Monday, August 24, 2009

Washington Social Diary

What's cool about Washington? Great parks, museums and easy access to the Potomac River and Chespeake Bay. Here is sunset on the Potomac at Georgetown's Key Bridge.
By Carol Joynt

In Washington, it’s the question du jour, asked at lunch, cocktails and dinner: “What do you think of this talk that we’re cool again?” The answer depends on whether the answerer is over or under age 30. For those who only knew this city under eight years of George and Laura Bush, the answer is an emphatic “yes.” But for those who’ve been around longer, and especially if they go back far enough – Clinton, Reagan, Ford, Nixon, Kennedy – the answer is in their puzzled expression. “What’s all this fuss about cool?” they say. “What’s any different?”

Michelle and Barack Obama - cool from the start.
Former First Lady Laura Bush. She and her husband were rarely out and about socially in Washington.
The truth is, not much. Apart from any room where President Barack Obama or First Lady Michelle Obama happen to be, the Washington cool factor is its same old tepid self. The cool proclamations come from industries that need it to be so: event planners, publicists, and the local social media. With the insular, anti-social Bush Administration, those groups were in a desert. With the election of Sen. Obama, the hype machine went into overdrive. It was impossible not to get caught up in it. The leafy oasis appeared on the horizon.

Washingtonians always have had cool envy – of Los Angeles, of New York, of Miami – but it has never happened here, and there are reasons for that. Los Angeles is glam cool - whacky, fun, frivolous, edgy and creative. New York is all about money cool – having it, spending it, getting more of it, losing it, getting it back. Miami is sexy cool – hot, throbbing, late-night, oiled, neon, top-down and hooked-up. Export any of that to Washington and, honestly, the results are ridiculous.

Take L.A. cool, for example. Well, we can’t be whacky, fun and frivolous here. It’s not our mandate. Our industry is spending your dollar. As knuckleheaded as Congress sometimes can be, there is actually a grounded, sober method to their madness. Not all of them, but most of them, respect the public trust. The big money scene endemic to New York will never happen here, because Washington is home to the big money police. Money comes to Washington for hearings, to get scolded, and to get sent back to make more money.

Yes, Bernie Madoff visited here – a crook among the cops, if you will - and according to his one-time mistress, even had trysts here, but it was business, not living large. Forget completely about Miami translating to Washington. When it comes to sex, big boobs, hooker chic and Ferrari swagger, we can be warm but we’ll never be hot. Period.

Town & Country Magazine plans a piece on Washington’s new cool. The local Washington Examiner newspaper proclaimed the city’s coolness in a huge take out. Vanity Fair asked, “Can Obama’s team make government cool again?” These exercises don’t matter. Even with the current vogue of Obama-bashing, the cool goes where he goes.
The Georgetown home where Elizabeth Taylor lived in the early 80s, when she was married to Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia.
Movie-making in Washington goes on all the time. Here is a location shoot in 2005 for the film, "The Sentinel," starring Michael Douglas, Kiefer Sutherland and Eva Longoria.
Here are some truths. Yes, movie stars are coming to Washington, but movie stars and other celebrities have always come to Washington. Unlike earlier rumors of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Oprah Winfrey house-hunting in Georgetown, the biggest movie star ever, Elizabeth Taylor, actually lived in Georgetown. Yes, movies are being made in Washington, but dozens upon dozens of movies were shot here, going back to the 1920s. George Bush didn’t scare them away, nor did Barack Obama bring them back; Washington locations have a rich tradition in film and literature.

Restaurants run second to private entertaining. A very few are above the line, but most are safe, trend obsessed and geared toward politically-correct wining and dining for and of public employees. Fashion? The uniform providers for this town continue to be St. John, Armani, Joseph A. Bank and Brooks Brothers. The younger generation may lust for Marc Jacobs but they kit themselves in J. Crew. We have some unusually good music locales – the 9:30 Club, Blues Alley, Bohemian Caverns and Birchmere – but Broadway shows rarely try out here anymore. The Kennedy Center, with occasional exceptions, tends to excel in re-tread mediocrity.
The Washington Palm, a Palm like no other, a boys' club where the cool isn't about food but potential proximity to power.
Cave dweller enclave: the annual Tudor Place Garden Party.
We have a social scene but we don’t have high society. What would pass for society here are “cave dwellers” and the name gives away their approach to being seen out and about. Good causes prevail over single-minded social life, and that applies as much for the under 30 as the over 30. The glossy party magazines swoon for the new cool, but are filled with pictures of the same people who were photographed over the past decade, with the addition of a remarkably few Obama Administration faces: senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, Social Secretary Desiree Rogers and speechwriter Jon Favreau. Rahm Emanuel was already here. David Axelrod is not a social animal. The Cabinet, in general, prefer work to play.

Kenneth Feinberg, as interesting a meal partner as one can hope to have.
This is not meant to be a buzz kill. My goal is to recalibrate the way of thinking about cool in Washington, because we do have cool, it’s just not New York-Miami-Los Angeles, or even Obama cool. I’d put our cool up against any other city’s cool when it comes to smart people. By smart I mean educated, intellectual and academic. We have them by the bushel. They get written off as dull, but there’s nothing dull about listening to Dr. Anthony Fauci at NIH talk about infectious disease or bio-terrorism.

Or mediation expert Kenneth Feinberg, who oversaw the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund and is filling a similar role for President Obama in regard to federal “bailout” compensation for corporate fat cats.

Washington’s “big gun” lawyers, Brendan Sullivan, Bob Bennett, Sanford Ain, Reid Weingarten, Earl Silbert, could rivet your attention till dawn if they’d talk about their clients, whose names fill the front pages. Our best museums are free and packed with treasures.

Washington’s diplomatic community is cool and unmatched in the world. The best ambassadors reach out to a diverse swath of the city – not solely government officials and lobbyists - for lunches, dinners and other gatherings where smart conversation can produce understanding and friendships as well as tangible strategies for the real world.
The National Gallery of Art in winter: free and full of treasures.
Members of The Empire Salon listen to Bill Nitze, one of the founders of the group.
The French ambassador, Pierre Vimont, has carved out a niche as the city’s international intellect, hosting bright monthly lecture dinners that bring French movers and shakers together with their Washington counterparts. The Kuwaiti ambassador’s wife, Rima Al Sabah, has a knack for soirees that, at their best, mix everybody up as equals.

The Empire Salon does much the same for political moderates: a little wine and cheese, a lecture, and discourse until the last deep thought is expressed. The Washington media suffer a huge Tim Russert-void, but that says more about their current toothless, conformist nature than anything. Too many of them want to be “social,” invited to the party.
.At the top of the media/social heirarchy, Atlantic Media Company owners David and Katherine Bradley. White House senior advisor David Axelrod and his wife, Susan. Not party animals.
Motion Picture Association head Dan Glickman with movie star Demi Moore at the French Embassy.
French Ambassador Pierre Vimont with certified "cave dweller" Ellen McNeille Charles. Tom Hanks filmed parts of "Forrest Gump" in Washington, one of dozens of movies shot in the city.
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel with Lincoln historian James L. Swanson.
Washington media/society - Newsweek's Howard Fineman and MSNBC's Chris Matthews Social Secretary Desiree Rogers - a highly visible face of the Obama White House team.
The Ambassador Salem Al-Sabah and Rima Al-Sabah of Kuwait.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Her job can be perceived as like herding cats. Movie stars visit Washington regularly - in 2007, Sen. Ted Kennedy with actress Mia Farrow. The cause was Refugees International.
A classic Washington social intersection: Casino mogul Steve Wynn, former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan and NBC's Andrea Mitchell.
Yes, President Barack Obama is cool. But he’d probably be the first to tell you this is a presidency, not a Disney ride. His job is to pull us through, not to turn us on. But if Obama’s administration does pull the country out of the recession, chills the heat in the Mideast, and keeps the fat cats under control, he could spread his cool over this city and beyond.
Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C. Visit her at: