Every Wednesday evening at the White House, President Obama throws a cocktail party. While liberals such as the folks from MoveOn.org predominate, Republican lawmakers and representatives of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also show up.
Welcome to the new social climate of Washington.
To be sure, President George W. Bush socialized, but almost exclusively at the White House with old friends going back to high school. He rarely ventured out to parties or restaurants. With a party animal in the White House, all that is changing — along with the players and Washington hot spots.
Just before his inauguration, Obama signaled the new approach by attending a private dinner for conservative pundits at the Chevy Chase, Md., home of George Will. Included were Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, Larry Kudlow, David Brooks, Rich Lowry, Peggy Noonan, Michael Barone, and Paul Gigot.
Barone of U.S. News and World Report afterwards described Obama as “an attractive person in a small setting. It’s harder to hate someone you’ve had close contact with and who has pleasant characteristics.”
The rest of the Washington establishment is starting to pick up on the preferences of Obama and his appointees.
“Desiree Rogers seems to be destined to play a great new role as the social secretary,” says Kevin Chaffee, senior editor of Washington Life magazine, the social publication.
Previously with The Washington Times, Chaffee is so ubiquitous on the party scene that Washington Life has named him to its annual social list.
“Rogers will be doing the White House lists, and from that people will take their cues,” Chaffee says. “Who’s important to the White House will be important to everybody else.”
At the same time, Chaffee says, Washingtonians are not about to chop off old friends and contacts from their party lists.
“The era of the ruthless host is over, where you’re out and you don’t get invited anymore,” Chaffee says. “People are a little kinder about taking care of the formers and the has-beens than they used to be, especially if they joined the permanent establishment through either their job or their charitable and philanthropic activity. They tend to join this permanent establishment and then they’re around forever.”
Washington Life’s social list finds such local luminaries as Justice Samuel Alito, Robert Altman and Lynda Carter, Joe Allbritton, Howard Baker, Robert Barnett and Rita Braver, William J. Bennett, James H. Billington, Thomas Hale Boggs, and Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn.
As part of the inauguration festivities, Washington Life gave a party at the Fairfax Hotel that was mainly for Democrats. Chaffee notes that Nancy Bagley, editor in chief of the magazine, held it in honor of the inaugural committee and let the Obama people come up with the invitation list. Nancy Pelosi and John Podesta were the big draws.
With Obama in the White House, count on more names of African-Americans to appear on invitation lists. When Vernon and Ann Jordan threw a party just after the election, Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama's best friends and now a senior White House adviser, drew a small crowd.
“Everyone knows that [Obama’s] campaign was about inclusion,” Jarrett said later. “We would expect that spirit of inclusion to also reflect on Washington’s social scene.”
Early on in his first term, Bush invited Ted Kennedy and other members of Congress in for movies or drinks about once a month, and he attended a party at the home of Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post. But his flirtation with Washington society was brief.
Bush once told his wife Laura that he did not like to go to restaurants because he did not like being stared at while he was eating. She laughed and said, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have run for president.”
“Obama is smart on one level to take advantage of the political capital and good will that he has now,” Brian Jones, who was director of communications for the Republican National Committee under Bush, tells me. “But I think it’s also smart to reach across the aisle to people who maybe won’t be his pure ally but maybe will understand a little bit more where he’s coming from. It’s Washington 101.”
“Members of Congress never said, ‘I’ll vote for Medicare if I get an invitation to dinner,’ but they are human, and those perks help to develop loyalty,” says David Fuller Holt, a former legislative aide in the Bush White House.
Despite the recession, Chaffee and others agree, Washingtonians are giving more parties because of the example Obama is setting — although not serving foie gras, as Washington Life parties have done in the past. At the same time, new hot spots are emerging.
Cork, a wine bar on 14th Street N.W., is a favorite spot of Obama’s staffers. An intimate dive with red brick walls, it features grilled flatiron steak and 50 different wines by the glass. If you ignore the pawn shop next door, you might think you are in a trendy East Village bar.
Another restaurant on the approved list is Hook, which opened in Georgetown two years ago. Bon Appétit named it one of the country’s best “eco-friendly restaurants.”
The Palm is still a favorite of both sides of the aisle. The restaurant recently added caricatures of Barack and Michelle Obama to its trademark rogues’ gallery. In contrast to my caricature on the opposite wall, theirs are surprisingly realistic.
Since the power spot opened 37 years ago, every president except George Bush has dined there. Michelle Obama ate lunch there days before the inauguration, and Tommy Jacomo, the Palm’s manager, has a table waiting for Obama.
Within a few weeks of his inauguration, Obama had dined at more local restaurants than did Bush in his eight years in office. Among them were Bobby Van’s Steakhouse and Equinox, both downtown, and Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street. At Ben’s, Obama ordered a chili half-smoke slathered with mustard, onions, and cheese. He gave Jermaine Jefferson behind the counter a $20 bill and told him to keep the change.
“I’m going to frame it, but right now God is watching over it,” Jefferson said of the bill.
The night before the inauguration, Obama gave a dinner party honoring John McCain at Café Milano. Owner Franco Nuschese says the only difference he sees between Democrats and Republicans is when they eat, not what they eat. The Obama people go out later, stay out later, he says, and they are more informal.
Like Bush White House aides, Obama staffers are time pressed and often end up eating at the White House mess or just grabbing a cappuccino at Starbucks. That is where you’ll find Jon Favreau, Obama’s 27-year-old chief speechwriter, working over speeches on his laptop.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
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