Monday, February 7, 2011

Washington Social Diary

Luci Baines Johnson, Howard Fineman, and Meredith Fineman.
by Carol Joynt

It was late. I was late.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s opening night performance had begun. It bummed me that I would miss the Washington premiere of their new ballet, The Hunt, but my tardiness had an unexpected benefit: an excuse to become immersed in remembrances of JFK. At the moment they are pronounced and everywhere at the Kennedy Center because this year is the 50th anniversary of his inauguration and the 1036 days of a presidency romanticized as “Camelot.” Last month the Center’s Concert Hall hosted a packed gala, featuring President Obama and dozens of the Kennedy family.

On this wintry night the towering
and red-carpeted halls were pretty much empty. While dancers danced on the stage in the sold-out Opera House, I wandered in the past. There was an exhibition of artwork, an assortment of JFK tchokes in the gift shop, but the most compelling draw was a display of historic film clips, grainy black and white, capturing so many memories: the inauguration, his televised news conferences, White House galas, the funeral. I was a little kid then, but the images and emotions remain vivid. How could they not? With the exception of September 11, nothing as historically seismic has occurred in America in my lifetime.
At the Kennedy Center, marking the 50th anniversary of JFK's inauguration, an exhibition of works from The International Organization on Arts and Disability.
Memorabilia at the Kennedy Center gift shop.
A scene from display a film clips chronicling the 1036 days of Camelot.
The bust of JFK overseeing the arts center named after him.
Bust of JFK by Robert Berks The quiet terrace at the Kennedy Center, where JFK's words are etched in the walls.
The roof terrace before the dinner guests arrived.
A table setting up close.
Outside on the empty terrace I re-read the John F. Kennedy quotes engraved in the walls, and back inside I had the most serendipitous moment, given the 1960's time warp in which my head resided. Up walked the ever-charming Lyndon K. Boozer, tall, handsome, and grinning with what felt like a Texas welcome. It was good to see me, he said, “but I can’t wait to introduce you to my guest, Luci--Luci Baines Johnson.” Her name is as indelible as any of the Kennedy-Johnson era. “And guess what?” he said. “She’s wearing her mother’s suit.” That mother would be Lady Byrd Johnson, former First Lady, a name synonymous with determination, equanimity and daffodils.

When the performance ended, and the gala’s more than 800 patrons moved upstairs for a dinner dance, Luci emerged from the elevator, a petite, smart and smiling vision of brunette and tulip pink. Those with cameras moved in close. Lyndon hovered and protected, but both of them were happy to pose for pictures and to chat it up with anyone who sought a moment. So Luci and I talked. Yes, she was wearing a suit that had belonged to Lady Byrd. When I remarked that even her cell phone matched the outfit, she held it up for a photo.
Lyndon K. Boozer and Luci Baines Johnson. Luci shows off the pink phone that match her mother's pink suit.
Lyndon Boozer, on the right, with some of the Alvin Ailey company's key people: Bennett Rink, Justin Garlinghouse, and Christopher Zunner.
Mary and Phil Kopper.
There’s an interesting backstory to Lyndon Boozer and his relationship to the Johnson family. The official version, the “legend,” so to speak, is that when young Lyndon was born in July 1963 to Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s personal secretary, Yolanda Boozer, and her husband, LBJ visited the hospital. On the spot he insisted—using the threat of an “extended maternity leave”—that the baby’s name be changed from Kyle Lyndon to Lyndon Kyle. “Needless to say, my parents didn't take any chances and reversed the name,” LKB told The Washington Post.

The Johnson family remained close to, even embraced, Lyndon Boozer. Based in Washington, a lobbyist with AT&T, he’s charismatic and connected, generous and focused. He got the federal government to name the Department of Education building after LBJ. When the Texas State Society honored the former President last August on what would have been his 102nd birthday, Boozer gave the keynote speech: “What LBJ Means To Me.”
Debra Lee, Judith Jamison, and Beth Dozoretz. Photo: James Brantley.
Henry McGee and Jamar Roberts. Groovin.
Boozer said that as one of the co-chairs of the Alvin Ailey gala he loved that his “special guest” was Luci, visiting from Austin, where she lives and works full-time as the chair of the LBJ Asset Management Partners, among other roles. When I mentioned to her that I spent my teenage years in Washington, she said, “I did, too.” No kidding. “Except you were living in The White House,” I said. She laughed. Yes, indeed. She’s been married, divorced, remarried (to Ian Turpin), has four grown children and a stepson, and had a recent health issue that was made public, a diagnosis of Guillain–Barré syndrome, but her doctors says she’s on the mend. She looked very good, like a real person, a happy woman, with a real face, with life and experience and all the attendant joys and sorrows etched beautifully.

Maybe that’s why so many people at the dinner were drawn to her, enhanced by the remembrance of history past and still ongoing. My dinner partner, Howard Fineman, got up from the table especially to introduce his daughter, Meredith, to the one time “First Daughter,” a title she shared with her sister, Lynda Byrd, a full-time resident of the Washington area and married to former senator Chuck Robb. They were at the Ailey performance but didn’t stay for dinner.
Judith Jamison, Debra Lee, Jill Biden, Gina Adams, guests of Dr. Biden, Masazumi Chaya, and Robert Battle. Photos: Kyle Samperton.
Molly Elkin and Ivan Wasserman. Vanessa and Thomas Reed.
Sam Kass and Marth Barth.
The Ailey opening night gala is always a stand out evening in Washington. It tends to come when the weather is its bleakest, which makes the guests eager to bust out of the doldrums. While the flowers are gorgeous, the dinner itself is not the star, because the Kennedy Center has to use the house caterer and that makes for little culinary competition.

The stars always are the remarkable Alvin Ailey dancers, many who join the dinner, and especially the group’s executive director, Judith Jamison. They bring a glow to the room—energy, exuberance—that lands on everyone. For example, Katharine Weymouth, the publisher of The Washington Post, was among the first on the dance floor, which filled before dessert was served. It's that kind of party. If only once a week Washington had a night like this, with all the players leaving work at the door and dancing—if not till dawn, at least till closing.
Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth arrives at the dinner. Katharine Weymouth on the dance floor.
"Free Spirit," the band that rocked the room from the beginning of dinner until well after dessert.
Dance, dance, dance ...
Southern Company, and its executive vice president Chris Womack, sponsored the gala. Other guests included Jill Biden, wife of the Vice President, and the gala’s co-chairs, Lyndon K. Boozer, Gina Adams, Christopher Cowan and Debra Lee; also, Deborah Ashford, Hillary and Tom Baltimore, Ray and Nina Benton, Maria Marable-Bunch and Lonnie Bunch, Conrad and Ludmilla Cafritz, Mignon Clyburn, Sela Collins, Lynne Cowan, Elijah and Maya Cummings, Beth Dozoretz, Marian Wright and Peter Edelman, Rosalyn Epps, Ramsey Farouki, Guido Goldman, Dallas Harrell and Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, Wade and Marsha Henderson, Lonnie Johnson, DeDe and Dllas Lea, Yannick Lebrun, Sam Kass, Sheila Jackson-Lee, Sharon Gersten Luckman, Amos Machanic, Michael McBride, Henry McGee, Aisha Mitchell, Cameron Moody and Kyle Dixon, Amy Nathan, Howard Fineman, Carolyn Niles, Adam Caldwell and Dahlia Neiss, Akua Parker, David Patterson, Eugene and Michelle Profit, Robert Raben, Thomas and Vanessa Reed, Briana Reed, Morris and Jaci Reid, Renee Robinson, Matthew Rushing, Douglas Sonntag and Elizabeth Aldrich, Lori and Benjamin Soto, Jermaine Terry, Reed and Kimberly Stephens, Lou and Di Stovall, David Sutphen and Tina D’Souza, Reginald Van Lee, Nicole Venable, Yelberton R. Watkins, Ann Walker Marchant, Katharine Weymouth, Sheryl Watkins Wilbon, Tina Williams, Marcus Willis.
The swag, waiting to be distributed.

Even with everything critical that’s happening beyond our borders, possibly the most talked about story in Washington last week was what boils down to a mogul’s rage against a small local newspaper, and a reporter, and the way the city bit back. Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder filed a $2 million libel lawsuit against Washington City Paper over a November cover story, which he claims was inaccurate and anti-Semitic. He also demanded the firing of the story’s author, Dan McKenna.

The piece in question had the colorful title “The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder.” Snyder was immediately furious and demanded retractions and apologies, which never came. City Paper and its owner steadfastly backed the story and McKenna.

Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder at a game last November (
While Washington City Paper is small (circulation under 100,000) it is not in the least timid, and will heartily take on false Gods. It’s weekly and free, but is read by everyone here who wants an expansive understanding of the local city. Its culture columns—food, the arts, and lifestyle—are notable, particularly its political gossip column, “Loose Lips.”

Snyder filed the suit just before taking off for the Super Bowl in Dallas, where he launched a media campaign to defend himself and to win the hearts and minds of residents in the Washington area and beyond. It got him coverage but not much positive traction.

One of the big sidebar issues is Dan Snyder’s likeability, on which he scores close to zip. He’s controversial here, where there’s been a years long debate about the way he runs the team, the stadium and his personal interactions. When the suit hit, the sports blogs lit up with passionate vitriol against the Redskins owner. A sampling: “Snyder should apologize for being.” “Snyder is to Redskins fans what Mubarak is to Egypt.” “Dan Snyder would seem to be the most popular person in Washington after Sally Quinn.” “Snyder should sue himself for ruining the Redskins franchise.”

The Washington Post joined the fray, with a finely tuned “Memo to Dan Snyder” from Pulitzer-winning columnist Gene Weingarten. Weingarten made lyrical the public mood:

“I know you are taking some criticism today from carping media types. They seem to think that you are not only behaving like a petty, vindictive bully but also that you are being strategically stupid—by bringing a vast new audience to a three-month-old, otherwise-obscure alternative-media piece,” he wrote, saving the jab and hook for last: “After another losing season in which your recently acquired $78 million over-the-hill quarterback got benched and your corpulent $100 million defensive lineman simply refused to play, it is heartening to see you focusing your resources on trying to punish a newspaper.”
The weekly Washington City Paper is popular, competitive and not known for pulling its journalistic punches.
A while back, Snyder was the guest on my interview program, The Q&A Café, an appearance that was rare for him and remarkably candid and revealing; just the two of us, talking for 45 minutes, no handlers vetting the questions. The sold-out audience came prepared to dislike the man – per usual – but he surprised them. He showed a side that was affable, introspective, self-deprecating and even shy and vulnerable. He talked about his life-long love of the team, about spending the night at the stadium on the eve of a game, of how so much of his life is a little boy’s dream come true.

That day, after the taping ended, people came up to me and said, “I had no idea he could be so likeable.” News coverage of the interview asked, “Who was this Dan Snyder?” A good question, because the face he showed us that day is virtually unknown to the public. Instead, they hit the message boards with items like this ditty:

There once was a team owner named Dan,
Who isn't a very nice man
His leadership of the Redskins
Made them seem like dead skins.
Yet he charges high prices to fans.

Those who complain get sued
Which seems particularly rude.
His QB was bad
And #92 - just mad.
And the fanbase - totally screwed.

Photographs by Carol Joynt unless noted otherwise. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C.

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