Red Fay, undersecretary of the navy under John F. Kennedy, was a charming bon vivant, a great pal of the president’s, and the uncle of my roommate at Berkeley in the 60s. So it was my great good luck, on my very first trip to the capital, in May 1964, just six months after Kennedy’s assassination, to have “Uncle Red” invite me to dinner on the presidential yacht, the Sequoia. A few minutes after we arrived on board, I was amazed to see not only Jackie Kennedy but also Bobby and Ethel Kennedy and Jean Kennedy Smith and her husband, Steve Smith, walking up the gangplank. They were followed by George Stevens Jr., the youthful head of the U.S. Information Agency’s motion-picture division; the Peruvian ambassador and his wife; and my roommate’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Charles McGettigan, of San Francisco. This was one of Jackie’s first nights out since the tragedy, but she greeted everyone graciously. She was in ethereal white and spoke little during dinner, except to the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who was seated to her right.
What I remember most vividly about that evening was an exchange I had with Bobby Kennedy, the attorney general. “What are you going to be next, vice president or senator?,” I asked rather impudently, because I did not want him to think I was a brainless bimbo. The question of how the Kennedy dynasty would proceed was very much in the air, for Lyndon Johnson had not yet announced a running mate. “What do you think I should be?,” Kennedy shot back, his steel-blue eyes boring into me. “Well, I think you should be senator,” I said, “because everyone remembers you trying to twist arms at the last convention, and I don’t think Lyndon Johnson will let you be vice president.” He then opened up a barrage of questions: “Who are you? What does your father do?” In the middle of one of my answers, he turned away and waved to a group of tourists on a boat at least a hundred yards from us across the Potomac. I was highly insulted, for I had been planning to enlist in the Peace Corps, whose director was his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver, and suddenly Bobby Kennedy seemed to me like just another pol. (In those days he was still closer to J. Edgar Hoover than to César Chávez or Martin Luther King Jr.)
The dinner was great fun, however, with lots of jokes and toasts, and the next day Uncle Red took me out to Hickory Hill, Bobby and Ethel’s residence in McLean, Virginia. R.F.K., in cutoff jeans, was playing touch football on the front lawn. Ethel, wearing a two-piece bathing suit, was visibly pregnant. In the driveway, a limousine waiting to take the attorney general “up to New York” was sure proof, I felt, that he must be going for the Senate. (Like Hillary Clinton, R.F.K. became an instant resident of the state, and he went on to defeat incumbent Ken Keating.) “Bobby,” Red Fay said, “I brought Maureen out here so you could give her some advice about her life.” Bobby smiled. “Advise her?” he said. “Hell, last night she told me what to do!”
That trip to the capital allowed me to catch a glimpse of what I thought life in society must be like at the highest level, and to talk to the people who lived it. There was no agenda, no fund-raising, and a young woman like me could actually be allowed in close. In her three years in Washington, Jackie Kennedy set a standard against which social behavior here is still measured. Her White House was a locus of beauty, taste, and excellence. At the dinner the Kennedys gave for French author and cultural minister André Malraux in May 1962, for example, the guests included Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Robert Penn Warren, Mark Rothko, Andrew Wyeth, Isaac Stern, George Balanchine, Leonard Bernstein, Robert Lowell, Elia Kazan, Charles Lindbergh, David Rockefeller, and Adam Clayton Powell, the outspoken Harlem congressman.
Just 12 days before that, they had given a dinner for 49 Nobel Prize winners, which the staff referred to as “the brains dinner.” That evening Jack gave an often quoted toast: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” And before those two momentous events, the First Couple had thrown a sumptuous state dinner for the Shah of Iran.
Today, people who remember those days never cease to lament how the capital has changed. The cost of running for office, the proliferation of lobbyists, the intense preoccupation with security since 9/11, the increase in careers for women, the deaths or withdrawals of ruling society figures, and an unpopular president and an unpopular war have all converged to kill much of the fun and excitement once unique to Washington social life. I spoke to a number of participants in, and close observers of, the Washington social scene then and now in order to hear what they have to say about how “the city of conversation,” as Henry James called it, has become more partisan, less tolerant, and unabashedly focused on doing well rather than doing good.
Letitia Baldrige, social secretary to Jackie Kennedy and author of Taste: For the Kennedys, the criteria of a White House guest list were great minds, people of substance, doers, and the cultural scene—painters, composers, actors. We all contributed to the guest lists, because the Kennedys cared about it. Jackie and the president went over the lists very carefully. They knew there always had to be a few fat cats, but the majority of people were those who deserved to be there.… It was the best in everything—and hold back the political paybacks so they don’t take over the guest list. The Kennedys would ask, “Where are the interesting people who make the place go?” President Kennedy used to throw the whole list in the wastebasket, he’d be so mad when he saw a list of all the political paybacks that have to go in. The Kennedys would just say no and would throw it away.
Sally Quinn, author, co-founder of the blog On Faith, wife of former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, and Georgetown hostess: The biggest difference is that entertaining now is so much more partisan. When I first came here, you’d go to dinner and all different political persuasions were represented. You were all working for the same country, but you differed in what you thought was best for the country.… The people who did the entertaining were women who today would have a career, and what they did for a living was to bring people together. At parties, a lot of news was made and deals were made. That rarely exists anymore.
Laurie Firestone, social secretary to George Herbert Walker Bush from 1988 to 1992 and author of An Affair to Remember: State Dinners for Home Entertaining: Everything today is about money and “I want it my way—I don’t want to compromise, and, by the way, I want a lot of money too.”
Last spring, George and Laura Bush’s state dinner for Queen Elizabeth II raised eyebrows all over Washington, because the guest list was not only mediocre but also heavily sprinkled with people who had contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Bush or the Republican Party. The event was only the fifth state dinner the Bushes had had since he took office, almost seven years ago. “They do the bare minimum, and they do it glumly,” one former member of Bush’s staff told me.
At the White House luncheon for Chinese president Hu Jintao, in April 2006, which I attended with my husband, Tim Russert, of NBC News, there was one gaffe after another, starting on the South Lawn in a ceremony preceding the lunch, when a heckler interrupted and rattled Hu for several minutes before she was finally removed. A White House announcer referred to Hu’s country as “the Republic of China,” the official name of Taiwan, China’s renegade province, and, later, when Hu started to exit the stage the wrong way, Bush grabbed him by the sleeve to turn him in the right direction.
At a formal reception at the White House last December, before the Kennedy Center Honors, three women showed up wearing the same red lace Oscar de la Renta gown the First Lady had chosen, causing her to flee upstairs and change. That sort of thing never would have happened to Jackie Kennedy or Nancy Reagan. For one thing, their designers would have protected them. For another, the invited ladies would have known one another well enough to discuss in advance what they were planning to wear.
With all the open, hostile criticism of the Iraq war, it is a struggle for this administration to fill the White House with the sort of glittering members of the cultural community that the Kennedys favored. Entertainment for the Hu luncheon, for example, was provided by the Nashville Bluegrass Band, which had been formed originally to accompany Minnie Pearl, the hillbilly comedienne of the Grand Ole Opry. Similarly, at the state dinner for the Queen, the two big names among the guests were Arnold Palmer, the golf champion, and Peyton Manning, the star quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts. During the welcoming ceremony, President Bush said that the 81-year-old sovereign “had helped our nation celebrate its bicentennial in 17—” Then he caught himself and concluded “in 1976.”
Buffy Cafritz, member of the Kennedy Center board and noted Republican hostess: I have never seen a worse guest list than that of the state dinner for the Queen. Arnold Palmer? He won the British Open in 1962! Peyton Manning? And all the corporate people they had. Then someone said, “How dumb can you be, Buffy? It’s the library. He has to fund the [George Bush presidential] library.”
Liz Stevens, Democratic hostess married to George Stevens Jr., co-producer of the Kennedy Center Honors: Do you think the Queen had fun? I didn’t know she was such a jock.
Letitia Baldrige: Now it is so much more of a payoff than it used to be. Now it’s just payoff, payoff, payoff. It’s still a great party, because it is still the White House, still the most fabulous place in the world for a party.
Elisabeth Hasselbeck, the pretty blonde Republican of ABC’s The View, was a guest at the state dinner for the Queen. The next morning she gave her viewers the inside scoop, including the scary fact that wives were not allowed to sit next to their husbands. “When we first opened our place cards and saw we were at different tables, we had a semi-private panic attack,” she confided, adding, “but I had Jeb Bush to my left. It was amazing to be able to sit with the Prince [Philip] and First Lady, who was so generous. This was such a meeting of the two nations, and I just thought, Gosh, it was such a peaceful moment.” Dessert, she reported, had also rung alarm bells. “They had rose blossoms for dessert. They brought out a bowl of water that smelled like roses, and then something in the middle. And someone asked me what was for dessert, and I said, ‘This is it.’ But then I saw Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—you dip your hands in it and you wash your fingers in it.”
Lea Berman, former social secretary to George and Laura Bush and wife of lobbyist Wayne Berman: We stopped using finger bowls at all but the fanciest dinners, because people don’t know what to do with them. Mrs. Bush said, “Don’t use them.”
Deeda Blair, biomedical-research advocate, international social figure, and wife of former ambassador William McCormick Blair Jr.: It’s almost vanished, the finger bowl. I can remember, in Paris and in Washington, women who cultivated scented geraniums in pots to have a scented leaf in a finger bowl. Everything was very raffiné.
Many of the grandes dames who were so raffiné back then were of the World War II generation. They usually came from, or married into, old money, an illustrious family, or great wealth. They often had lived abroad and spoke more than one language. Susan Mary Alsop, for example, who had a leading role in the J.F.K. Georgetown set, was a descendant of Founding Father John Jay, and her platonic husband in her second marriage was syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop, a cousin of the Roosevelts and a flamboyant and irascible snob, who got behind Jack Kennedy almost from the start and took great pride in arranging artfully mixed dinners that were designed to produce elevated discourse as well as great gossip. Evangeline Bruce, another of the capital’s doyennes, was the wife of millionaire David K. E. Bruce, who served as a leading diplomat in France, Britain, Germany, and China. British-born Pamela Harriman’s first husband was the son of Winston Churchill, but she really gained fame for her long list of lovers, including Gianni Agnelli, Edward R. Murrow, and Averell Harriman. She eventually married Harriman, in 1971, became a fixture in Washington society, and created a fund-raising Democratic political-action committee known as “Pam pac.” Seven years after Averell’s death, she became Bill Clinton’s ambassador to France. Katharine “Kay” Graham was the famous publisher of The Washington Post, which brought down Richard Nixon, but she was also a friend of another Republican president, Ronald Reagan, and his wife. Truman Capote gave his snobbish Black and White Ball in 1966 in Graham’s honor. Her great pal was Meg Greenfield, the Post’s editorial-page editor. All of these women have died within the last 15 years. The sole survivor, Oatsie Charles, has retired to Newport, Rhode Island. A bipartisan philanthropist, she told W magazine after George W. Bush’s first term, “As far as I’m concerned, the Washington I knew is over.”
Gahl Burt, social secretary to Nancy Reagan from 1983 to 1985: There were three spheres: the White House, the embassies, and Georgetown. The hostesses used to be Susan Mary Alsop, Oatsie Charles, Evangeline Bruce, Kay Graham, and Pamela Harriman. They have all largely disappeared, and no one picked up the ball. No one has the embassy ball, and no one has the Georgetown or White House social scene either. They have all petered out.
Ann Jordan, board member, married to Vernon Jordan, attorney and power broker: It’s very hard to become the new Pamela Harriman. Think about the life Pamela lived. That was a glamorous world. I don’t see any Gianni Agnellis in this group. When you think about wars, it is a certain kind of experience. The Second World War brought out the best in people.
Deeda Blair: These were legendary women who would have hated to be called socialites, because what is a socialite? The late Lorraine Cooper, who was married to Kentucky senator John Sherman Cooper, was a cross between eccentric and exotic—profoundly intelligent. She did many dinners and lunches that were uniquely special. The Coopers had served in India, and she would have wonderful saris draped across a table. She knew how to combine people and really paid attention. She gave a famous garden party every June. It was an event that was really dazzling. The Senate and the Congress all turned out.
Entertaining then was more personal, and people had staff and wonderful cooks. During that time, there was a great party cook named Dora, and the dinners she provided were as homemade as you could get. Now people ring up caterers. That simply wasn’t done by serious hostesses in the past. Pamela Harriman, who probably had more of a political agenda than the others, also had an elegant annual garden party that people yearned to be invited to. For those women, a major imperative was getting the right combination of people, not with the intent of accomplishing something—creating festivities with guest stars to raise money—but just to bring interesting and powerful individuals together in a catalytic way.
They were also concerned with looks and style. Women did their own flowers, and were proud of their pretty linens. Oatsie Charles, for instance, was known for her china and silver. Today, the Style section of The Washington Post virtually ignores social dinners. They’d rather write about what Lindsay Lohan is up to. In the old days, the hostess herself got on the telephone and followed up with a reminder. Today, you are apt to get invited by e-mail. Thank-you notes were once obligatory and personal. Today, you get an e-mail—“I had a great time.”
Polly Kraft, painter, widow of syndicated columnist Joseph Kraft and power-broker attorney Lloyd Cutler: The Georgetown set was mostly about journalists—it really started because of Joe Alsop. Journalists didn’t make a lot of money—it wasn’t a big thing to be rich. It’s all so polarized now, and pretty boring. They don’t treat journalists very well. There is not that excitement, that same thrill you [used to] get.
Liz Stevens: Ethel Kennedy’s parties were fabulous. There was a great mix, and you were there to have fun—the only purpose was to have fun. That doesn’t seem to be the case now.
Letitia Baldrige: Jackie Kennedy introduced round plywood tables and cloths to the floor. Within four weeks Bloomingdale’s was selling round cloths to the floor, and carpenters all over the country were making plywood tabletops. Jackie said conversation was best with 8 or 10—now 12 or 14 crowd around. We also had people like [Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter] Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who was loved and cherished. There hasn’t been another character like that since.
Andrea Mitchell, NBC correspondent and wife of former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan: My introduction to that world was pre meeting Kay Graham and Meg Greenfield. It was an introduction to Judith Huxley, a food columnist for the Post. She used to have table-for-eight dinner parties, with lots of conversation around a round table—New Dealers, artists, gardeners. She was married to Aldous Huxley’s only child, Matthew. She had this salon going.… It was not about social climbing or social connections. It was about conversation. Meg Greenfield had one round table in a small house on R Street [in Georgetown]. She would have lots of bright Democrats and Republicans. The difference was that in the past people who entertained were old Georgetown grand ladies or journalists, and sometimes those two were the same. Now the younger generation is political types. This new generation that entertains a lot are lobbyists. Before, you would not willingly have a lobbyist to a party.
Sally Quinn: I find that, with both parties, the longer an administration goes on, the times get really bad no matter what. There are scandals in the second term. So they hunker down, circle the wagons, and disappear—there is no community at all.
Buffy Cafritz: We are in serious times, and this president is not a type to socialize—he likes to go to bed.
Gahl Burt: [George W. Bush] is not a social animal and not sociable.… The Reagans had a state dinner every single month, with the exception of July and August. We scheduled them six months out. Every single month we were looking for a state dinner and actively perusing whom we should honor. There was a real reach out to foreign leaders. It helps you to start to know a world leader, instead of just meeting him in an office, and the wives get to know each other. If a real friendship develops—like Reagan and Thatcher—it gets you through the sticky times.
Laurie Firestone: George Bush Sr. worked at entertaining, in the sense he knew how important it was. We were entertaining the top six countries all the time [Great Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Japan, and Russia], not just at state dinners, but private receptions, lunches, and dinners.… He always told me that sitting at a dinner or a lunch and talking to people, and breaking bread at a meal together, [made] negotiations the next day much easier.… Every time Bush would lose a vote, he’d tell me to get on the phone and get the leaders over—at the time, they were all Democrats. We had a lot of bipartisan functions.
Buffy Cafritz: President Reagan used to have [Democratic Speaker of the House] Tip O’Neill over for a drink. Nancy had a little lunch here in May, and Bob Strauss [Democrat and former ambassador to Russia] sat right next to her in his wheelchair. He used to go in the back door and advise her. You don’t see that in this administration.
Ken Duberstein, lobbyist and former chief of staff for Ronald Reagan: As much as our campaign was anti-Washington, the Reagans understood you had to be part of Washington, and they encouraged us to participate fully and go out. That meant embassies—where we chatted over dinner and did so much business.
Sally Quinn: Once Kay [Graham] died, that was the end of bipartisan entertaining.
When Jimmy Carter was elected, in 1976, he appeared deliberately to downplay White House opulence. He was heavily criticized for going on television in a cardigan sweater and telling Americans to turn down their thermostats to save energy.
Liz Stevens: Jimmy Carter started the downward trend. He did not serve drinks at the White House. After that, Reagan was the land of all-out. The wives [of the Reagan circle] got more involved than anyone. They went on boards.
Gahl Burt: Reagan’s Kitchen Cabinet was so moneyed, a good chunk of the library got raised from 10 people. That makes a big difference.… Between the [Walter] Annenbergs, the [Alfred] Bloomingdales, and the [Charles] Wicks, those people didn’t blink to have a major dinner at Blair House that cost a lot of money. Those were fabulous parties with glittering guest lists.… The de la Rentas, the Henry Kissingers, [socialite walker] Jerry Zipkin were together in New York before the Washington connection. For Zipkin it didn’t hurt to have your best friend be the wife of the president.… If J.F.K.’s were the golden years for the Democrats, then Reagan’s were the golden years for the G.O.P.
Letitia Baldrige: By the time the Reagans were in, the money started to matter a lot. California money and western money we were just not used to. That changed things a lot. The Annenbergs had a lot of money to throw around.
Lea Berman: I remember at the end of the Reagan years we got Democrats in Congress, and it really got ugly at dinner parties. We were just under siege the whole dinner. I told my husband, “I am not going to go through that again.” People of different parties weren’t really friends.
Buffy Cafritz: I remember Kay Graham had a lovely dinner in March of 2001—she died that summer. George W. Bush was there, and so was Laura, who was so adorable and outgoing and wanted to be part of the community. Everybody had high hopes he would be part of the community. Then we had 9/11.
Lea Berman: In the first term, September 11 threw them off. They did a lot of quiet diplomacy, based on the foreign country asking for a certain kind of visit; they asked for Crawford, Texas. Going to Crawford was considered intimate. Also, at the dinners, there are certainly people who are invited who choose not to come. For entertainers, the vehemence with which some said no, you could tell they were not supporters.
When the Clintons came to town, in 1992, there was tangible excitement that these two attractive young couples, the Clintons and the Gores, would somehow revive Camelot. Instead, the Clintons got off to a shaky start, with the issue of gays in the military, Nannygate, the suicide of Vince Foster, Travelgate, the failure of Hillary Clinton’s health-care plan, and Whitewater. There were so many scandals that the White House came to see the press as the enemy, and the First Couple did not venture out much, but they sent loyalists such as Mack and Donna McLarty, who were Arkansas friends, and Vernon and Ann Jordan to cover Georgetown.
In the beginning, however, they also had a series of dinners in their private quarters. At one, which I attended with my husband, Bill Clinton gave a detailed tour of the Lincoln Bedroom. Later, that room would give rise to yet another scandal when it was revealed that wealthy donors were being invited to spend the night there. The Clintons did have a very lively, bipartisan engagement party early on for Bill’s adviser James Carville and his very Republican fiancée, Mary Matalin; they also entertained at informal “movie nights”; and they significantly helped the cause of peace in Northern Ireland by beginning an annual White House St. Patrick’s Day party, which both sides—who would never ordinarily venture into the same room together—attended. The Clintons, however, appeared in the end to view the White House not as a vibrant salon in which to host the best and the brightest, but as coveted real estate that could be used for fund-raising.
Dee Dee Myers, press secretary during Clinton’s first term and Vanity Fair contributing editor: The Democratic National Committee controlled who was invited. They brought in Clinton people from all over the country. They called it “political-base building” and the white-hot center was the White House. Los Angeles was huge. When the film-production company DreamWorks was being launched, I remember walking out of the grand hallway during a state dinner, and on a bench, deeply engrossed, were David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, and Jeffrey Katzenberg [the founders of DreamWorks]. The Clintons expanded the size of state dinners and had them in a tent. They had two or three events and lined them up for a week in the tent. They had the Emperor of Japan in a tent. The thing about the Clintons is that more is always more. It loses intimacy and grace.
Liz Stevens: If some cause needed help, the Clintons were willing to have an event. The staff was exhausted. They were constantly feeding people.
Sally Quinn: In terms of entertaining being partisan, it started with Clinton. The people who were seen as “hostesses” were people who had money or were raising money.… When the stuff about Clinton and women started appearing, in the second term, things shut down. Everybody wanted to go hide in a cave. For people willing to defend him, it became intolerable for them to go out.
In 2000, after being elected to the Senate, Hillary Clinton bought a fashionable house near the British and Italian Embassies. Before her run for the presidency, she added on to the house in order to have more space for entertaining.
Sally Quinn: Since Hillary has been here in the Senate for the last eight years, I think I’ve seen her twice. Otherwise, she is at fund-raisers. She entertains constantly, but it is all political. It is people who work for her or raise money for her.
The Clintons’ second term was mired in the Monica Lewinsky scandal and ended with the president’s shocking eleventh-hour pardon of the fugitive financier Marc Rich. Favored hostesses during the time were Clinton fund-raisers, who are now hoping a second Clinton presidency will provide a new opportunity to shine. One of the most aggressive contenders still vying to become a successor to the likes of Pamela Harriman is Beth Dozoretz, former Democratic National Committee finance chair.
Dozoretz, who constantly touted her close, personal relationship with Bill Clinton and pledged to raise $1 million for the Clinton library, is a onetime garment-industry executive married to Ron Dozoretz, a psychiatrist and the C.E.O. of a behavioral-health-care company that is heavily dependent on state contracts and that has been criticized in the past for providing substandard services. He contributes to both Republicans and Democrats. His wife first became known to the public when she took the Fifth Amendment before Congress in order not to have to answer questions about her role in the Marc Rich pardon. Last February, Clinton friends were taken aback when the Dozoretzes hosted a fund-raiser for New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, a presidential candidate, but that should not have been surprising considering the contract for a reported $325 million that Ron Dozoretz’s FHC Health Systems has in New Mexico. Beth Dozoretz is said to phone media outlets to tout her parties and ask to be included on “A-lists,” and in the middle of dinners she allegedly confers with her husband to discuss whom they’ve spoken with and whom they should cultivate.
Lady Catherine Meyer, wife of the former British ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer: Poor Beth. She did try to invite us all the time.
Buffy Cafritz: Beth Dozoretz? Enough said.
The most controversial nouveau social figure on the scene is student-loan impresario Catherine Reynolds, whose tax-exempt nonprofit student-loan company, EduCap, is currently under investigation by Congress, the I.R.S., and the New York State attorney general’s office. The Washington Post has reported that, with funds from EduCap, Reynolds has donated more than $100 million to cultural institutions, including $400,000 to her daughter’s private school; has bought a $30 million Gulfstream IV private jet; and has given $9 million to her husband, Wayne, who runs the Academy of Achievement, another nonprofit organization, which stages an annual multi-million-dollar weekend extravaganza to bring global glitterati together with outstanding graduate students. After all the negative media attention, Reynolds’s student-loan business, which was already being downsized, was severely curtailed, and dozens of employees were laid off.
In 2002, Reynolds made headlines when she pledged $100 million to the Kennedy Center, but the project in question was abandoned, so in the end she paid nothing. She still pledges $1 million a year for special performances, and stages a lavish annual dinner there. The $38 million she pledged to the Smithsonian Institution she took back, because scholars at the museum thought she wanted too much say in the contents of its exhibitions. After pushing to have Laura Bush host a White House dinner to benefit the Dance Theatre of Harlem, to which Reynolds had pledged $1 million, she brought in her own producers to stage the entertainment. The event later aired on PBS. In 2005, when she became chairman of the board, she promised that she would help the dance company for three years, but she severed ties after a year. Lady Catherine Meyer had a similar experience with Reynolds and pact (Parents and Abducted Children Together), a nonprofit Meyer began because her ex-husband, in Germany, had refused to return their two sons to her, and the German courts sided with him.
Lea Berman: Catherine Reynolds is very persuasive and very determined. She had very fixed ideas of what she wanted the evening to be and who the entertainers should be for the White House dinner for the Dance Theatre of Harlem. It was an intense experience.
Lady Catherine Meyer: She immediately said, “I’ll help you.” She organized a dinner at the embassy. We invited 85 percent of the people, and she paid for it. It was completely free for us, and whatever money people paid for the tickets went towards the charity. At that time, around 2000, nobody had ever heard of Catherine Reynolds. I said, “Why don’t you join the board?” Every time we had a dinner or a lunch, we invited her and her husband. I wasn’t born yesterday; I knew why she cultivated me. She wanted to be invited. She stepped into the British Embassy, met people, and then she dropped me.… She made a pledge of $100,000 with the condition I would match it. I went out and raised the money, but lots didn’t stack up for her, and she only gave $38,000, which of course was very disappointing. I never heard from her again. I was completely shocked.
Buffy Cafritz: Catherine Reynolds has left behind a trail of broken friendships. This I will never be able to understand. She has none of the old relationships. The [Tom] Daschles [former Democratic Senate majority leader from South Dakota and his wife, Linda] are now her best friends. I can go through seven people she’s dumped. Nobody understands her. She goes to the ladies’ room and her husband stands outside. Why not? She’s the bank.
Thanks to the explosion of information technology and the billions appropriated for domestic security in the last several years, Washington today is flush as never before, and a whole group of people not associated with politics is coming to the fore. However, the city is so polarized that even the caterers are characterized as Republican or Democrat. Members of Congress rarely socialize across party lines. They vote on bills at night, so they don’t really go out much, and as a rule they do not bring their families to live in Washington anymore, because it’s too expensive and many of their spouses work.
With the spread of the 24-hour news cycle and the rise of the Internet, interviewers and their subjects are occupied more than ever before, so there is little time for politicians or journalists to socialize. Also, social affability and compromise do not play well with the increasingly powerful bloggers, who zealously patrol the Republican and Democratic bases.
Liz Stevens: The other night five new congressmen came to dinner. In the old days we used to see lots of senators and members of Congress. These members had never been asked by anyone. So they told us, “You are our new best friends! We haven’t gone out at all.” None has a family here. They are here for three days and then they go home and fund-raise. It seems to me it’s a miserable life.
Ken Duberstein: The result of partisanship is gridlock—nothing gets done—and Washington and Capitol Hill have become the laughingstock of the nation. If you had a more nonpartisan social life, people would understand one another better as individuals, understand people’s motives and integrity, and not see everything in terms of political one-upmanship. You also know that if they ever have to decide between being on a cable program and your dinner party, it’s no contest.
Ted Kennedy, Democratic senator from Massachusetts: When my children were growing up and we had votes at night, the members’ wives would bring picnics and we would watch our children play soccer on the lawn and listen to the various bands that would play on the Capitol steps. It was a way of getting to know the other members and their families, both Republican and Democrat.
Grega Daly, prominent hostess married to architect Leo Daly: Intimate, small dinners have always been the most intellectually stimulating, and still are, but they’ve changed over the past 10 or so years. It used to be that both Democrats and Republicans would attend, and interesting discussions would ensue, focused on the future of our country. Today the animosity between the two political parties is so great and so openly hostile that the blending of the guests at the dinners is no longer possible.
Letitia Baldrige: There is no question it is different here. The people who are giving the parties are the lobbyists. They eat lavishly all for a political reason. In the old days, 50 or 60 years ago, there was a real society here.
Bob Barnett, lawyer; book representative for Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bob Woodward, and Alan Greenspan; lawyer for my family; and husband of Rita Braver, of CBS News: Given the legal restrictions on lobbying, social occasions are used in a totally legal and proper way to advocate your client’s position to a lawmaker or a regulator without having to spend money that is restricted.… Socializing is an important part of life for lobbyists and lawyers. A lot of old barriers have broken down.… The irony is, as more barriers are made official and written, the looser it is in the social realm.
Ken Duberstein: The pressure goes both ways. Everybody is getting leaned on, not just for presidential candidates but more importantly for Congress and the Senate. The fax machine just spews out these invitations for social events for fund-raising—for $500, for $1,000. I hear from people what kind of pressure they are under to contribute. Fund-raising has become insatiable.
One consequence of the fund-raising carnival is that embassies have been largely sidelined. The Bush White House barely socializes, so there is no one for embassies to honor in order to draw top guests. Embassies cannot contribute cash to members of Congress, so why should members bother to go to embassy parties? The British still make an effort to entertain, and from 1998 to 2005, when he was Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Luis Alberto Moreno was a highly visible social presence, gathering support for the $4 billion in U.S. aid under Plan Colombia. He became friends with Kay Graham by inviting her to a birthday dinner for Gabriel García Márquez, his country’s Nobel Prize–winning author.
Luis Alberto Moreno, current head of the Inter-American Development Bank: Any ambassador has to influence 500 people [Congress and the White House], depending on the portfolio of his country. If you request a regular meeting, it takes two years. I would never say no, and I’d always try to go to big events. Nobody notices if you are late. I’d go into a room and say hello even if they were eating. Then I’d leave my little sound bite and get my feedback. You need to find ways to network and meet because Americans do business all the time.
Today, the only embassy making a big push is Kuwait—not the soft-spoken ambassador Salem Al-Sabah himself, but his intense, flamboyant wife, Rima, a former Lebanese journalist with platinum-blond hair down to the middle of her back, who in October gave birth to her fourth child, at age 45. Invitations to the first of four baby showers were mailed four months in advance, and 120 women attended. Rima Al-Sabah, who is known to call guests who have R.S.V.P.’d no to one of her dinners and plead with them to change their minds, draws Bush Cabinet members and top generals to her lavish evenings, which are always carefully photographed. Oil companies and their C.E.O.’s help sponsor her yearly benefit for various causes, where guests have included Angelina Jolie and Michael Douglas. About the only big private black-tie event last spring that both Republicans and Democrats attended was the Al-Sabahs’ 60th-birthday party for Marvin Hamlisch, the principal pops conductor with the National Symphony.
Rima Al-Sabah: We came to Washington three weeks before September 11, and what happened was a shock. On September 12, I had a lunch invitation. I didn’t think anyone would go, but the hostess said, “No, we want to show life goes on.” The first question I was asked was “Did you see what you Arabs did?” I was horrified. So it is very important to change the stereotype. All countries have extremists.… After September 11 there became a need to be out there. I do big dinners for 120 or 140 and small dinners for 22 around a table. Entertaining is a crucial part of diplomatic work. I do four big dinners a year and small dinners twice a month and lunches.… A big dinner is a whole production. A successful party is not only a mix of beautiful setting and good food but who’s on the chairs. The seating is very important. I always seat a guest next to one person they know and one they don’t, but might be interested in. I didn’t use to invite so much in advance, but then I started getting invitations two and three months ahead. You don’t have to for small dinners as much, but for big dinners it’s better.
Buffy Cafritz: Rima is the leading diplomatic hostess. She asks you to attend six months in advance. When my brother was asked to attend four months in advance, he said, “No, I’ll be attending a funeral.”
Washington is far more diverse today than it was when Wasps with pedigrees who went into journalism and government service constituted the Georgetown set. These days in the capital, journalists are far more adversarial toward politicians, often looking to play “gotcha,” so the easy camaraderie between observers and participants no longer exists. And while Washington has always had plenty of policy wonks, the new influx to the D.C. area of high-tech companies that thrive on government research and contracts has created a whole class of fabulously wealthy entrepreneurs. Money lubricates this once sleepy southern town, which used to consider people first as human beings and second as Republicans or Democrats. Recently, the social broadsheet Washington Life ran a cover story on the richest people in the city, which would have been considered in very poor taste, if not altogether unheard of, just a few years earlier.
Even the prestigious press dinners that everyone used to look forward to, which the president and vice president attended in order to be able to joust with the capital’s key journalists, have become embarrassing and dreaded. Several years ago, heavy-metal rocker and reality-TV star Ozzy Osbourne, who was one of the growing number of notorious invited guests present at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, stood up on his chair and shouted, “I am fucking more famous than all of you!” He wasn’t quite correct, but until a new administration takes office, Washington as a social organism is essentially dead.