Monday, April 7, 2008

Washington Social Diary

Cherry blossoms in full effect.
By Carol Joynt

Not in recent memory has Spring sprung in Washington with such whacky exuberance. Like Rashomon, there are many different points of view, ranging from serious to absurd. Congress returned from a two week break to take on Wall Street, Big Oil and the sub-prime mortgage mess. The Cherry Blossoms at the Tidal Basin are in full bloom.

The Washington Nationals christened their new stadium with a Ryan Zimmerman winning homer in the ninth. But it’s still Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama who are the talk of a town where most 3 a.m. phone calls are about politics. The weekend reading was the Clintons’ tax return; what passes for a page turner in this town. Of particular interest were the parts that cite more than $50 million in speech fees for the former president.  Apparently words do matter, after all.
Opening night drama, with the Military Color Guard, Denyce Graves singing the National anthem, and the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves players with their hats over their hearts.
President Bush walks off the mound after tossing the first ball to Nats manager Manny Acta. For security reasons, the President was on the field for less than a minute.
For the democrats, in particular, the varying views of the primary season are dizzying and, no question about it, exhausting. It’s a Gregorian chant of a thousand voices from the political and media classes, and it’s numbing. Many of the pro’s feel the stretch between primaries has been too long. They want Pennsylvania’s vote to be here and gone and then quickly on to North Carolina and Indiana. There’s plenty of eye rolling over the floated notion that Al Gore should broker the Democratic Convention; or that he should be anointed as the nominee himself, overstepping the two who have struggled so hard for the nod. It’s likely some of the chuckling you hear is from Al Gore himself.
The spring face of Washington - Apple blossoms on O Street.
But all’s not hand wringing in the nation’s capital, which is its most beautiful in the springtime. The southern sensibility extends to the climate and soil. We’re currently enjoying a feast of Forsythia and Quince, plus Tulip Magnolia, Star Magnolia, Red Bud, Cherry, Apple and Dogwood trees; Tulips, Hyacinth, and Daffodils at ground level; and, just a few weeks away, the Azaleas, Rhododendron, Mountain Laurel, Camellias and Peonies. Coming up are also the Georgetown House Tour and the Georgetown Garden Tour, two hugely popular events that draw the curious from far and near. They make parking crazier for residents, but that’s okay; we get by.
Above: Georgetown on Saturday morning — A morning ritual in Montrose Park; Daffodils on P Street, Tulips in a front garden, Forsythia outside a front door. Below: Newly bloomed cherry blossoms provided cover a few days earlier when the skies were gray with light rain in the mix.
I may be burying the lead, but what stands out right now is a sense that Washington might be getting its cool back. Cool is a word that’s not been attached to the capital in quite awhile. It’s not a political party thing, either. There was a cool factor here during the Gerald Ford Administration, especially because of the after-Watergate/after-Vietnam high (in some cases literal).

And for a certain generation, Nancy Reagan’s court had an air of cool. She had Frank Sinatra over for White House visits, and the exotic (for Washington) coterie of Betsy Bloomingdale and (the late) Jerry Zipkin. George and Barbara Bush, believe it or not, were fun, especially him, even if largely in a high WASP mode, and we know Bill Clinton had cool, which was embraced here until he, ah, got busted for some embracing of his own in the Oval.
L. to r.: Nancy and Ronald; Betsy Bloomingdale (Corbis); Frank Sinatra.
No one expected George and Laura Bush to be party animals. They left that to their daughters. But for President Bush, his White House years started with the ambivalence of a controversial election victory, and then were forever defined, conspiracy theories aside, by an event not of his doing, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and then an event entirely of his doing – the Iraq war. No one expected cool from George Bush, and he never seemed to care.

Amanda Burden and Charlie Rose at the Citizens Committee for New York City's annual fundraising dinner held a few weeks ago at the Waldorf.
So, what are some signs of emerging coolness? Well, Bill Richardson’s endorsement of Obama was cool because it was brave -- he broke ranks with friends, with the Clintons, and withstood and survived the fierce Clinton-Carville reprisal. What does that mean? It could indicate an anticipated power shift, and that jumping from Clinton to Obama may not be fatal.

Another sign of something happening is Charlie Rose returning to town. New Yorkers may not realize it, but back in the the late 70s and 80s, before he launched his successful PBS show, Charlie was with NBC News as a Washington correspondent and with CBS News as the host of the all-night-long Nightwatch.

Charlie and I go way back, having worked together at all three nets, and particularly at Nightwatch where, among other stories, he did an incomparable interview with Charles Manson at San Quentin Prison. I’m partial. I produced the hour interview, and we won Emmy Awards for it, but Charlie’s focused questioning is the definitive Manson conversation.

Over a quick lunch at La Bilboquet in New York last week, Charlie announced he’s taken a house in Georgetown, “bringing my Vespa and Mini-Cooper,” is looking for a Washington producer, and will do his show here part time, because the city is “exciting again.”If Charlie says it’s so, it must be, right?

Another bit of buzz surrounds the proliferation of new media stars on cable TV where the ’08 campaign is non-stop fodder. Even the New York Times took note. This choice crop includes especially Chuck Todd of NBC News, former Gore campaign chief Donna Brazile, now with CNN and occasionally ABC News; Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, Rachel Maddow of Air America, who appears on MSNBC; and Amy Holmes of CNN. They give fresh vitality to older cable warhorses like Chris Matthews, Keith Olberman, and Wolf Blitzer.

MSNBC anaylst Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post.
NBC's Chuck Todd.
Keith Olberman dishes the campaign with Air America's Rachel Maddow.
Amy, a good friend, has the oxymoronic distinction of firing like a liberal but with ammo that is hard-core conservative.

She emerged on the scene during the Clinton years, hosting for BET, writing op-eds, before becoming a speechwriter for then Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), and was the constant companion of Lloyd Grove, when he was the Reliable Source columnist for The Washington Post. Almost everyone who knew them felt they were a good pair, that she was especially good for him, and were sad when they broke up.

All the men had, and have, their eyes on Amy. Marion Barry once called Lloyd in the middle of the night, looking for Amy, mistakenly believing the number he had was Amy’s.Lloyd was not happy about it, which is precisely what he told the notorious former mayor. Amy, by the way, comes to Washington via Zambia, her father’s native country; Seattle, her mother’s hometown, and Princeton, where she studied economics.

The subtext here is obvious. Whatever the outcome of the election, there will be a new administration in charge of the government and setting the tone for the city.

If the new president is Obama, we get many new faces. Quietly but excitedly, people talk about how the city will transform in an Obama Administration.

If it’s Hillary, there will be a lot of palace intrigue.

If its McCain there may be a lot of his distinctive brand of unpredictable maverick eccentricity. What this all adds up to is a forecast of interesting times for Washington.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.