Monday, November 10, 2014

Washington Social Diary

by Carol Joynt

Did Washington social life play a role in the results of the midterm elections? You can bet your silver fish fork it did. Political fundraising breakfasts, lunches, teas, cocktail receptions and dinners aside, serious and meaningful social life played a role by being virtually absent from the equation. Would a little more hobnobbing have made the President less vulnerable and therefore his party less in the crosshairs of angry voters? The answer is a worthy maybe, because if the President is coming to dinner the Speaker and the Majority Leader will RSVP “Yes.”

Obituaries for the Washington “salon” are fashionable and well-meaning but not accurate, because the will and way are here, only dormant, overtaken by all those money magnets mentioned in the first paragraph. The people who move and shake the nation’s capital still entertain, privately, off the grid, and the guest lists merge the people who make a difference here – lobbyists, money, media, lawyers, the decorative socialites, and pols from all points of the compass. But throughout the presidency of Barack Obama two people have been conspicuously absent from these dinner tables, and they are Barack and Michelle Obama.
The First Couple at table, but not a private Washington dinner party.
With two years to go, there's lots of time to raise a glass at Washington dinner parties. The Obamas could herald of reboot of the custom.
Let me be clear, I am a fan of the Obamas and have not climbed aboard the city’s ranting bandwagon. They endeared themselves when I heard stories from other moms and dads about their devotion to their daughters, and to being real parents, and to preferring at-home time, family dinners, helping with homework, over going-out time. But there’s still a job to be done and a part of that job is to be a real resident of Washington and immersing, to some extent, in the customs here. They may appear passé to the unappreciative, but they exist for a reason: they can produce bonds of esprit de corps for the nation’s quibbling leaders at times when official efforts fail.
For the First Family, family comes first.
After-hours in Washington is a treasured piece of the clock, when work shifts from office to table, mythically in candlelit Georgetown dining rooms, but in truth in both lavish and ordinary dining rooms at homes in McLean and Spring Valley, on Capitol Hill and Logan Circle, Wesley Heights and Bethesda, and yes, even Georgetown. Who is on the guest list? At the most relevant of them, people who also play a role in running the country.

President Obama and Valerie Jarrett discussing their favorite restaurant, perhaps?
The First Couple enjoying a "date night" out on the town.
The Obamas are famous for their nights out at Washington restaurants – more than any First Couple in recent memory. Usually it is just the two of them, on a “date night,” though sometimes it is the whole family, including Michelle Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, and occasionally also White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett.

Jarrett, who is often called the “second most powerful person in Washington,” is an avid restaurant patron and it’s believed she checks out and recommends the best spots before the Obamas give the places a try, and the choices are innovative, interesting and sometimes just plain hot – Minibar, Komi, Ted’s Bulletin, Nora, Fiola Mare, Mintwood Place.

There have been some larger gatherings, too, including a birthday dinner for the First Lady at the old-school clubhouse of the social wannabes and the permanent swells, Café Milano. She also enjoys the occasional Girls Night Out, usually in DC, but she’s been spotted with besties at a bistro in Annapolis, too. To their credit, whatever the Obamas do out-on-the-town together – as a pair or a family – the occasions feel sincere, not stunty (such as the Clintons in the aftermath of his affair with Monica Lewinsky).

Here's the thing: I hope they don't stop going out. But instead of restaurants, change it up and accept the occasional invitation to an actual Washington dinner party. They'll find it can serve a purpose. Folks here do behave differently away from the Senate and House chambers, the C-SPAN cameras, the centric, pack news conferences of one persuasion or another, reading from a political script. They put aside the script, let down, open up, and even listen. Yes, the tech age has made it harder to get away from the grid, but it can be done.

The best guest lists aren't obvious – they are not just one flavor, one group, one level of ranking. They mix up people who may meet only that way. Over the years I've witnessed unusual combinations of influential people sit at dinner and talk to each other, get to know each other. Only a few weeks ago I watched two men who might not otherwise have met, both in positions of influence, one a House committee chairman, who pulled two chairs into a corner to talk for a while. Maybe it was nothing, but maybe it was something. That's how it's done. This doesn't happen at official functions. It happens in private homes, at small dinners.
" Don’t leave this city without knowing us, Mr. President.”
In the morning-after gloom of the midterms I talked with a friend who is on Team Obama, who knows about these things from the inside, who is at the good dinners, and this friend’s opinion was quite blunt about the President and First Lady: “If they would do a bit more here in Washington they would be having an easier time of it,” said the friend, adding a direct message: “There are two years left. Don’t leave this city without knowing us, Mr. President.” I know. There's a collective groan when Washington "insiders" say something like this, but, like mom saying "brush your teeth or you'll get cavities," there's truth in it.

This friend went on to observe that its not only the President and First Lady who don’t show up; there’s rarely anyone from the inner circle of the White House. “People have nearly given up trying. Early on, Axelrod showed up a little bit, but he left town,” was the comment my friend made about David Axelrod, the former White House senior advisor who ran his campaigns and is now running the Institute of Politics in Chicago. “Stephanie Cutter (another former campaign official who switched to consulting and TV) went out a bit, Valerie on occasion, but from what I’ve seen it is only when she has a friend from before (meaning, Chicago) who is involved.”
The President with David Axelrod, for years one of his closest advisors.
A reboot of the Washington dinner party can't happen without the President and First Lady, but with their nod it could happen and be delightful and significant. It could be a revival, too, of the legitimate role of the important and effective host or hostess. You know, the individual whose invite you don't dare turn down. Think of Susan Mary Alsop, Evangeline Bruce, Pamela Harriman and Katharine Graham. There's a crowd of people who aspire to the role, but after weeding out those who are driven solely by personal agenda there are only a few with real provenance.

The best candidate is the obvious candidate. Sally Quinn. She is in mourning after the death of her husband, Ben Bradlee, but that hasn't stopped the city's speculation about what Sally's role here will be "after Ben." She's always been an important hostess, but set that aside in recent years for a couple of reasons – she publicly felt it was becoming hopeless to entertain because circa the late '80s money started to trump power, and also, in these past couple of years, she was focused on Ben and his health.
Sally Quinn knows all about how to host an important party.
But as Sally Quinn comes out of her mourning she would be the one to take the reins. She knows how to do it. She wrote the book, in fact. It could be a grand role for her in a city she understands intrinsically. She could wield quite a lot of power. My guess is if she sent out the dinner invitations, they (and you know who you are) would come. It's worth a try. At this point, there's nothing to lose.

I’ll stop now, because maybe this is just fantasy.
Sally's D.C. residence, The Laird-Dunlop House. And possibly the site of more Washington dinner parties — The President and First Lady, included?

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