Monday, June 11, 2012

Social communication

West Houston Street. 5:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Sally Quinn wrote a fun piece in Sunday’s Washington Post titled “Sally Quinn Announces The End of Power in Washington.” As her jumping off point, she recounted how she and her husband, the now legendary editor-in-chief of the Wash Post, Ben Bradlee went to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner a few weeks ago, and “found (themselves) sandwiched between the Kardashians and Newt and Callista Gingrich. She described them all as “heavily made up and smiling for the cameras, the reality TV family and the political couple ... swarmed over by the paparazzi screaming and shouting the celebrities’ names to make them look towards the cameras for that million dollar photograph.”

Ms. Quinn wrote that she was “shoved up against Callista’s hair and nearly broke” her nose on it. Ms. Quinn also remarked that “it was telling that Vanity Fair had bought more tables at the dinner than most of the Washington news organizations.” True, that.

Four years ago, JH and I and our then Washington Diarist Carol Joynt went to the WHCA din. It was a first for me. I guess because I’m not a Washingtonian or a member of the political scene, I found the whole thing surprisingly ordinary especially in this city with monuments to match our nation’s history. It reminded me of a singles party for 30- and 40-somethings, in a football stadium (the field, that is).
Back then, only four years ago, our nation was still pre-Kardashian America –  although definitely headed in that direction. The paparazzi that day were screaming at the Jonas Brothers, three clean-cut, barely pubescent looking boys who were hugely famous to the screaming teen-age girls behind the velvet ropes, although I didn’t know who they were. I know now. Lucky me.

Mr. Bush was President and he attended the dinner, and was seated on the dais. The dinner itself (like the parties before and the parties afterward, was a mob scene -- what my late great friend Judy Green used to refer to as a “r*t f*ck” (no disrespect to the President – or any President – intended), but an apt definition. What struck me at the time was: “What was some teeny-bopper singing group doing at a WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENTS dinner?” Not that they didn’t have the right to be there. But what did they have to do with any of it?
Answer: everything. Pop culture rules. Among the other “celebs” were Pamela Brown, Donatella Versace, Pete Wentz, Martha Stewart, Rob Lowe, Morgan Fairchild, Rosario Dawson, Perez Hilton, the internet gossipist sporting day-glo tresses (at least in those days).  I mean, what did they have to do with the White House Correspondents?

I finally got a glimpse of President Bush, which was interesting – to see one’s President up close. He looked, actually, as perplexed about the whole thing as I was.  Although, Henry Kissinger was there too, and so were many New Yorkers associated with the media. Newt was there too (this was, I think, pre-Callista) and I must admit he does have a shock of white hair that looks like it’s ready for the caricaturist, but at least its all his and at this age not many of his contemporaries can make that claim.
The Jonas Brothers.
Donatella Versace was signing bow ties.
Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger. Newt Gingrich.
Meanwhile back to Sally Quinn’s lament (oh, she was there too back in ’08): her main point was that it’s not about power in Washington anymore. It’s all about the buck. And celebrity, i. e., the Kardashians, i. e., The money (I read somewhere yesterday that one of them gifted her new boyfriend Kanye West with a $400,000 Lamborghini.)

Quinn recalled tonier times – such as when the Reagans were in the White House and the Dinner Party ruled the ruled. Thirty years ago. Along with her article, the Post ran a picture taken right after the election in 1980 when the President-elect Reagan and Mrs. Reagan attended a dinner hosted by Kay Graham of the Washington Post.
Katharine Graham greets Nancy Reagan and Ronald Reagan in December 1980 as they arrive for a party at her Georgetown home.
Quinn’s piece made it sound like everything had fallen apart socially with the Obama Administration. This is a common complaint among Washingtonians – the Obamas do not mix, as a rule, with many members of the community but prefer the company of a small group of friends from Chicago. But George and Laura Bush kept a fairly quiet private social calendar and were always off to Texas first chance they got. When the Clintons were in the White House, Ms. Quinn carried on about how terrible and tacky they were. Ironically, the same Clintons were later criticized for all the people they hosted at the White House (remember the business about who slept in the Lincoln Bedroom?).

Nevertheless, there is more than a kernel of truth to Quinn’s main complaint. However, that’s the social world today everywhere, even New in York. There is a dearth of hostesses-with-the mostest-ses staging dinner parties with tables surrounded by powerful, influential people with interesting, insightful or clever things to say. Yes, those people still exist but The Money is the only name of the game these days. Not that it wasn’t always a major factor. 
Former First Lady Hillary Clinton engages guests during a White House dinner.
However, as a result, there really isn’t much wit or even conversation, let alone wisdom, floating around. Twitter and Facebook seem to have eaten it all up before anyone has a chance to get a word in. Now what you often see at table, even the best tables in Washington, or New York, or Los Angeles – are people pulling out their cellphones and checking their messages and even sending texts during the meal. Right there at the table. Whatever they have to say is said in cyber-space.

Evidence of Sally Quinn’s lament is everywhere in our whole society today. Social communication has taken a turn away from interacting spoken language and its codes of behavior. Money talks and nobody walks. (Or if they do walk, they don't look before they cross the street, casually risking their lives on the precept of Not Responsible.) Even more confounding is that while Money is the matter at hand, on a deeper, more pervasive level, Debt is the real issue, for the man on the street, for the corporations, the banks, and most dangerously, for the governments – local, state and national. It is a worldwide problem, still mainly manipulated by the economic powers-that-be but also now Out Of Anyone’s Control. Like a car with no brakes heading toward the edge of a cliff. This is so obvious that even subconsciously most of us prefer to keep our eyes closed and ears covered.

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