Monday, April 13, 2009

Washington Social Diary

The National Trust for Historic Preservation; one time home to Mellon, Duveen and Mesta. Each floor was a full apartment. Andrew Mellon had the top two.
By Carol Joynt

What serves as passion in Washington? It’s not what people think. This point was clear a week ago when I was given the rare opportunity to mingle with members of The Empire Salon. This proudly musty bunch of intellectuals first gathered in the early Bush Administration to literally “save the Republic” with monthly discourse that is at its best when it flares into heated debate. They are a mash up of Rockefeller Republicans, moderate to liberal Democrats, and the occasional neo-con. While antiwar in sentiment, they strive to be bipartisan in scope.

They are also quite publicity shy. The reaction to my camera was as if I’d walked in with TMZ and Rush Limbaugh. But, over time, most of them relaxed and relented. Right in front of my lens R.T. Lyman cheerfully pulled out his polished silver flask and poured a little hooch into his otherwise tame glass of soda. It’s that kind of group and that kind of affair. Flasks, pocket watches, the Ivy League, notable family names, plastic cups, anonymous wine, a WASP buffet of cheese cubes and veggies, lots of tweed and corduroy and, as noted above, passion.
The front entrance to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The upstairs window glows from the evening gathering of The Empire Salon. The fireplace in the entry foyer.
What do I mean by passion? Do I mean sex? Is The Empire Salon a sex romp? Well, in a way. For Washington, yes. Here’s what I mean. I go to a lot of parties where the crowd is considered white hot by local media. The women are trim, coiffed, Botoxed and knitted in to the latest minis and stilettos. The men wear cool, swagger and often a practiced stubbly growth. The music is loud, the cocktails flow, people shout to be heard, talk about nothing in particular, dance, club hop to the wee hours and then, if that’s their drift, hook-up. It’s sex of a kind, but not necessarily passion.

Cut to Monday evening, the second floor of the National Trust for Historic Preservation – a historic building that appears lifted out of Paris – and the assembled mix of academics, former and current State Department, CIA, Defense types, a few journalists, plus think tankers, writers and social intellectuals. “The secret handshake crowd,” said one member. Men and women. No music. No stilettos. The chandeliers kicked up to a full golden glow. They flirt a bit and you wonder what courses just under the surface. Yes, there are some married couples, but mostly its men and women out on their own, and everyone’s of a certain age, and you know – given their provenances – that there have to be some back stories that could be told.
Kevin Phillips and John Henry.
Bill Nitze introduces John Henry who will introduce Kevin Phillips.
Kevin Phillips listens to a question from Donald Rappaport.
What makes it sexier than the social gang bangs of the dance all night set, is that members of The Empire Salon get turned on by that other erogenous zone – the brain. They invite in a speaker – on Monday it was economics writer and commentator and former Republican Kevin Phillips – they listen to an approximately twenty minute talk and then its open to the floor till whenever. They’ve been known to debate till midnight. The group discourse is “the point of the evening,” said a regular, Dorothy McGhee.

The exclusive gathering was formed by John B. Henry, a businessman and direct descendant of Patrick “Give me liberty or give me death” Henry, and Bill Nitze, a social fixture but also an environmental specialist who has been in and out of top jobs in government. It started as the Committee for the Republic with only a handful of members, who shared an opposition to the war in Iraq. They met in homes, a favorite being the yellow Georgetown manse of C. Boyden Gray, who served President Bush #41 as White House legal counsel and President Bush #43 as U.S. Ambassador to the European Union. Gray “had the best spreads,” said a regular.
Kevin Phillips is author of many books, including "Bad Money." It's about "reckless finance," among other timely topics. The buffet, which one wag described as "standard WASP."
Now that the salon attracts from 50 to 130 people it needs the larger space provided by the National Trust headquarters, a building with its own provenance, having in the early 20th century been home to Andrew Mellon (the top two floors), Pearl Mesta,  and the flamboyant art dealer Lord Duveen, who famously left Mellon access to his apartment, which was filled with masterpieces of European art, many of which became Mellon’s founding collection for The National Gallery of Art.

Past speakers include Charlie Savage and Stephen Kinzer of The New York Times; neo-conservative historian and commentator Robert Kagan, former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel; William Polk, a foreign policy writer, former Harvard professor and a descendent of President James Polk, retired 3-star Gen. William Odom, who ran the NSA under President Reagan, retired 4-star Gen. Anthony Zinni, who was chief of the U.S. Central Command, Harvard professor Stephen Walt, and former Carter Administration National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brezinski. It’s a brainiac score to be asked to appear.
Cocktails and shared interests make The Empire Salon a happy group.
Some of the members of The Empire Salon.
Kevin Phillips, in his second appearance, gave a compelling talk about the events that brought the U.S. to its perilous current economic state, among them the “massive expansion of consumer spending,” the role the government played in supporting the greed of the financial sector, with a special reference to “Easy Al” Greenspan, the way the financial industry knowingly “rode a wave of debt,” and the way banks and other financial institutions took over the housing industry “with all the gimmicky mortgages.” Phillips said, “it’s like Jack went up the beanstalk and turned into Frankenstein and then started to fall and took everything on the beanstalk with him.” What does Phillips see on the horizon? China - lousy toys, baby’s milk and drywall notwithstanding.

Really, for Washington right now this was a passionate and sexy evening. Don’t put it down. We need the thinkers to be turned on by the idea of fixing what’s wrong.
R.T. Lyman uses his flask to nourish his beverage. Sasha Gong, a candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates. Douglas Macgregor, who went to West Point.
Leon Hadar with John Henry. Francesca Craig with Donald and Susan Rappaport.
Travis Brown. French journalist Nina Sutton, who is writing a book about the first 100 days of the Obama Administration. Bill Nitze.
Carl Colby of the Meridian International Center, and son of a former CIA director. Tim Moyer, who walked across Afghanistan twice. Jonathan Clarke.
Hugh Corbet, president of the Cordell Hull Institute. Terisa Berger.
Edith Schaefer. Sally Southie, the Canadian Embassy's public affairs minister. Dorothy McGhee.
Anne Crittenden, John Henry, and Faith Lewis. Chris Chapin and Joan Danziger.
Wendy Ross. Farida Wozniak. Whitney Stewart, who John Henry praised for her "spatial intelligence."
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.