Monday, March 16, 2009

Washington Social Diary

The entrance to Meridian House at dusk for the Washington Ballet's "Un Ballo in Maschera" auction party.
Poor Little Lambs
By Carol Joynt

The fairy dust of the Obama inauguration is settled and nearly blown away.
The Capitol’s elaborate platform for the swearing-in has been taken down and put in storage till four years hence. In city shop windows and on the wood barriers around construction sites there are some aging stickers that proclaim “Obama ’08,” but inside the shops there are few if any customers and the construction sites, in some cases, operate in eerie slow motion. On Washington’s all-news radio station, WTOP, there is a Sunday morning report about how to spend less but still eat healthy. An expert promotes the virtues of potatoes and beans. The Washington Post, thinner by the month, recently declared the nation’s capital is not recession proof, and then said it is killing its stand alone Business section, folding coverage it into what’s left of the front of the 132-year-old paper.

Back in December I asked Newsweek’s astute Howard Fineman if the main stream media, particularly the Washington contingent, were skilled and prepared to cover the economic meltdown. He paused to think, and then shook his head and said “no.” He’s right. They are still back in an earlier era where an economic story involved elemental budgets and deficits, with a business as usual Wall Street component. Now, with a few exceptions, they seem in a fog. To borrow from The Whiffenpoof Song, they are poor little lambs who have lost their way.

You know they are lost when a contretemps between a cable TV comedian and a cable TV money yakker – as happened last week between Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer – becomes major news. Washington’s Sunday show pundits actually debated their debate – as if it mattered. This is to take nothing away from the merits of Stewart and Cramer. They did what they are paid for. The alarming part involves the media, who use Stewart and Saturday Night Live as guideposts for the recession story. Note to bureau chiefs: this is called low hanging fruit.

For better or worse, the new Administration is not idle. They are an activist bunch, who occasionally appear to jump before thinking, but at least they are jumping. Congress is scrambling to keep up and to either assist or thwart, depending on individual levels of partisanship and maturity. Stuff is happening. The media need to catch up, gain ground, get ahead and explain to us what the hell is going on.

The White House press corps, many of them new to that beat, are probably trying very hard to make sense of what’s dished out to them in the claustrophobic confines of the tiny White House press room. (Most sources are still reached by phone). If you want to know what an isolation chamber is like, try to visit one day. It may be renovated, but the press room remains a compact warren of fixed chairs and cubicles over an old swimming pool where movement is highly restricted. It’s a charged but also wearying environment. The new press secretary, Robert Gibbs, while liked by his supplicants, has put some of them to sleep during briefings. Maybe he’s not to blame. Maybe the subject – averting a depression – is, again, too complex.

One thing is certain, there needs to be less media obsession with Barack Obama’s first hundred days as President. What does it mean, anyway? They give him a grade on day 101, and then what? It’s an archaic measure. The clock on the economic crisis moves at warp speed. A hundred days was over on day one. Besides, his popularity, for the moment, is impressive. If the public becomes disenchanted it will show, regardless of the calendar. We need the media to understand and translate the confusing parts, the scary parts, and the parts that offer authentic optimism.

It would be nice, too, to see a little less focus on how bad the recession is for the rich. The rich may be less rich, including an incarcerated Bernard Madoff, but recessions hurt the poor worst of all, even the new poor.
The Washington Ballet's "Un Ballo in Maschera" auction party. The buffet in Meridian House with a city view beyond.
Lest I give the impression that the city is at a social standstill, it’s not. We’re in something of transition between the winter and spring seasons. There are events going on, and people have a good time, but there’s no way anyone could say it’s like before. I’ll use two as an example.

Earlier this week The Washington Ballet had a lovely little party at the beautiful Meridian House mansion. It’s in an older elegant part of town, 16th Street, Northwest. You drive up a curving city street, round and round, until you arrive at the top at this mansion that looks lifted out of French chateau country. Inside, there was a theme of a Venetian masked ball, a buffet table, rows and rows of silent auction items and a table where, for $50 a person, it was all-you-can drink Veuve Cliquot. What struck me was the paucity of signatures on the silent auction sheets. What did it mean that no one signed up for the face lift and yet there were several people who bid on car detailing? I’m trying to figure that out.

I see fewer and fewer swag bags handed out at the exit door of events these days. But the Ballet did something that was clever and fun. They had a candy bar. On the way home, guests could take a little bag and fill it – to their sweet tooth’s delight – with licorice, malted milk balls, fruit twists, jelly beans, candy coated sunflower seeds, foil wrapped chocolates, lollipops and lemon drops. This was a crowd pleaser.
There were at least two rooms with tables filled with auction items. There were tables with wines from the Veneto, Tuscany, Sicily and the Piedmont, but the Veuve Cliquot table was particularly popular, featuring all you could drink for $50.
The car detailing item proves popular.
Clockwise from above: Letting a bow be one's statement; David Keller, a mystery woman, and Debbie Sigmund; Washington Opera Women's Committee members Elaine Tyrrell and Pat Skantze.
Feathers were a popular fashion statement at the Washington Ballet Venetian party.
Clockwise from top left: Lovely little melon balls with feta cheese; A bouquet of lollipops; One of the candy bars where guests could help themselves upon leaving the Washington Ballet party.
Saturday night was the annual fundraising dinner for the group who want to repeal the military “Don’t ask/Don’t tell” law. The organization, called the Services Members Legal Defense Network, is a hard-working non-profit run by my neighbor and friend Aubrey Sarvis, who asked me to be the evening’s M.C. I did that and also brought my digital for New York Social Diary. In other words, I wore two hats. The gala was in the impressive National Building Museum, a cavernous 19th hall that graces any event with historic grandeur.

The SLDN staff may be small, but there are many supporters of the cause, and not only gays and lesbians, and not only ex-military. There’s support among military establishment, too, who see the need for an open door to all men and women who want to enlist.
The SLDN theme – Stronger Military, Stronger America.
The presentation of the colors and the singing of the National Anthem.
The keynote speaker was U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Jamie Barnett, who began with this:

“I would like to start with a story, a piece of history ... a young Catholic man who loved his country so passionately that he enlisted in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, served 3 tours in Vietnam, won a Bronze Star and was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds he received in Da Nang.

“If you walk through the Congressional Cemetery in D.C. you will find the end of this story. The tombstone reads:  WHEN I WAS IN THE MILITARY THEY GAVE ME A MEDAL FOR KILLING TWO MEN AND A DISCHARGE FOR LOVING ONE.”   
The champagne that enhanced many of the tables.
The first course of sald with candied pears from Windows Caterers.
The SLDN dinner as guests arrive at their tables after cocktails.
Barnett identified the man, Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, “the most famous gay man in the country in the 1970s.”

Barnett, who attended with his wife, Celia, said, “We have many threats on the horizon.  We need a strong military. It is my contention that America grows stronger when we are true to the American Revolution of expanding individual rights. And if we expand rights to gay and lesbian service members, we will make our military stronger too.” 
George and Frederica Valanos,Tina Tchen, Aubrey Sarvis, and Brian Bond.
Sen. Daniel Inouye takes to the stage to make opening remarks at the SLDN dinner. SLDN's leader, Aubrey Sarvis: "Tonight we stand with you, Mr. Obama to get the job done"
Navy Rear Admiral Jamie Barnett: "For a stronger military and a stronger America, we must turn Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell into Open Minds, Open Service." Glenn Close played her in the movies. Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, who was discharged from the military after revealing she is gay.
Ron Bracco, Ned McNeal, and Peter Felts.
What it looks like when the tables are turned and you are the picture.
The dinner was down in size by about a quarter from last year. Still, it was well attended, and robust with good food and wine. The program opened with an appearance from Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, himself an Army veteran who was awarded the Medal of Honor, Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Sarvis, in his speech, challenged the White House and Congress. “We will see the day when this waste of talent ends. The country wants it, you want it, I want it. Now it’s up to Congress to take some courage from the American people and just do it.”
Toni Bush, Sen. Daniel Inouye and his wife, Irene Inouye. John Harman with Riley Temple.
Proud to be - Navy. First Class Petty Officer Phil O'Donnell, with a whole lotta medals. Dwight Bush and Aubrey Sarvis at the SLDN gala dinner in the National Building Museum. Andrew Sullivan.
Izette Folger and Daren Thomas. Eric Richardson, head of Cable Television for Washington, DC. SLDN's David Hall.
Maj. Margaret Witt and Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer. Witt was given The Barry Winchell Award at the SLDN dinner. Ellen Charles and Walter Nichols.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.