Monday, September 14, 2009

Washington Social Diary

Alexis Rockman's view of agriculture - down the road, where everything is mutant.
Washington in Recession and Wartime: Bring on the Party Animals
by Carol Joynt

The Washington fall social season has begun and I dipped a toe into it Saturday night at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It was their annual “Director’s Dinner,” honoring the big donors. I went with the hope that it would give me an early reading of how the social scene will flow here, almost a year since the Lehman Brothers apocalyptic meltdown, the election of Barack Obama as President, and the hard acceptance we are in two wars, not one.

Alexis Rockman's "The Pelican," on exhibition at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum.
This party was a good measure, because I’d last attended the same event three years ago. What did I notice Saturday night? Good drinks, good hors d'oeuvres, and people happy to see each other and to ask, “How was your summer?”

I also noticed the clothing was sedate, the size of the dinner was a third of what it was three years ago, and rather than a party solely about drinks, food and gab, they brought in an artist – Alexis Rockman – to give a talk and slide show about his work.

What a perfect choice for these times, as Rockman is an angry artist with a political agenda: he paints a future where natural history is bleakly compromised by human culture. He all but quoted Walt Kelly’s “we’ve met the enemy and he is us.”

Did I find the evening dour? No, not at all. It felt completely in synch with who we are and where we are, a capital city in wartime no less critical, serious or game changing than World War II or Vietnam, and compounded by debilitating economic recession and a raging and angry political divide.

You know we’ve hit bottom here when in Congress – the last bastion of faux but well-scripted civil behavior – an elected official decides to shape shift from House member to hooligan and shout “You lie!” at a President trying to give an important speech. Would he have shouted at a white President?
Alexis Rockman's "Manifest Destiny," at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, a dire view of the natural world after global warming.
The American people did not elect their House and Senate members to come to Washington to turn a Joint Session of Congress into one of those angry and scary Town Hall meetings that defined the nation’s political summer. Here in the capital we asked each other, “What were those Town Hall brawls about? What’s the subtext?” To me, at least, the message was ugly.

While not entirely racist, there is a thread of potent racism, and it has found cover and code words in the health care debate and, to a lesser extent, the President’s address to schools. Another important thread is this: people are scared and desperate, and fear seeks blame. From Washington, they get a fan to the flames from both sides plus from the media.
The scene before dinner at the American Art Museum, instead of food and gab, cocktails and an artist's lecture.
Alexis Hockman, lecturing at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The audience in the Kogod garden.
His supporters wonder when and how President Obama will step up and put a stop to the rancor. They believe he can, because he’s done it before, particularly with his eloquent speech on race in Philadelphia during the campaign. Some of his words merit repeating:

“I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren .... This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people.”

Chang Turkmani and Neil Folger at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Salah Turkmani and Elizabeth Thorp.
Maybe the Town Hall meetings, and Congress, need an appearance by Rodney King. Or perhaps a freeze frame from the Boston memorial service for Sen. Ted Kennedy, where our Presidents – Obama, George Bush, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter – shook hands, hugged and chatted in a stunning and reaffirming tableau of getting along. If they can do it, why can’t everybody else?

One tool the President and First Lady have not employed nearly enough is the social opportunities of the White House. I wonder why? Do they worry a pronounced social life is too trivial for tough times like these? The White House social office, when well aimed, is a powerful force for uplift, communication and pouring oil on troubled waters.

The events don’t have to be gala black tie affairs, though that would be okay, but maybe lecture dinners – like Saturday’s at the American Museum of Art – or performance dinners. I know there have been some, but the city is craving more social expression from Michelle Obama. At the moment, socially, it’s not feeling a whole lot different from the Bush White House.

The most out of synch component of the Washington power structure is the so-called “fourth estate,” the media. They aren’t elected, of course, and they have no regulated accountability, and they aren’t the church, but they do assume a public trust, which lately feels more like parody. This past week politico.com, a website quickly veering into a conservative FoxNews-lite, ran a much-promoted two-part series.
French Ambassador Pierre Vimont and Rachel Pearson, board member at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Among Rachel Pearson's guests, Almus Thorp and painter Izette Folger.
It wasn’t on the economy or the wars but on Washington’s “Party Animals.” The intro said, “This list celebrates the partygoers that show up the most and throw the best events” and touted “just how much personality these folks bring to the table.”

Half the people listed as “party animals” earn their paychecks as “journalists,” with the remainder coming mostly from the ranks of law, lobbying, the diplomatic corps and public relations. Fortunately for the citizenry only a few were from the Obama Administration or Congress, because while we want the elected to socialize we don’t really want them to achieve “animal” status.
Who are these people? According to one website, among Washington's most dedicated partygoers.
The story was cute but the timing wasn’t right – not now, not with the problems Washington must solve, and the sober coverage of those problems we want from the media. Surely without meaning to, the piece emphasized how Washington’s media culture has become caught up in celebrity – their own celebrity. Even the media reporters, like The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, want to be media stars. This trend culminates in the silly White House Correspondents dinner, which now has a website about itself! Social hosts boast about media stars as their “A” guests – “You’ll want to cover this. We have Chris Matthews!

Jon Stewart, he who mocks them and often does their jobs better.
A bizarre irony is how the Washington press corps bow to comedian Jon Stewart. They practically open their mouths to his urine stream, and with no self-awareness that he mocks them and often does their jobs better.

There are plenty of journalists here who aren’t “party animals,” just as most Washington politicians aren’t loud haters. Washington is still capital to some of the best journalism in the world, with a number of grounded, focused reporters and commentators, some who even enjoy a good party, but who understand their professional role is to find the truths behind what works and what doesn’t work, to bring light where there’s heat, to call out the spin, and not to become what they cover. You’ll more likely see them and their work below a byline than wrestling with each other on talk TV, or on the celebrity party circuit.

It will be interesting to see what’s ahead these next few months, as summer turns to fall – perhaps our most provocative season – and how the troubling realities of the world outside the Beltway play in the city’s social salons, with or without party animals.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C. Visit her at: caroljoynt.com.