Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Washington Social Diary

Under threatening skies, guests arrive at the Senate side of the Capitol building for a candlelight dinner hosted by Nancy Reagan. Moments later it began to pour.
By Carol Joynt

Just because she’s almost 88-years-old, a widow, tiny, soft-spoken and lives full-time in California does not mean Nancy Reagan is out of the Washington power game. Hardly. She returned to Washington last week and taught a master class.

She made clear that physical frailties have not dulled her will. The occasion was the unveiling in the Capitol Rotunda of a bronze statue of former President Ronald Reagan. Nancy was in charge of the two days of festivities down to the last detail; as much as ever, a force of nature.

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan.
What’s happened with the Reagan legacy, and what’s fascinating about it, is how it is getting quietly shaped into something formidable and transcendent of the man’s sometimes-controversial policies and politics. He was unquestionably effective, decisive, popular and, significantly, a catalyst in hugely historic events. But there is a reverence emerging that, at least in this moment of history, has seduced the media and negated the fiercely partisan nature of Washington politics. Teflon from the grave.

 I bet you could do man-on-the-street interviews with people under 30 and a surprising number wouldn’t know whether Reagan was conservative, moderate or liberal. Possibly they wouldn’t know whether he was republican or democrat. The words “Iran-Contra” might leave them clueless. But they would know he was a big deal, a “great leader,” and filled the stage when it was his. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” 

In other words, Reagan the man is making a fast transition into Reagan the bronze statue and, in some republican fantasies, Reagan the next face on Mount Rushmore.
Looking through a Capitol portico toward the National Gallery of Art in the distance. The gleaming interior hallways of the Senate side of the Capitol.
"We have met the enemy and they are ours." At the landing of the Senate stairs, on the way to the Mansfield Room, The Battle of Lake Erie by William Henry Powell, 1873.
The Senate's Mansfield Room, packed to the rafters with a reunion of the Reagan Revolution. The painting in the rear is of former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and by Aaron Shikler. Jane Engelhard, who commissioned the picture, tricked portrait-shy Mike Mansfield into posing when she invited him and Aaron Shikler to Florida, feigned illness, and asked Mansfield to sit in for her so Shikler would have someone to paint.
 This is quite okay with his widow, if not out and out designed by her, but then that’s always been her distinction. No matter what, where or when, Nancy Reagan looked out for “Ronnie;” now in death as much as in life.

One of her first stops in Washington was a White House visit with President Barack Obama, to watch him sign a bill creating the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission, an 11-person panel to oversee the national observance of Reagan’s 100th birthday in 2011. This ceremony went beautifully. Nancy in her signature “Reagan Red,” the President a courtly and charming host, even overheard telling her, “Michelle just thinks the world of you.”
Deluge - a pounding thunderstorm obscures the Washington Monument in this view from the Capitol building. Dinner guests pass by the Reagan statue in the Rotunda (to the left of the door) as they walk from the Senate side of the Capitol to Statuary Hall.
The Capitol dome at twilight.
The two First Ladies did get their chance to fawn over each other. They had a White House lunch, where Michelle Obama astutely brought out the famous Reagan china and filled the vases with Nancy’s beloved peonies. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell said the china, the flowers, and the Obama hospitality “wowed” Mrs. Reagan.

Therefore, one senses all is forgiven for Obama not inviting her to the March ceremony where he reversed the Bush policy on stem cell research. She told Bob Colacello in Vanity Fair that if he’d included her, “he could have gotten more mileage out of it.”
Dinner guests admire and photograph the Reagan statue.
The new statue of President Ronald Reagan, sculpted by American artist Chas Fagan, is seven feet high. The stone cap at the base includes shards of the Berlin Wall. After all her guests went in to dinner, Nancy Reagan lingered lingered in the Rotunda to have another moment alone with "Ronnie's" statue. Here she is with her Capitol Police escort Adam Descamps.
Robert Higdon, Nancy Reagan and escort Adam Descamps are the last to arrive at Statuary Hall.
The former First Lady was greeted with a standing ovation as she entered Statuary Hall.
There were a couple of small private gatherings Nancy hosted while she was here, but the main events were Wednesday, with the formal unveiling of the statue in the Rotunda in the morning, and then an evening cocktail party and dinner. At each event, while needing to sit more often than stand due to a hip injury, she had the glow and poise of a star. The Reagan era and Republican power structure showed up in force to pay homage and, it’s worth noting, the GOP’s current figurehead, Rush Limbaugh, was not in the room. Imagine – from Reagan to Rush in only two decades. Quite a downhill.

The Wednesday evening candlelight dinner at the Capitol was Nancy’s through and through – she did the guest list, the seating (Mort Zuckerman on her right), the flowers (peonies, of course), the menu (a California-style avocado and orange salad and gorgeous tenderloin), and decided who would give toasts with the California wine. They included Frederick Ryan Jr., board chair of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation; Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California; Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican House Leader John Boehner of Ohio - “my heart and soul are with Ronald Reagan;” Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas; former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, Simi Valley Congressman Elton Gallegly, and John F. W. Rogers, who is a partner at Goldman Sachs, but at age 23 was a wide-eyed White House staffer rendered speechless when left alone in the Oval Office with President Reagan. Rogers gave $250,000 to help underwrite the statue and the dinner.
Nancy Reagan's candlelight dinner. In this same room, almost six months ago, President Barack Obama was honored at a luncheon immediately following his swearing-in.
Dinner is served - the Lincoln China and a menu scripted by Nancy Reagan.
Mitch McConnell makes pays tribute to Ronald Reagan, leading up to his toast. Justice Clarence Thomas remembers Ronald Reagan.
Nancy Reagan's favorite flowers - peonies.
Whatever you think of Washington and politics, sentimentality prevails when the old administrations come together. It’s a high school reunion where most in the room had – and some still have – a title and a security clearance. They’re also grayer, paunchier, and fewer each time. I’m sure it was not lost on any of them that as we filed from the packed, festive cocktail party in the Capitol’s Senate side Mansfield Room, and walked through the Rotunda, past the Reagan statue, to dinner in the glorious House side Statuary Hall, we passed a medical stretcher parked just outside the Hall’s door. Now, maybe it’s routine, but it was also a reminder of time’s cruel tab.

Perhaps that’s why, once among the well-set tables, the guests stood and mingled for a long time, continuing spirit of Auld Lang Syne from the cocktail hour. They touched, they hugged, they laughed.  I noticed one person missing, though: Nancy. Where was she? A quick walk back to the now empty Rotunda and sure enough, there she was, arm in arm with her military escort and with good friend Robert Higdon. She was having one more moment alone with the statue, her “Ronnie,” looking up at him with those adoring eyes.
House Republican Leader John Boehner regales table mates with the history of Statuary Hall. Moments later he got up to illustrate the spot where John Quincy Adams collapsed in 1848. Adams died in an adjacent room. (Boehner's security stands watch in the background).
The Air Force Singing Sergeants put to music the John Gillespie Magee poem "High Flight" which President Reagan used to remember the crew of the space shuttle Challenger - "I have slipped the surly bonds of earth...and touched the face of God."
Dinner concluded with a performance by the Air Force “Singing Sergeants.” It’s extraordinary to hear “America the Beautiful” in a columned marble room where in every direction is a statue of an individual who helped to make American history. The last song was pitch perfect for this particular evening. After the space shuttle Challenger exploded over Florida, President Reagan gave one of his most acclaimed speeches. In it he quoted from the James Gillespie Magee poem “High Flight.” The men’s voices gave moving resonance to the full poem, but especially these famous words: “I have slipped the surly bonds of earth…. and touched the face of God.”

The next morning Nancy Reagan flew back to California, her work in Washington done … for now.
Tom Korologos, Ann McLaughlin, Reagan's Labor Secretary, with Caryll and Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Senate's Republican Whip. Brenda Johnson and Tim McNamar.
Cynthia and John Whitehead, a former deputy Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration. Michael Castine, Betty Comerford and Philip Comerford.
They were there for the Reagan Revolution: Charlie Black, Susan Baker, former Secretary of State James A. Baker and Judy Black. Alice and Jim Clark, the CEO of Clark Enterprises.
Senator John McCain. Republican Kay Bailey Hutchinson, the only woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate from Texas. House Minority Leader John Boehner.
Tsuneo Shimoji and Albert J. Ossman, Jr. Duane Miller, Jean Gray Miller, and her brother, public relations executive Robert Keith Gray.
Joe Albritton, Barby Albritton and Missouri Republican Senator Kit Bond. Phil Smith with his daughter, Maggie Smith.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Gahl Burt, who was Social Secretary for the Reagan White House, with James Rogers. Lobbyist Majida Mourad, Kathy Naylor, Republican Congressman Darrell Issa of California and Col. Mike Naylor.
Majida Mourad and Republican Congressman Ken Calvert of California. Elizabeth Dole and Ken Calvert.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi gives a hand hug to Nancy Reagan. NBC's Andre Mitchell, Henry Kissinger, Mary Bush, Robert Higdon and Nancy Reagan.
Democratic California Senator Dianne Feinstein. Ebs Burnough, #2 in the Obama White House social office, with Robert Higdon. Jacqueline Leland.
David Deckelbaum and Buffy Cafritz. Former Reagan right hand man, and one-time attorney general, Edwin Meese, and wife Ursula.
Nancy Reagan's close friends and traveling companions - Carolyn and Charles Price and Lynn Booth. The group flew from California to Washington, and back, in Booth's jet. Charlie Black with Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell.
Margaret Tutwiler and David Deckelbaum. Talk radio host Rick Fowler. Two former secretaries of state - James A. Baker and Henry Kissinger.
Tete a tete - Mort Zuckerman and Nancy Reagan. What were they talking about? John Schmitz, who is the executor of a collection of Reagan memorabilia, with Jim Angle of Fox News.
Other guests at the dinner included Cathy Busch, Rep. Roy and Abby Blunt, Frank and Marcia Carlucci, Carolyn Deaver, Elaine Chao, J.J. and Jan Cafaro, Erin Bradbury, Ed and Linda Feulner, Chris and Katie Fagan, Cynthia Helms, Polly Gault, Milissa Giller, Mary Claire Murphy, Robin Murphy, Roberto and Allison Mignone, Martin Indyk, Pen and Betty James, Andrew and Karen Littlefair, Fred Malek, Donald and Bonnie McClellan, Billy Mounger, Mandy Ourisman, Jon and Ann Peterson, Dina Powell, Wren Powell, Deborah Rogers, Genny Ryan, George and Rhonda Salem, Fred Smith, Margaret Smith, Phil Smith, Gene and Aime Stack, Linda Webster, Lucy Tutwiler, Pete and Gayle Wilson, Michelle Rollins, Richard and Nancy Rohrbach, Dennis Revell, Pam Wick, Galo Verdesoto, Ginni Thomas, Kenny and Nancy Steinhardt, Rhoda Salem, Kyle Samperton, Sen. Jeff Sessions, Thea Stidum, Russ Yarrow, Eza Zilka, Marti Frucci, Sue Groff, Kirby Hanson, Paul and Carol Laxalt, Marc Leland, Rod McKelvie, Sallie McKinney, Sharon Fawcett, Bob Colacello, Frank Bowling, Linda Bond, David Cliff, Tom and Moira Dawson, Camille Douglas, Joanne Drake, Stephen and Natalie Duncan, Jennie Etchart, Kevin Chaffee, Patrice Angle, Lisa Barry, Gerald Blakely, Lamar Alexander, Tenley Albright-Blakeley, Martin and Annelise Anderson, Steve Anderson, Rick Caruso, Rep. Dave Dreier, Ken and Kristina Khachigian, Cyndi Klement, Norma Zimdahl.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.