Show travel correspondent, Peter Greenberg, (right), dines with Katherine O'Hearn, Kim Luk, and Rana Walker.
Valerie not only did not work with Rozen on the afterward, they have yet to meet. And lest you think a private conversation with Valerie yields untold and juicy intelligence secrets, it doesn’t. She’s more candid and lively than you might expect, and her conversation is occasionally and artfully laced with four letter words, but when talking about her spy years she will sometimes suddenly announce, “I can’t talk about that,” or, “that’s all I can say.”

Baldacci and his wife Michelle, who live in the Virginia suburbs just outside the city, were eager to meet Valerie. They closely followed her saga, which is not too far removed from the realm in which David writes his novels. The focus of his thrillers and mysteries almost always is Washington, and it’s the politically harrowing, double-crossing, revenge seeking and even dangerous Washington that Valerie came to know once her name was made public.

She and Joe are still tied up in the appeals process with their suit against Vice President Dick Cheney, fined-but-pardoned Judith Miller source, Scooter Libby; Richard Armitage and Karl Rove. Closure, for the moment, is on a distant horizon.

David’s new novel is “Stone Cold,” and its been on the New York Times bestseller list since it hit bookstores last month. The top of all the bestseller lists is where his 14 books have resided since his first, “Absolute Power,” was published in 1996. He’s among a small group of thriller writers (Grisham, Turow) who bring a legal background to the mix. He also writes about a Washington that is familiar to the people who live, work and connive here.

Listening to Valerie and David trade book tour stories it was clear David could write the book on how to do a book tour. He and Michelle are versed in all the in’s and out’s of being on the road. He doesn’t really need the tours to sell books anymore – they sell themselves – but he believes he owes the personal appearances to the booksellers and he likes to meet his fans. He’s quiet, and soft spoken, but not shy. Michelle looks out for his best interests, too, which likely helps a novelist maintain the muse. For that reason, she’s not keen on the Hollywood experience. Meeting the famous people is the fun part, but the deal making destroys the romance. The Baldaccis were excited for Valerie’s movie opportunities, but the message was clear: when you sell your story to Hollywood, you no longer own your story.
Man about town James V. Kimsey with Victoria Michael and Pamela Sorenson.
Valerie is in the optimistic first blush of the experience. The role model for the film she’d like her story to become is “All The President’s Men.” So far, she has a screenplay that she likes, and there are murmurs of Nicole Kidman, George Clooney, possibly Michael Douglas, becoming attached. She’s no fool, though. She knows the process will be a hyper-coaster and there are so many variables that could change, delay or reroute the ride. Clooney or Douglas would be a good fit playing Joe, who is a trim salt-and-pepper handsome man with some swagger. For Valerie, though, one hopes Cate Blanchett or Kate Winslet, doing an American turn, might join the list of contenders.

Because I know you are wondering, David did not pick Valerie’s brain for fodder that could wind up in his next book. He was interested in how the upper echelon of the agency treated her and they did exchange some inside jokes about CIA traitor Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent who was caught spying for the Russians. We talked over a meal that included tiny cones of tuna tartare, dumplings, spicy green beans, duck, salmon, roast suckling pig, spiced chicken, cookies, ice cream and sorbet.

By the way, when Valerie got her para-military training at “the farm,” which is the agency’s super secret training facility that is believed to be in rural Virginia, she got bound and gagged, locked up in isolation, and put through scenarios that tested her will, but there was no waterboarding. And we now know that even if she had been waterboarded, and the moment was recorded, it would have been erased. Erasing is a CIA headline of late. When you read her book you’ll be told it is also what many here tried to do with Valerie Wilson’s CIA career.
Backstage, the dancers focused on crayons and coloring books while waiting to go onstage.
Washington’s Nutcracker

Sunday was a raw and gloomy day in Washington, but there was only good cheer inside the Warner Theatre where the Washington Ballet put on their unique version of The Nutcracker.

Over seven seasons here, artistic director Septime Webre has endeared himself to Washington audiences on many levels, but they particularly prize the way he incorporates their city into the sets and story of Tchaikovsky’s cherished Christmas ballet.

Even George Washington is a character, and King George is the nefarious Rat King.   It may be winter outside the theater, but the second act begins with dancing Cherry Blossoms.
Families arriving and lining up at the Warner Theatre.
The dancers unwind backstage.
An added bright spot for ballet management and staff -- especially Webre and Washington Ballet board chair Kay Kendall -- was the contrast between this year and last's, when a dancer’s strike caused an abrupt cancellation of the holiday performances. The dispute, which lasted for three months, almost did in the 30 year old ballet company.  But now the dancers have a union contract and, as they say, on with the show.

Sunday’s afternoon performance was especially for families, and featured, in a bit part, well known widowed father of triplets, Jack Evans, a member of the City Council whose district includes the White House. He’s also a notable friend of the arts. The other “civilian” cast member was Michael Harreld, president of PNC Bank for the Washington region. They were not required to dance.
Mushroom and animal costumes waiting to be put to work.
The opening scene of The Nutcracker, as staged by Septime Webre.
A special “Nutcracker Tea Party” with the cast followed at the nearby Willard Hotel which, like The Nutcracker, is charmingly old and traditional, plus quite historic.

It’s one of two hotels in the capital that could be considered our Waldorf-Astoria. It’s about a football field from the White House grounds.

Abraham Lincoln used it as a sometime office, Ulysses S. Grant stopped in for brandy, Woodrow Wilson held meetings there to form the League of Nations, Calvin Coolidge briefly called it home, Julia Ward Howe wrote “The Battle Hymn of The Republic” there; and Richard Nixon used it as his inaugural headquarters, before it closed for almost 20 years.  It re-opened in the mid-80s and now seems to be thriving.
The almost 200-year-old Willard Hotel.
Scenes from the Willard Hotel; where Ulysses Grant popped in for a brandy.
The Willard lobby.
Needless to say, the dozens of children who swarmed the Willard’s ballroom after the ballet were not interested in history.

Most wanted to eat their cookies and cakes and meet the many young dancers, while a few others dissolved into the throes of being over-tired. Parents, as they often are in these situations, were stoic.
Tiny dancers, after their performance of The Nutcracker in Washington.
Mother and daughters, checking in for the Nutcracker tea
Michael Herrald, President of PNC Bank for the greater Washington region
Nutcracker Tea table settings, complete with signed ballet slippers
DC City Council member Jack Evans with Christine, John, and Catherine
Kristin Steinberg with Isabel and Amelia
Nancy Duber with Isabella and Camille
Washington Ballet board chairman Kay Kendall and Anne Davis
Ginger Pape and Sarah
Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre with some of his ballerinas
Savvas Savopoulos and Jim Shelton
Susan Herrald with Michael, who has eyes only his nutcracker
Young Washington ballet fans
Nutcracker featured ballerina Talia Startsman, 15, signs autographs for even younger fans
The packed Willard ballroom
Tia Baltimore and Hannah
Partygoers enjoying their tea, cakes and cookies
Natasha Luis with camera shy Antonio
Ashley Taylor and Joe Robert with Luke and Diego
Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.

Photographs by Carol Joynt
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