Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Washington Social Diary

The Capitol during the shutdown -- this town at its most evolved.
by Carol Joynt

The other evening, just before it began, I was told the party I was about to attend would be off the record, rendering it useless for me as work. I went anyway, and I'm glad, because it was a glimpse inside the kinds of Washington parties that go on all the time and sometimes later pop up as a scandal on the front page of The New York Times. Nothing untoward went on at this party, at least not that was apparent, but it was fascinating if viewed as a social black op. A quarter of the room were the usual suspects of the social class, another the usual suspects of the lobbying class, plus assorted officials. Our hosts, here from another country, would fall into the category of expertly knowing how to game the scene in our not so fair town.

That kind of party, as well as the political, diplomatic and special-interest social mill, and to some extent the charity circuit, were exactly what I hoped would get laid bare in the bestseller, “This Town,” which hit the marketplace with promises it would reveal insidery stuff even the insiders couldn’t know. It claimed to be a fresh look at this moment in the city’s eternal cycle of “big politics, big money, big media, and big vanity.”

Mark Leibovich’s book is a worthy read, but there’s just too little cowbell. It’s safe. There’s a groupie tone, especially toward the city’s established high and mighty and other false Gods. It reveres the revered and trashes the easily trashed. It should have been the other way round. The people he unfairly degrades are bit players. They won’t be in the history books.

I have not met Leibovich, but he’s obviously a well-connected fixture among the city’s media elite. In full disclosure, before I read the book I asked him to appear on my interview program, The Q&A Café, but was turned down. I’d still like to have him be a guest. The subject matter is ongoing. One thing I would ask is whether the book is what he wanted or what his publisher wanted, because with his special perch I expected a lot more juice.

Where you might hope for analysis of how the city really works there often are clichés rather than perception, tropes rather than revelation. The stars of the book are the same people who are every media organization’s and event planner’s go-to for invites, lists, quotes, photos — Sally Quinn, Ben Bradlee, Andrea Mitchell, Alan Greenspan, Chris Matthews, Luke Russert, and a few others.
The White House, October 2013.
The Jefferson Memorial at dawn.
A jet comes into this town's airport, Reagan National, flying over Rosslyn Virginia.
Leibovich devotes a lot of pages to the funeral of Luke’s dad, former “Meet The Press” host Tim Russert, who he puts on a pedestal. Revering Russert is not inappropriate, but I craved a view into his private life and the clever, calculated and impressive way he worked his way from political operative to network news bureau chief.

Really, he was a force in this town and beyond, a game-changer in broadcast journalism. He brought with him all his finely tuned political skills and he used them with the artistry of a slight-of-hand master. It’s an interesting model and one that has been expertly followed by Matthews and George Stephanopoulos. Don’t think for an instant they don’t use their political skills — internally at NBC and ABC — all the time. That’s the marvel of these guys who cross over.
It would be interesting to learn how the secret to the magic of Vernon Jordan, here in a 2006 appearance at The Q&A Cafe.
There's a story to be told about Tim Russert's expert takeover of the Washington media. Chris Matthews, like Tim Russert, masterfully took a political career and cashed it in with broadcast news.
The good news for Leibovich and his publisher is that “This Town” is scoring with readers. It is highly ranked on Amazon. I have a friend who loved it and called it “hilarious.” But others say they fast-forwarded through some sections. (I’m guilty of that, too). They say it got frustrating, numbing. They mention the 50 pages given to an ambitious Congressional aide, Kurt Bardella, who is not much known outside of the Capitol's 20003 zip code, or the National Press Club. But Bardella provides one of the book’s best quotes: “Some people in the press, I think, are just lazy as hell. There are times when I pitch a story and they do it word for word.” That was funny, and bald ass true.

In addition to the Congressional aide, he goes for some other take downs — middle tier event planners and lobbyists, some social climbers, an innocent journo trying to build a career, a harmless PR person. Laughably, he also goes after some serious power, but it’s lawyer Bob Barnett, who is Teflon and so it’s pointless. It wouldn’t be wrong to dissect Barnett, but "This Town" doesn’t get it done.
Eden Rafshoon and Andrea Mitchell.
Real DC social life: Virginia senator Mark Warner makes a point at the Corcoran Ball.
Any book about Washington should include the power of food in this town. Here is restaurant impresario Jose Andres with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
With all the pages of party talk, there’s no exploration of the social oeuvre of the city. Why no analysis of Rima Al Sabah, the wife of the Kuwaiti Ambassador, who is considered by some to be this era’s leading Washington hostess? Her parties are ridiculous, and reporters who wish to attend and write about them are given rules they must follow. The guest lists almost always include Matthews, Mitchell, Greenspan, Quinn, as well as military brass, members of Congress, the Cabinet, and corporate interests. There’s a story there, and all the more because, with the exception of Maureen Orth in Vanity Fair, none of the mainstream media will touch it. Why’s that? They risk the wrath of Rima — being 86’d from her guest list.
A good book about the real scene in DC would include events -- off the radar of the media -- such as "Fight Night." Here, one of the guests. Any book about DC should include this man, Bill Dean -- owns his own company, single, loves to party. Here he is at his annual Georgetown Halloween fete, circa 2009.
There’s reason, too, to breakdown how Vernon Jordan works his considerable magic, why and how Carolyn Peachy is the city’s most powerful event planner (a tip: she works for the most powerful, and she’s a lock box), the evolution of Carlyle Group’s co-founder, billionaire David Rubenstein, who is such a compelling modern player; the city’s swarm of new super rich, especially a pack of playboys; and how Congress doesn’t live here anymore and thus isn’t that important to or connected to the permanent city, which is changing into something in and of itself. The part-time nature of Congress is deeply at the root of the shutdown mess. There’s a lot to be said about Washington by just following around a caterer — Susan Gage or Bill Homan, for example. And what the hell goes on at the World Bank and IMF? And food has become a primal power neuron.
Carolyn Peachy -- she has the power.
One of the most compelling untold stories of Washington, the evolution of Carlyle Group co-founder David Rubenstein, here with Connie Milstein.
A path to real Washington? Follow around caterer Susan Gage, here with her son and business partner, Chap. A dinner catered by Susan Gage -- the annual gala of the Washington Ballet.
It’s fun to write about the party Vanity Fair and Bloomberg toss at the French Ambassador’s residence after the White House Correspondents Dinner, but why not explore the humiliation members of the media, Congress and government endure to get on the guest list? They grovel in ways that would shock. The begging is epic and revealing. Heck, someone could write a book solely about that bizarre dinner and the 4-day weekend it consumes, the dollars spent, and the way it transforms normally civilized humans into monsters.

If you are a media groupie, if you watch “Morning Joe” as a steady diet, and visit Politico every hour on the hour, you’ll get something out of the book. It will be a romp for you, perhaps. You’ll also likely recognize all the names.
Real this town: Maureen Orth, who tells it like it is about Washington, with beloved curmudgeonly eccentric sportscaster Tony Kornheiser, at the French Ambassador's for the Vanity Fair party.
Robert Higdon, Bob Colacello and David Deckelbaum outside the French Ambassador's residence at the White House Correspondents Association dinner after-party hosted by Vanity Fair and Bloomberg.
Here's my lament. It coulda been Washington's "You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again," the late Julia Phillips spite-driven scorcher that peeled a few layers of hide off the Hollywood film world she inhabited in the '70s and '80s. She revealed some ugly truths, a window into a murky world. She also got dropped by everyone who hadn’t already dropped her. That’s the risk in going there. Leibovich is not Phillips. It’s probably unfair to want him to be somebody he is not. While his is an occasionally mean book it’s not a revenge book. He’s a team player. Someone still needs to write the book that hacks a few layers of hide off DC.

The most interesting part was reading about Mike Allen, who writes Politico’s popular “Playbook,” a morning tip sheet that is DC’s crack. He’s an eccentric, and dogged and apparently, to his credit, not a darling. He seems to still put some teeth in his work and remains apart from the pack. I love that. But there’s not enough of him, and maybe that’s because Leibovich earlier won a National Magazine Award for profiling Allen in The New York Times magazine. So, in the sequel to “This Town,” can we please have more cowbell and more Mike Allen? 
Author Mark Leibovich signs a copy of his book for Washington Post reporter Lori Aratan at his book party. (Amy Argetsinger / The Washington Post).

Galas and parties and dinners go on in Washington all the time, week in and week out. Even with the federal government shutdown, they still go on, though some have had to make last minute venue changes if the facility they planned to use was government owned. What each has in common is a cocktail hour with more to drink at dinner. It’s just the way it is. People who drink expect to show up and have a drink, ideally their preferred brand, or a glass of Champagne, and good wine, too.  For drinkers, it’s the gear change between work and after work. At a crowded gala, especially with lots of strangers, a sip of this or that can ease anxiety, tamp down shyness, and make the whole long night ahead more tolerable, even enjoyable.
The Caron Treatment Centers gala award dinner at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
With that said, imagine a parallel universe: a gala in a beautiful setting with a couple hundred people, a pre-dinner reception, a catered dinner, awards and speeches. But no alcohol — and for a good reason.

The dinner was at the National Museum For Women In The Arts and hosted by the Caron Treatment Centers, a nationwide addiction and recovery organization, with headquarters in Wernersville, Pennsylvania, and centers in Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and Washington. The Washington center is relatively new, as is the annual gala award dinner. This was only its second year and for a second year it raised more than $200,000.
Bob Beckel on stage, telling his story of alcoholism.
Cal Thomas introducing Beckel, who he called a "no nonsense guy."
My invitation came from a neighbor who is on Caron’s DC advisory board, Lawrence Calvert, who also just celebrated his 10th anniversary of sobriety. I sat with Larry and Caron’s chief development officer and executive vice president, Patrick Feeley. We enjoyed “mocktails,” including delicious basil lemonade, and instead of wine with the meal we were served a nice cider — light, not too sweet. And here’s what I noticed: not expecting any alcohol, it wasn’t missed. We made some jokes about whether any of the guests would try to bring in some miniatures but Larry wisely pointed out that if that happened they were the people who most needed to be there.

But as they say in the news business, I am burying the lead. The principal impact of the evening came from the stage, when it was Bob Beckel’s turn to speak. Most people know Bob as a long-time Washington political operative — he was in the Carter White House — and as a commentator on FoxNews. His daily show is “The Five.” He also co-writes a column with Cal Thomas for USA Today. Beckel was honored with a Caron “alumni” award and after he accepted it he stood there at the podium and very straightforwardly told the story of his struggle with alcoholism.
Beckel, relaxing at his table, after making his remarks.
Beckel called alcoholism a “cunning and baffling disease.” He has been out of the dark world and back in the light for about 13 years. At his table were friends and family, including his son and daughter. Also Thomas and Dana Perino, former press secretary to President George W. Bush and a co-host with Beckel on “The Five.”

Here are some of Beckel’s words, pretty much as he spoke them:

“I’ve given a lot of speeches in my years but this may be the most difficult. I’ll try to get through this .... In about four hours we will have crossed the threshold into another day, and we put another day under our belt. Some of us have a lot of days, some of us have a few, but it only takes one. If somebody’s here tonight and quit drinking yesterday, you are no different than those of us who have been around for years.”
Lawrence Calvert, a member of the Caron DC Advisory Board, with Tara Handron, the organization's regional vice president.
The alcoholic “wakes up sick and tired, looks out the window of his car to be sure the front end is not dented in and, worse yet, that there’s no blood on it. You get fewer and fewer invitations, which is understandable since you’ve knocked over four or five Christmas trees. You find yourself drifting to the only place you can: the dark world. It is full of people like ourselves, who are drinkers, who convince themselves they can stop drinking if they wanted to, but they are lying to themselves .... They are all con people, but the problem was they didn’t understand I was the biggest con man in the crowd .... Those were my friends, in these little dump bars around here, closing them up at 5 o’clock in the morning. You find yourself doing things and going to places that you could never have imagined you would have been in.

“There comes a day when you finally decide you’re sick and tried of being sick and tired. I got to Caron and I was scared and I was alone, and I began to look around and noticed that a lot of people looked scared and alone. We reached out to each other — alcoholic to alcoholic — and suddenly you realized that you weren’t alone. Your story wasn’t much different than a hundred others. Maybe one was more severe, but they all at their base were about not being able to control drinking .... No alcoholic can do it alone. And there are thousands of them out there tonight desperate to find the light.”
Cal Thomas and Dana Perino.
In his own story, Beckel included mention of a dear friend who would be well known to anyone who remembers the Nixon White House and the Watergate scandal. Ron Ziegler was President Richard Nixon’s press secretary, and in that role was in the press room daily, defending his boss, and after Nixon resigned from office and went to California, Ziegler went with him.

“Ron and I had been in different White Houses, we came from different parties, but we spent hours talking about drinking and life and politics. When he left Caron and I left Caron we stayed in touch, because I loved him very much. I lost track of him. I found out Ron died from the complications of alcoholism — something, by the way, he predicted would happen. If he were here tonight like me, fortunate enough to find the light world again, he would ask each of you to provide a beacon to lead a struggling alcoholic out of the dark and back into the light.”  He dedicated his award to Ziegler, who died in 2003.
Elvis and Ron Ziegler are awarded the Jaycees Award, Jan. 16, 1971.
Photographs by Carol Joynt.

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