Monday, January 24, 2011

Washington Social Diary

Sargent Shriver and U.S. President John F. Kennedy at the White House, 1962.
by Carol Joynt

Sidelined by minor dental surgery and major pain meds, for me the events of this past week in Washington rolled by in newsprint and pixels. Sometimes observing from a perch on the sidelines is a good place to be, like commenting on the action from the bleachers at a sporting event. By that measure, I’m a hockey fan.

Virtually off the radar was news the White House is looking for a new social secretary. Julianna Smoot, who replaced Desiree Rogers with much fanfare last February, reportedly is heading to Chicago and the President’s re-election campaign. She is notable for her fund-raising finesse and was finance director for the last campaign. She’s been a discreet and popular social secretary.

Julianna Smoot.
The position has taken a lot of heat during the Obama years, but it’s a powerful behind the scenes job that plays a critical role in shaping the public face of an administration. The requirements are logical: first, respect the best interests of the employers, the President and First Lady; second, have a capacity for serenity and sanity in a crisis.

Add to those a solid knowledge of the national and global players, where and how they fit in—the big three: protocol, politics and relevance—and the management skills of a field marshal. Some ego is healthy but not boundless ego. As with any management job, the ability to delegate is central. There’s a good team in place (they learned some lessons the hard way, but they learned) and the outside impression is they work well together.

As the nation’s top party planner, the pay is good, $150,000 a year. If there’s a downside its that in coordinating any guest list—for breakfast, lunch or dinner, a tea party of two, a black tie dinner for 300—the rigors are akin to deftly cobbling together a State of the Union speech. Many cooks are involved in the final result, particularly from the Cabinet-level agencies and Capitol Hill interests that are served by the event, particularly the State Department. By show time the circle includes all of those voices plus the Calligraphy office, the Chief Usher and the domestic staff, the folks over in the West Wing, and then—always—the First Lady. No matter how many balls occupy the social airspace back stage before the event, when it rolls out it has to be seamless.
President Barack Obama and President Hu Jintao of China begin their working dinner in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House, Jan. 18, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
The state visit this week of President Hu Jintao appeared to play out without any missed steps. According to the experts, what was accomplished behind the scenes diplomatically made the visit the most important by a Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping decades ago.

According to Reuters, in advance of Hu’s arrival Chinese executives signed more than $8 billion in deals with U.S. firms. In diplomatic-speak, that’s good faith. What stood out, though, was that China is letting us keep the Pandas for five more years and Speaker of the House John Boehner may need an etiquette lesson.

Harry Reid and John Boehner, standing strong.
First Lady Michelle Obama looking good.
Boehner refused to attend the State Dinner hosted by President and Mrs. Obama at the White House, and attended by all kinds of notable American leaders of politics, diplomacy, business, media, the arts and entertainment. Why was this a faux pas? He’s third in line for the job of most powerful person on the planet.

When it comes to moments of statesmanship, a Speaker of the House should set aside politics—or even wanting to be a couch potato at home—and put the nation first. Boehner supporters pointed out that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also declined his invitation. Point taken, but if the President and Vice President were to die, the Senate Majority Leader does not become president.

High point of the dinner? First Lady Michelle Obama’s smashing Alexander McQueen dress. Low point? Designer Oscar de la Renta calling her out on choosing a European rather than an American design house. He’s unloaded on her fashion sense before, when she wore a sweater and skirt to meet Queen Elizabeth. “I’m not talking about my clothes,” he said. Oh really? It comes across that way. Mrs. Obama wears lots of American designers. As Sarah Palin reminds us, this is the land of free speech, but maybe Mr. de la Renta could have better timing.

While the Salahi gate-crashing episode was awful, it did prompt renewed interest in the rituals of state occasions, particularly the process and pomp of a state dinner. Maybe the new social secretary could propose a dinner where the nation is invited—in the form of live television coverage of the whole evening, from soup to nuts and the entertainment, too. Tricky, I know, but it could be done and would be, to quote the late great Ed Sullivan, “a really good shew.”

Otherwise, it was a week of mourning and remembering Camelot. The death of Sargent Shriver coupled with the 50th Anniversary of the presidential inauguration of John F. Kennedy rallied everyone who was family, friends of the family or otherwise connected to that brief but historic era. For Shriver, there was a wake at the family’s time-honored place of worship, Georgetown’s Holy Trinity Catholic Church and a funeral service at the Shriver family parish, Our Lady of Mercy in Potomac.

Sargent Shriver.
For JFK there were ceremonies in the Capitol rotunda and at the Kennedy Center, as well as smaller gatherings of former staffers. Outside of all the official events, the local columns spilled over with sightings: Caroline Kennedy and family, Maria Shriver, husband Arnold Schwarzenegger; and celebrities too numerous to mention.

Shriver, 95, was buried next to his wife, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, in a private ceremony in Barnstable, MA. Maria Shriver said the family had comfort in “knowing that Daddy is in heaven with God and Mummy.”

The week was not solely about Democrats nor was the Kennedy occasion the only 50th anniversary. January 17th, 1961 was when President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his farewell address to the nation after two terms in office. His grand-daughter, Susan Eisenhower, looked back at the “earnest, uncoached speech” in The Washington Post, writing that his words “will forever be remembered for (his) concerns about a rising ‘military-industrial complex.’”

She noted: “The speech would become a solemn moment in a decidedly unsolemn time, offering sober warnings for a nation giddy with newfound prosperity, infatuated with youth and glamour, and aiming increasingly for the easy life.”

If only he could see us now.

Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C.

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