Monday, December 27, 2010

Washington Social Diary

The National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse near the White House.
by Carol Joynt

In the hubbub of the holidays it is easy to forget that we’re about to close out more than one year. It’s also the end of the first decade of the 21st Century. If you feel even remotely the way I do, we can’t get it behind us fast enough. Good riddance.

Do you remember this moment ten years ago? Here in Washington it was unseasonably mild. A few days before New Year’s Eve my 9-year-old son and I had a picnic on the banks of the Potomac River, in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, where a massive stage set had been built for President Bill Clinton’s planned televised national Millennium extravaganza.

For the big night, Spencer and I went to Rappahannock County, Va., to the secluded farm of friends Leslie and Andrew Cockburn and their son, Charlie Cockburn. The theme was “Y2K.” Remember Y2K? It was primarily a sensational digital computer issue but got hyped by the media into possible Armageddon. Oh, the innocence, when the focus of our fears was whether the computers might crash. A few dozen of their hipster friends, and their children, flocked to the Cockburns dressed in ironic camo-chic, which, without two wars going on, was actually amusing. We danced to hits from many decades and at midnight gathered at a hilltop for fireworks and a monster bonfire.

The party rocked till dawn. Back in Washington they rolled till near dawn at the White House, where the Clintons hosted a free-wheeling, star-studded and festive bash after the Lincoln Memorial show. In his toast that night, the President said, “We end this century and the millennium with soaring optimism. Never before has our Nation enjoyed, at once, so much prosperity, social progress, and national self-confidence, with so little internal crisis or external threat.”
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama: speeches separated by a decade and a change of tone. Photograph courtesy of Clinton Global Initiative.
Well, that was, as they say, THEN--before terrorists turned commercial jetliners into weapons of mass destruction, the economy flopped, then expanded grotesquely and then flopped again, this time spectacularly. Some people became insanely rich, but most didn’t. In fact, many fell far behind. We also got Iraq and Afghanistan, wars that are achingly costly on every level. Our lives as we knew them — that “soaring optimism” — have been tamped down in ways that seems almost un-American. We persevere, still shattered inside, feeling watched, hemmed in, almost terminally uncertain.

Have you taken a measure of life now versus life a decade ago? Is the measure tangible? How have you changed? Has the world around you changed?

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama pose in front of the Official White House Christmas Tree in the Blue Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy).
The convulsion of this last decade is apparent when the ebullient tone of the Clinton speech of 2000 is contrasted with the sober but reassuring tone of President Barack Obama’s 2010 Christmas message. In the midst of the holiday spirit, he said, “let’s also be sure to look out for those who are less fortunate, who’ve hit a run of bad luck, or who are hungry and alone this holiday season .... No matter who we are, we are called to love one another — we are our brother’s keeper, we are our sister’s keeper, our separate stories in this big and busy world are really one. Today, we’re also thinking of those who can’t be home for the holidays — especially all our courageous countrymen serving overseas.”

The President, and First Lady Michelle Obama, continued with suggestions on how Americans could help support the troops. Mrs. Obama said, “If you live near a base, you can reach out through your local school or church. If you don’t, you can volunteer with organizations that support military families. And anybody can send a care package or pre-paid calling card to the front lines, or give what’s sometimes the most important gift of all: simply saying ‘thank you.’”

It’s not all gloom and doom, though. In fact, this last week in the capital showed some spark and hustle, which if sustaining, could be a sign of better days ahead — at least in politics, at least for the President, which means at least for Washington. It’s important to remember that whatever goes on here, it’s essentially about the President and his Administration. If he’s on the ropes, the mood is dour, but when he gets his game back, as Obama apparently has done, the whole city feels lifted up.

The President didn’t pitch a no-hitter with Congress. There was some compromise, but he mostly won, and as the year wound down and the First Family flew off to Hawaii for their holiday, the partisan rancor seemed to have subsided. This is good for the country. The peace in Washington may not last, but the chance for all of us to get our games back depends on it. It’s the best possible way to embark on a new Congress, a New Year and a new decade.
The view from the W hotel's rooftop "POV" bar, with the National Christmas Tree on the right.

Though Santa was cruel at our house, and much of our Christmas was defined by the boiler breaking down and losing the heat and hot water, plus a long Christmas evening of repair, before that happened we got out and about for some holiday cheer.

Christmas Eve my brother, Robert Ross, came to the big city from the Virginia countryside to join Spencer and me for dinner at J&G Steakhouse at the W Hotel, a meal fit for any holiday, special occasion or simply the need for delicious food. The menu, from Executive Chef Philippe Reininger, allowed us to indulge in all kinds of gifts for the palate, especially good fish and steak and side dishes. For cocktails, we sat in the rooftop bar, POV, to take in the spectacular view of the Mall and the monuments, including the super bright National Christmas Tree near the White House.
The lobby of the W hotel.
Another view of the lobby.
J & G Steakhouse.
J&G's Rice Cracker Crusted Tuna with Citrus-Chili Sauce.
A Jumbo Lump Crab Cake on a bed of Pink Grapefruit, Avocado and Ginger.
Glistening, briny and delicious Kumamoto Oysters at J&G Steakhouse.
Rockfish with Sauteed Rapini in a Sweet Garlic Lemon Broth.
A side of sauteed Maitaki Mushrooms with Sesame and Lime
Bearnaise on the left, French Fries in the foreground, and a side of Creamed Spinach with Basil.
A medium rare 8 oz Filet Mignon with Fries, Mushrooms, Spinach and Peppers.
J&G's Hot Chocolate.
A Christmas gift for the palate: the Salted Caramel Sundae with Peanuts, Popcorn and Chocolate Sauce.
Coconut Panna Cotta with Exotic Fruit Salad.
Warm Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream.
After dinner we bundled up and walked the block or two to the tree, joining many other holiday revelers. For a lot of Washington families it is a tradition to visit the tree on Christmas Eve.
The National Tree up close. The Capitol Christmas Tree.
The National Christmas Tree is a permanent living tree and routinely is crammed with lights, virtually a cloak. While the National tree gets most of the attention, my favorite is the Capitol Christmas Tree. The decorations and lights are colorful but more traditional (less corporate). This year the Capitol tree is a 67-foot Engelmann Spruce from the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming.

Then home to open presents, or “present,” as we called it, because this year was about restraint.
Crazy Christmas: at home before opening "present."Spencer Joynt with his uncle, Robert Ross, and mom, CJ.
Christmas Day, father and son architects Hugh and Simon Jacobsen, Simon’s wife, Ruth Jacobsen, and assorted other Jacobsen family, held their annual “Champagne!” party at Hugh’s serene and handsome Georgetown home. While there were canapés to nibble, the gathering of friends was chiefly about the champagne, a never-ending supply.
The front gate, Chez Jacobsen. The invitation said simply, "Champagne!" and "The Family Jacobsen," with the date, time and address. The Jacobsen family best friend.
Hugh Jacobsen, sharing champagne with a friend in his Georgetown library.
The hallway looking toward the kitchen. Champagne chilling in the chilly garden.
Family and colleagues, architects Simon and Hugh Jacobsen on Christmas Day.
Hugh Jacobsen and Jim Lehrer.
The party viewed through the signature Jacobsen bookcases. Treasured family photos of Hugh and his late wife, Robin, who died on December 1 after a long illness.
Guests, mostly close friends from the neighborhood, enjoyed the champagne and time to catch up with each other.
Later, still in Georgetown, we had a Christmas feast of rare roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with my sister-in-law, Martha Joynt Kumar, and her husband Vijay Kumar and son, Zal Kumar, who was visiting from Los Angeles. There were fourteen of us at a very long candle-lit table in the Kumars' dining room, though I spent most of dinner at my home with a dedicated heating repair man, Enzo, who came out on a bitter cold holiday night to fix the boiler and get our heat back on. His scrupulous work saved the day and for me represented the meaning of Christmas.

Happy New Year!
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C.

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