Monday, January 31, 2011

Washington Social Diary

by Carol Joynt

The questions I’m asked often include “What is Larry King really like?” and “What is David Patrick Columbia really like,” but the champion is, “What is Washington really like?” As if I don’t try to make it clear here week after week, the past several days provided especially good examples of the rituals and weirdness that make DC tick. The rituals included the State of the Union address and the diplomatic response to the uprising in Egypt. The weirdness came from friends and acquaintances who played roles connected to these events, and who were open about it…until there was a chance I might mention them here.

“Come to the dinner, but don’t write about it.” “No pictures, no pictures.” “I told (fill in the blank) to watch it because you might be honest.” “You have to pretend you didn’t hear that.” Or, the next morning, “You can’t use what I said last night.” “Please, Carol, please. Forget that thing about (fill in the blank).” This is nothing new, and that’s my point. But, hell, you’d think I was Julian Assange.

Until Saturday night it seemed this week was destined to be a one-note about the unique Washington rituals that are part of, Washington speak, the SOTU of the POTUS, the State of the Union speech of the President of the United States.

People here actually do speak and write that way, when they’re not “walking back” something they shouldn’t have said, or, “getting out of the way” of someone else’s mistake or slurping up the “take aways” at official briefings. In Washington, the phrase “take aways” has nothing to do with food. It’s about info, leaks, pronouncements, insights.

Food and take aways are what you get at pre-SOTU breakfasts, where pods of media and think tank brainiacs gather to analyze the speech before it happens, and because they don’t necessarily want to be held to what’s said, the “backgrounders” are off the record. In the evening similar pods, though generally younger, gather for SOTU “watch parties” that often are keyed to drinking games; knock back a shot for a particular occurrence (standing ovation, pat on the back, tears) or spoken word. I’m told this year’s word was “future,” but there were no reports of hospitalizations due to SOTU related alcohol poisoning.

There were no drinking game invites for me but I was included at a dinner hosted by a Republican group of moderate to conservative leanings, and not immune to the charms of the Tea Party, which is probably why I was welcomed but also welcomed not to report on what I saw or heard. It was in the private room of a steak house, where the food and wine were delicious. A conservative talk radio star was the featured attraction, analyzing from in front of a super sized TV screen, using a laser pointer to highlight certain players in the House chamber. The hosts were careful to make sure I knew the beam on the laser pointer was changed from red to green because the laser in a rifle sight is red. Got it.

The thing is, the evening was fine. Nothing objectionable happened or was said. It could have been a room of fat cat Democrats, except for the political point of view. If anything, it veered close to boring, like the speech. If I’d been permitted to name names and use some quotes it may well have come across as a groovy affair. But that would be taking a risk, and that’s not done here (war and money excepted).

Saturday evening was a dinner party. There were 12 of us, various representatives of the tribes of Washington--media, business, politics, lobbying, even a couple of graduate students and an honest to God visitor from another state. I’d give up names, but there’d go the friendships. The home, the table, the flowers, all beautiful, and made even more welcoming and warming with a crackling fire in the hearth. At first I hung in the kitchen with the host as he tasted wines and fussed with the food. Because he is in a unique position to talk about what’s unfolding in Egypt, we talked about Egypt. His insights were helpful.

“Isn’t what’s really going on the delicate negotiations of how to get Mubarak out of office without losing the government altogether; change without too much change?” I asked. “Uprising but no revolution?” He agreed and backed this up with bits he knew from people he knew. It was a good tutorial in US-Egypt relations but well shy of state secrets, nothing that would alarm the Security Council. One bit he had was almost amusing and involved Egypt’s top military brass. When the turmoil began they weren’t in Cairo but in Washington, participating in a long-scheduled ritual retreat that combined touring and shopping trips for their wives while the officers had routine briefings with Secretary Bob Gates and others at the Defense Department.

So much for a DC shopping spree. “They hustled them back on their military jet and out of here as fast as possible,” my friend said. No doubt, but I wonder how many of the people on that plane would have preferred to be headed away from rather than in to Cairo. Regardless, yesterday morning I had a phone conversation with the hostess, who urging me to “please” not use her husband’s name. “He would lose his job,” she said.

I wouldn’t have harmed him. I didn’t have anything too dangerous – actually, not even close – but with me it's friends first, even in Washington.
Dal LaMagna and Juleanna Glover. Click to order.
On the bright side, there was one person I broke bread with this weekend who did not ask me to obfuscate his words or his name. That’s Dal LaMagna, Harvard MBA, entrepreneur, peace activist, small business investor, filmmaker and author. We first met a few years ago when I photographed Dal for his website, when he ran for President. Yes, true. He ran for Congress twice in New York’s 3rd Congressional District and for President in the 2008 Democratic primary. In the primary he got eight votes. But Dal is hardly a loser.

He founded Tweezerman in 1980 and built it into a multi-national company, which he sold for many millions to the J.A. Henckels Company. He’s used the money for good, and on what interests him, and for fun. A few months ago, Wylie published his memoir, “Raising Eyebrows: A Failed Entrepreneur Finally Gets It Right,” which was reviewed as an inspiration for any would-be tycoon.

What did he say to me that he did not later refute? Simple. “Please read my book.”

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

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