Monday, November 16, 2009

Washington Social Diary

The Rosselli shop (in Georgetown) guard dogs, who go home each night with Peter Quinn, at a book party for “Sister Parish Design.”
by Carol Joynt

Can a city suffer from multiple-personality disorder? If so, Washington may by the new Sybil. Perhaps it always qualified, but lately the shape-shifting feels more intense. A year ago there was tangible glee in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s victory in the ’08 White House race. He was the “fresh breeze,” the “change we can believe in,” and the “prince charming” of liberal and moderate political dreams. The new fashion appears to be Obama bashing.

The President was declared a rock star early on, and as any star can attest, the public - or in this case, the political/media establishment - are fickle. They build you up only to take you down; for the world’s most powerful elected official that dynamic is only compounded. In contrast to the tumescent headlines of a year ago, there’s now, for example, this random weekend sampling: “Is Obama Being Too Conciliatory to Muslims?” “Obama Is Losing Independent Voters,” “Obama’s Swelling Ego,” “Obama Risks Suez-Like Disaster,” “Obama Afghan Indecision.”
The Drudge Report Headline (Sunday, November 15): OBAMA BOWS BEFORE JAPAN'S EMPEROR.
There are the weekly and daily polls, of course, tracking how we like him less than before, the heated fretting on cable news and the Sunday morning shows, and the reliable warnings from Matt Drudge and his brethren that the nation is under an Obama voodoo spell and about to become Muslim, Socialist or fully owned by the Chinese.

Agreeing or disagreeing with these points of view is up to the individual, but my observation is based on what I see and hear in Washington. The political talk is that the President, whether due to the economy or the wars, is caught in a Catch 22. This skeptical theory holds that whichever way he goes he loses the mid-terms and possibly re-election. At the monthly gathering of the moderate Empire Salon, founder John Henry added, “Whoever runs against Wall Street will win the next election.”

Henry’s event was among three recent settings where this harsher tone was illustrated, one from an international point of view and another domestic, and another from deep inside the foreign policy community.
Alain Minc talks about the Obama presidency at the French ambassador's residence.
The French Ambassador, Pierre Vimont, hosted a dinner that began with remarks from Alain Minc, a French business mogul, economist, historian, prolific author and, most of all, trusted consultant to President Nicholas Sarkozy. Vimont promised that Minc’s words would be provocative.

A guest takes notes on Minc's comments.
“Like all of Europe I fell in love with Obama,” Minc said, “and if you ask do we prefer the Obama Administration to the Bush Administration, the answer is ‘yes, yes, yes.’” But he slammed Obama for not being in Germany for the Berlin Wall Anniversary.

From there, he commented on the style of Obama’s leadership. “We want to see more efficiency. I don’t speak as a nervous French Gaullist but as a European .... We Europeans consider that the Treasury here has chosen Wall Street over Main Street.”

He said the economic meltdown “was born in the U.S.” and he criticized American “excesses” and our affection for “indebtedness,” adding, “We have the feeling you are always on the razor’s edge.”

He asked, “Is President Obama Carter’s heir or Truman’s son?”
The guests listening to Alain Minc.
French Ambassador Pierre Vimont welcomes his guests to the monthly "Kalorama Lecture" series.
At the Empire Salon gathering the guest of honor was William R. Polk, a former State Department wonk, author, academic and certified early opponent of the Vietnam War. His focus was Afghanistan, where he finds too many parallels with the war that undid Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. “The longer we delay in getting out,” he said, “the more powerful the Taliban becomes.”

Polk painted an Obama Defense hierarchy in which generals are too powerful and the military is “a new lobby for the war,” and precarious Afghanistan, where “the mercenaries outnumber the regular military” and the Afghan soldiers will gladly stand back to let the Americans face the risks.
William Polk speaking before members of the Empire Salon.
He said too many lesser, mid-level U.S. military officers “are getting promoted because they agree with Petraeus and McChrystal.” Gen. David Petraeus is the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia. Gen. Stanley McChrystal is the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.

In continuing his Vietnam thread, Polk said, “the Afghans realize the U.S. is good for money and for doing jobs they don’t care to do.” He also forecast thousands of U.S. military dead and wounded.

After that the guests adjourned to the Sulgrave Club for a lovely dinner where they sat at large round tables with candlelight and pretty linens, and debated the Polk remarks.

Andrew Cockburn in a blur; Susan Rappaport in focus.
Then, on another occasion, a friend who is deep inside the foreign policy mainframe, asked “Don’t you think Obama is appearing chaotic and perhaps inexperienced?” My reply was that he faces gargantuan, world-altering challenges. “But isn’t that the job?” he countered. Yes, “but the challenges are all moving targets.” We sipped our drinks. He said, “None of the people on the foreign policy team are loyal to Obama. They are loyal to themselves. It’s all egos.”

So, what’s new? That’s Washington – through and through. It’s Wall Street, too.

I asked what I always ask experts on the “war on terror,” which is: why haven’t we caught Osama bin Laden? My friend was dismissive. “If bin Laden got caught now it wouldn’t make any difference because of the commercialization of insurgencies.” It reminded me of something William Polk said: “Our most important objective should be to render bin Laden ineffective rather than dead.”

So, with my foreign policy friend I asked about the just announced trial in New York of five accused 9/11 terror suspects, including alleged mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Would the trial of these men stir up the terror networks? “No,” he said, “They’re already dead to al Qaeda, but it will give bin Laden a PR opportunity.”

The meal did not end without some praise for the Chief Executive. “Obama is not afraid of people who disagree with him,” he said. “He is comfortable with being challenged.”

So, there you go, Mr. President, a ray of love in these rough and tumble days.
Members of the Empire Salon enjoy dinner. William Polk with glasses on the right.

Casual followers of interior design may associate the late Sister Parish more with other locales than Washington, but mid-way in her career she made her mark here and at the best possible address: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She was the designer First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy initially brought in to help redecorate the White House, an undertaking that is a significant part of the Kennedy legacy.

This past week the spirit of “Sister” was back in Washington, in the form of her granddaughter, Susan Bartlett Crater and her protégé, Libby Cameron. They have a new book, “Sister Parish Design,” and the owners of Rosselli Design, John Rosselli and Peter Quinn, tossed an intimate party for the authors at their store in Georgetown.
Susan Bartlett Crater, Libby Cameron and Mita Corsini Bland, who painted the illustrations for their book, "Sister Parish Design."
John Rosselli and Peter Quinn. Susan Bartlett Crater shows off some of the new fabrics from Sister Parish Design.
The book is a compilation of observations, anecdotes and philosophies from some of the most acclaimed decorators, including Jeffrey Bilhuber, Mario Buatta, Peter Dunham, William Hodgins, Kathryn Ireland, Jane Churchill, Carleton Varney, Bunny Williams, Todd Romano, Daniel Romualdez, Tom Scheerer and, especially, Albert Hadley, who was the partner of Sister Parish at Parish-Hadley Associates.

Susan and Libby own and run the Bedford, NY, design firm that carries on the Sister Parish traditions in a line of fabrics and wallpapers. Their book is a readable daydream for anyone who loves the art and sport of the decorative arts.
Eclectic order in the John Rosselli store.
Another kind of order in Peter Quinn's office.
Peter Quinn's bulletin board. A guest eyes the sandwich tray.
Peter Quinn with a guest at the book party.
Mary Ourisman with Peter Quinn
John Gleiber and Catherine Herter relax during the lunchtime book party.
The book.

The “Real Housewives” franchise is now rolling the cameras on its third season in New York. All the cast from last season are back – Jill Zarin, LuAnn de Lesseps, Bethenny Frankel, Ramona Singer, Kelly Bensimon, and Alex McCord, plus two new cast members, Sonja Morgan and Jennifer Gilbert.

This past week, the show’s most notorious and flamboyant husband, Simon van Kempen (married to Alex), was in Washington to do an interview with me at my Q&A Café lunch series.

Mary Amons, Paul Wharton, and Simon van Kempen
Much to the delight of the audience he brought with him all kinds of behind the scenes dish – for example, he’s eager for a throwdown with Kevin Spacey for publicly disparaging the show, the cast did get nice salary boosts, the planned Bravo “Housewives” fashion line is not anything the women actually would wear, there is no group counseling offered after cast dust-ups, and yes, one does need a sense of humor, and to be a little crazy, to appear in a reality show.

Those revelations came during the interview. But perhaps the most compelling moments were after, as Simon talked confidentially with “Real Housewives of Washington DC” cast member Mary Amons and her husband, Rich, and adjunct DC cast member Paul Wharton. They huddled at the Georgetown Ritz-Carlton long after the last patron departed the dining room.

The DC Housewives show is also currently in production and its presumed other cast members – Lynda Erkelitian, Stacie Turner, Michaela Sahali and Cat Ommanney – may want to ask Mary what intel Simon passed on. The one on which he was very adamant is no secret: develop a thick skin.
Simon van Kempen poses with fans before taping "The Q&A Cafe."
Simon van Kempen and CJ.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C. Visit her at: