Monday, November 8, 2010

Washington Social Diary

The White House on election night 2010, November 2, 7:15 p.m.
by Carol Joynt

A few days before the mid-term election, author David Baldacci was my dinner partner at a fundraiser held on behalf of the Wish You Well Foundation. David and his wife, Michelle, founded Wish You Well to promote literacy in America, because they believe not being able to read is unconscionable. The United States, David said, is fast becoming an “illiterate nation.” He’s passionate on the subject. He said more than half the population either can’t read or read at a below average level. That translates as 100 million people who don’t have access to a full range of information through books, newspapers, magazines and other forms of printed material. “Which explains,” he said, “the power and influence of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.”

I thought of David’s words this week in the aftermath of the November 2 election, a week culminating with President Obama’s long-planned ten-day Asia trip that includes India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan.

On the public agenda were a business summit in India and a G-20 summit in Seoul, not to mention the closed-door, sensitive and strategic talks the President will have pertaining to the Afghanistan war. Obama’s harshest critics, in a not unlike making a political terrorist hit, instantly smeared the trip as a spendthrift boondoggle, virtually an Obama family “vacation,” using only one essentially unsourced media report (out of India, claiming the trip cost $200 million a day) as the basis for a viral and cable sensation.

The claims were given a banner headline on Drudge. The Tea Party’s House Caucus leader, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, further ramped up the allegations in an interview with Anderson Cooper. "The president of the United States will be taking a trip over to India that is expected to cost the taxpayers $200 million a day,” she said. “He's taking 2,000 people with him.”

Limbaugh also touted the “$200 million a day” message to his vast audience, and railed on with a laundry list of other alleged Obama excesses: hundreds upon hundreds of hotel rooms, dozens of airplanes, 30 or more warships. In some versions, the Presidential stay at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai became that he had checked into the Taj Mahal mausoleum in Agra.

But none of it was true. pursued the claims and reported, “This story has spread rapidly among the president’s critics, but there is simply no evidence to support it. And common sense should lead anyone to doubt it.” The Wall Street Journal called the claims “outlandish hyperventilation” and “demonstrably incorrect.” USA Today made the sober observation: “Foreign trips are expensive but are a staple of presidential duties.” That’s true. Any time any president travels anywhere the trip includes staff and security and costs money. The traveling press corps, by the way, pay their own expenses.

But back to David Baldacci’s point: illiterate people can’t read, The Wall Street Journal or USA Today; they may only hear the initial outrage without benefit of the follow-up facts.

Bob Fribourg, Nadine Kalachnikoff, Effie Fribourg, Lars Bolander
Is this Obama Asia trip noise a taste of the political war for the next two years? A good friend who is a republican, a moderate Republican, wanted the GOP to have control of the House and more muscle in the Senate, which is what they got, but with the observation that when Conservatives have power they are less interested in reasonable debate and more hell-bent on destruction. “Democrats can be mean,” my friend said, “but usually they want things to work out. Right wing Republicans can’t give it up,” a sentiment echoed by others this week – from both sides.

Any way you look at it, the voters gave Republicans more power in Washington, but it's a divided party, with moderates at odds with the far right, particularly the Tea Party, who come January will have a larger stake in Congress beyond Rep. Bachmann.

The post-election question I heard most often was, “Now that they have more power will Republicans use it to pass legislation or will they be focused on only one thing: destroying Barack Obama?” I’ll add one more: Who will emerge as the voice of the Republican agenda, Speaker-to-be John Boehner or seemingly unstoppable Sarah Palin? People here laugh when I mention Sarah Palin, including Republicans. They shouldn’t. I don’t. I remind them that people laughed, too, when Ronald Reagan first sought the GOP presidential nomination.

There were no answers, only lots and lots of smiles plus good food and drink at the exclusive party where I observed election night. It was a Republican fete hosted by the prestigious law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, who took over the entire rooftop of the “W” Hotel (pun intended?), festooned with red, white and blue lights and balloons, campaign banners, feather boas, patriotic pins and stuffed elephant toys for the taking, many small, medium and large televisions tuned to Fox News, and a commanding view of the rooftop of the White House. It was packed.
The W Hotel, one block away from the White House on 15th Street.
You may ask why a law firm would host a GOP victory night party, and the answer is simple and says so much about Washington. The big dog law firms here quite often are lobby shops, which is a profitable industry, and the smart firms go both ways, meaning their star rainmakers are Republicans and Democrats. It works for everyone. The firm is never out of touch with the party in power. Back in the musty olden days law firms simply had lawyers who used the law to defend clients; today some of these firms have clients who use the lawyers to help get laws passed. (That’s in my Understanding Washington 101 class.)

Up on the W roof I had a visit with Kitty and John Sununu, briefly chatted with Paul Kelly, the lobbyist for chain drug stores like CVS, met Michael Steele, the head of the Republican National Committee, and W. Nelson Lewis, who identified himself as formerly of Fox News but now the U.S. Ambassador to the Bahamas, and as such a rare Bush appointee in the Obama Administration. He was celebrating the night with his girlfriend, Jessica James “Jesse James” Golden. I had only this to say to Nelson: “I want your job.”
Amb. W. Nelson Lewis and "Jesse James" Golden.
Paul T. Kelly of the National Association of Drug Store Chains. Michael Steele out of focus (photographer's fault), but happy.
My party pass said “VIP” and allowed me to circulate freely among everyone, but what stood out was the food. In the VIP room, overlooking the Washington Monument, there was a generous bar with top shelf brands, plus large slabs of beautiful rare tenderloin, which servers sliced paper thin for sandwiches that could be embellished with horseradish sauce or mustard. Also a sushi bar and passed treats like lamb chops and shrimp wrapped in bacon with a mango sauce.

At the other end of the loud and dark rooftop, at the non-VIP end, there were several varieties of grilled cheese sandwich, including a decadent version with truffles, but also mini-cheeseburgers, hotdogs on a toothpick and, well, big bowls of potato chips. Are these the foods of the GOP? Will Rush Limbaugh and Michele Bachmann call it out? Truffles!! Tenderloin!! Not likely. What if it had been an Obama party? “Oh My God, that party cost $200 a nanosecond!”
The cocktails at the Akin Gump party were served with light-up ice cubes.
Special cocktails.
Republican taste in spirits?
A look into the party room that was not VIP.
The bar outside on the terrace.
Servers at the W Hotel.
The sushi bar at the Akin Gump party.
Grilled cheese with truffles.
Hot dogs on a toothpick. Beautiful tenderloin with an assortment of sauces.
Shrimps wrapped in bacon with mango sauce.
Spiced tuna with crunch.
Lamb chops.

Too often when we’re young we listen to older people and think, “oh what do they know?” Then we arrive at a certain age and listen to older people and think, “God, if I make it to my 90s I hope I’m that sharp!”

No doubt the thought going through the minds of the audience at Hillwood Museum as they listened to 94-year-old Emlen Knight Davies recall her two years in Moscow as “The Ambassador’s Daughter.” That was the theme of her talk the other night, opening an exhibition of period photos put together by her daughter, Mia Grosjean. Emlen took us back to when President Franklin Roosevelt appointed her father as the second U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, and she traveled there with him and her stepmother.
Bob Fribourg, Nadine Kalachnikoff, Effie Fribourg, Lars Bolander
Emlen Knight Davies, 94, with her daughter, Mia Grosjean.
“Accompanied by scorching publicity, in January 1937, the United States Ambassador Joseph Edward Davies, Marjorie Post Davies, his wife, and I, his daughter, with an entourage of eight, left for Moscow. It was at that time a mysterious, faraway city, which took eight to 11 days to reach by boat and train. What followed was a plunge into a fascinating world of Europe on the brink of the Second World War. It was an experience that left indelible and lasting changes on my life, my character and my beliefs.”

Marjorie Post Davies is better known as Marjorie Merriweather Post and Hillwood was for many years her Washington home and today is a popular museum. Davies was her third of four husbands and their marriage lasted 20 years. Emlen, at the time of the Moscow trip, was a 20-year-old out of Vassar. As we listened to her speak, sometimes haltingly but always clearly, her vivid recollections of late 1930's Russia provided a unique walk in history.
Bob Fribourg, Nadine Kalachnikoff, Effie Fribourg, Lars Bolander
Emlen's Russian entry papers.
For example, this particular evening at Spaso House, the U.S. Ambassador’s residence:

“After dinner — just four of us — Demaree Bess of The Christian Science Monitor stood in front of the fireplace, hands behind his back. He was discussing the confused state of affairs in Europe. One sentence began with, ‘When the war comes.’ Quietly Marjorie stopped knitting. I felt my spine tingle. My father asked calmly, ‘Why do you use the word when and not if, Demaree?’ ‘Because, Sir, it is inevitable and I believe it will be soon.’

“Marjorie burst into the conversation. ‘What do you mean by soon, Demaree?’ ‘Spring, Madam,’ he replied. ‘Spring is a dangerous time in Russia. It is then that Germany and Japan will close in on her. Otherwise they will be forced to wait another year, another spring. It is always in the spring that one must watch for aggression and, I assure you, Russia will be ready .... I thought of this later as I lay in bed thinking of the day’s events. Where will America be? And where will we be? Will there be another world war to decimate my generation. It is too horrible to face.”
Bob Fribourg, Nadine Kalachnikoff, Effie Fribourg, Lars Bolander
Emlen, after making her remarks.
Marjorie Merriweather Post’s collection of Russian art treasures is famed but also once controversial, with critics suggesting some of the items in her collection, now at Hillwood, were expropriated from former ruling families after the Revolution. While it was a murky line, most accounts support that Post’s acquisitions were from recognized government sources. Marjorie was not alone. It was a shopping spree for many rich foreigners. Emlen, in her talk, took us back to what it was actually like:

“The days were also filled with checking out the commission stores for Marjorie, for additions to her Russian porcelain collection. Every morning I went to the stores and put things aside for her. She would follow in the afternoon. The Soviet government was selling the treasures from tsarist palaces and churches for hard currency, which they at that time desperately needed. Marjorie taught me a lot about how to collect, and I started my own small French and Russian porcelain collection. Many foreigners in Moscow were buying .... The first winter I was there the ruble was 20 to the dollar. The second winter, it was 5.5 rubles to the dollar. Many foreigners in Moscow were buying.”

It was later that the brouhaha arose as to the provenance of various items sold over and under the counter by the Stalin government.
Bob Fribourg, Nadine Kalachnikoff, Effie Fribourg, Lars Bolander
Bob Fribourg, Nadine Kalachnikoff, Effie Fribourg, Lars Bolander
The dacha at Hillwood that is home to "The Ambassador's Daughter" exhibition through May 2011.
Bob Fribourg, Nadine Kalachnikoff, Effie Fribourg, Lars Bolander
The U.S. Embassy staff and their wives at the U.S. Chancery in Moscow, late 1938.
Bob Fribourg, Nadine Kalachnikoff, Effie Fribourg, Lars Bolander
Looking at the photo exhibition put together by Mia Grosjean.
Bob Fribourg, Nadine Kalachnikoff, Effie Fribourg, Lars Bolander
Embassy team: Angus Ward, Loy Henderson, Amb. Joseph Davies, Col. Philip Faymonville, and Norris Chipman.
The exhibition of Emlen Davies time in Russia is at Hillwood until May 29, 2011.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C.

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