Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine


The first of an occasional “round table” discussion about issues affecting Washington arts, business, politics and society.

Kevin Chaffee, social editor of the Washington Times; Roxanne Roberts, Washington Post “Out & About columnist”; and Susan Watters, Washington correspondent for W magazine met after the election on November third to discuss the Washington social scene.

[The president and Social Washington]

Susan Watters: The president is like the captain of the baseball or football team. If he doesn’t go out, then no one goes out. This president does not go out and he does not seem to like people who do.

Roxanne Roberts: That is one of the things that has been really interesting to watch over the years. The White House used to be, without question, the social center of Washington but increasingly, presidents have engaged less with social Washington. It’s really a philosophical notion that to do so has a corrosive or corrupting effect. It is totally unfair and untrue. As The White House has backed away from Washington, Washington has branched out and become more self-sufficient.

SW: It’s corrosive to the social scene because if you’re writing for a national magazine or newspaper, it’s hard to get coverage for parties with just local people.

RR: Increasingly, people who work on Capitol Hill and in the White House don’t see Washington as their home. It’s temporary, and there’s no evidence that they have an emotional stake in making the city great. All the different charitable events are about enhancing the city in one way or another. If you don’t feel ties to this place, you won’t have the desire to invest in it, and you are not going to engage.

SW: Ronald Reagan had no ties to Washington but he was very smart because when he first arrived students had demonstrated against him, and there was an impression that he was a reactionary nut. But he was incredibly charming and the social scene served him very well. He always looked like a gentleman. President Reagan has a great legacy of being socially engaged with people of both parties… I think Clinton would have been much more social if he hadn’t had the state trooper problem so early in his administration. I remember Hillary inviting us all in for something but then it got a little less friendly after [Troopergate].

Kevin Chaffee: It’s unprecedented that the president and first lady are so rarely involved in Washington’s social life. You can go back to James and Dolly Madison and you will find that not only did people come to the White House but the president and the first lady went out. Richard Nixon would go to Alice Roosevelt Longwood’s house to have dinner. Even the Clintons went out and they had thousands of people in.

SW: The Bushes could be doing things but just not in public. They have a small circle of friends which was evidenced the night of the election when they had family in.

RR: George Bush, Sr., who knew and liked Washington, was very open and gracious. He understood that someone might be your political enemy but you could still engage that person on a social basis. I was very surprised when his son was so hostile to the press and to what appears to be a pretty innocuous White House social give and take.

SW: He probably questioned what his father got out of it and I think he came [to Washington] with a real attitude. His father had thousands of people to dinner but still got kicked out of office.

RR: In 1994, Newt Gingrich said Washington is inherently evil and the less time you spend engaging people who live here, the better off you’ll be. I think it creates a very isolationist view. If you never hear any other opinions or viewpoints and only get reinforcement from people who think exactly like you, it can create errors and a certain kind of arrogance. I complain bitterly about our lack of professional access in covering the White House. But when the president fails to engage with the establishment of Washington—ex-politician’s, and diplomats—who have years of experience and commitment to the idea of government, he misses out on the wisdom that comes from that brain trust. And, if you are dismissive of that, you also lack the ability to tap into it if you ever get into trouble.

SW: But he won [the election], so that means he was right.

KC: Look at the great publicity previous presidents have gotten being actively engaged in the social fabric of Washington, D.C. The two chief examples who come to mind are President and Mrs. Reagan, and President and Mrs. Kennedy. They created a huge allure for Washington, for politics and the desire for others to come here. They made Washington attractive. Everybody wanted to visit. And now it just seems to be over.

SW: People from New York don’t come here now…

KC: I’m not just talking about the Hollywood contingent which I think has been overemphasized in recent times. I’m talking about people with great merit. The White House is the people’s house, and the people don’t seem to have much access to it right now. It’s not being covered at all.

SW: The president has used terrorism as an excuse for not having the White House open to the press, but I covered a dinner before there was a terrorism problem, and he didn’t allow much coverage then. His attitude is that he wants to keep his social life private.

RR: I support his right to have a private family life and a private social life. What I object to is when that principle is extended to, for example, a state dinner where he is entertaining another head of state at taxpayer expense. When you decide to sign up for this job you accept a certain kind of lifestyle. And this president likes it informal, likes to control his message, likes to do a lot of things that are counter-intuitive from a president and an administration. I think that Washington loses and the presidency loses because it creates an air of suspicion about what is happening behind closed doors. Are there special interests, are there special favors, are certain people getting deals? There is a sense that the lack of transparency is covering something up, which may or may not be fair to the president or the first lady.

KC: And they are enormously charming people. The two times in four years that I have been to The White House and spoken to them, I have left with the thought of how much is being lost that more people aren’t coming in and meeting them and getting to know them.

RR: Those who engage in the social aspects of Washington have basically been forced to look elsewhere and adapt. But it also speaks not just to the nature of this president but to the changing nature of Washington. Washington is much more diverse, it’s richer, it has many more interests and diversity than it ever had before. So, the White House is not the be all and end all. It’s still a wonderful invitation. But it isn’t “Oh my God there’s no social life in Washington because the president doesn’t want to have dinner with us.”

SW: I think the Bush people think that to go out and socialize with Washington means you lose your loyalty to the team. You get [seduced] by so many different people, you have more of a tendency to leak. This president doesn’t want leaks of any kind.

KC: No president likes leaks.

SW: But everybody leaked in the Reagan administration. So now that Bush has been elected, my question is will the administration be more social because there’s not as much to lose?

RR: I’ve always believed that it’s a misnomer to think people are not working from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. in Washington. They are working, but it is masked by the veneer of social graces. People are getting to know each other, learning who they are dealing with, and assessing what their common ground is. All of which I think is enormously valuable.

SW: And there’s a huge advantage in not having to go through secretaries, or having your name written in a logbook for the record.

[Who “dines out”?]

SW: Cheney goes out a lot. I think he has complete freedom to go out.

RR: I see Rumsfeld out, and I see Wolfowitz occasionally and Colin Powell, whom I think has a genuine sense of investment in Washington. Andy Craig goes out because he has a lot of friends from the first Bush administration.

SW: Wolfowitz is at the opera a lot. He likes the opera.

KC: In the cabinet, Norman Minetta and Ann Veneman. But you don’t see too many others. People don’t even know who the Secretary of the Treasury is.

[Washington’s evolving power structure]

KC: Susan, when did you start covering this stuff?

SW: Oh no, (laughter)…we’re not going that far back?

KC: Since Herbert Hoover was president? (laughter)

SW: Right after Nixon resigned.

KC: How has it changed since the Ford Administration? That was a glamorous time.

SW: It was like after the [Berlin] Wall came down, there was a lot of partying because Nixon was gone.

KC: There was a sense of relief.

SW: We have to remember that Washington in the past was very bi-partisan. Henry Kissinger and Ben Bradlee would go to parties together.

KC: Even the great Democratic hostesses of Georgetown had Republicans to their parties.

RR: Katharine Graham set the gold standard on this.

SW: She invited George W. Bush to a dinner.

KC: …and Reagan and Clinton.

SW: Jim Baker went to Margaret Tutwiler to ask her to get Katharine Graham to have a dinner for young George [W. Bush].

RR: Bill Gates and Steve Case were at that dinner. For the past seven years, Washington has had a new group of people who have much more money to throw around and invest in Washington.

SW: I think she [Graham] was showing the president how much power she had, but nobody in Washington is the equivalent of a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffet. The strength of Washington is that as a capital city you can draw those people here. Kay Graham drew in top titans of industry and people from all over the world. In past administrations all those people came to town, but not anymore.

KC: It’s true that the White House is no longer much of a social magnet, but everybody comes to Washington sooner or later…from Hollywood, from Europe…

SW: Who’s coming? There’s no one coming. And now we have four more years of that.

[The business community’s changing role in the social scene]

RR: Because of the lack of involvement and the disengagement of both the Hill and the White House, the social stew is more diverse and it’s become more self reliant.

SW: It’s like being in Boston and having no one from Harvard go anywhere, or New York and having no one from Wall Street go anywhere, or Detroit and having nobody from Ford Motor go anywhere.

RR: Washington has managed to survive over the last four years if the Speaker of the House doesn’t come to a party.

SW: But you’re not able to do as much business at a party. God help the poor person who is a social reporter trying to start now. When I first started, I met and knew everybody. You wouldn’t have a chance to meet anyone today.

RR: I don’t meet as many members of the administration and I don’t get to know them. But that means I get to know other people better. For decades the business communities in Washington were basically ignored or treated as unimportant and they had a big investment in the city.

SW: It was always good for the Washington business community in the past because you would read in the national press about their going to dinner with the president. I mean you’d read about Hechinger, John Hechinger and all the Garfinkel’s and Woodie’s people. Nationally people don’t read about our local business people as much because they’re not going to dinner with the President. Sure, you read about them in the little pond of social Washington but you’re not reading about them in national papers. Today, you have everybody together without the king.

KC: There’s no more Susan Mary Alsops and Marjorie Merriweather Post and even Arianna Huffington is gone. The charity benefits are all corporate types. It’s “pay as you go society.”

RR: That’s very disrespectful to the huge number of people who are really committed to making Washington wonderful.

SW: No it’s not disrespectful, it’s just accurate. What is disrespectful to the people in Washington who are trying to make the city great is that the President and his administration basically feel that in order to get elected you have to pretend that you have nothing to do with Washington…we’re basically in the social Middle Ages, it doesn’t mean thousands of wonderful things won’t happen in the next four years. Great books will be written, great concerts will be given, and great plays will be performed, but at some point there has to be a renaissance. And hopefully there will be another Kennedy or another Reagan who will say let’s all come out of our little places of quietude and let the sun shine.

[Merit vs. Money]

SW: People like Susan Mary Alsop and Evangeline Bruce felt that it was merit not money that counted, but when power stays home it doesn’t shine the light and the scene becomes more like New York, where it’s all about money.

RR: There are also class issues. I think of Washington as having a tradition of the French salons where the women were able to create meeting places for the best minds, the most charming and the most charismatic people— although it is true that they had to have money to do that. It’s easy to talk about merit when you have a home where you can invite everyone to and make things happen. Washington was forced kicking and screaming to open its doors to the baby billionaires because they just couldn’t ignore the money, and needed to court it. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. It injected a certain kind of energy and enthusiasm into a city that may have been a little bit stuck in its ways.

KC: The whole social scene is so predicated on philanthropy. In the old days people would have at-home dinner dances.. It was unheard of until the 1970’s to go to all these fundraising benefits. Before that there were a few, but even many of them were private. Now everything is public.

RR: There’s much more of it than there used to be.

KC: Everybody knows who can afford a $1,000 seat and who can’t. We have become a society of philanthropy and, of course, that’s very helpful and wonderful for so many important causes.

SW: That leads to a very interesting question, which is how people form genuine friendships in Washington. Will someone still be your friend when you don’t have the title or can’t write the check anymore? So, I don’t think you form that many real friendships here. The ones you do form are blessings.

KC: Most intelligent people who are out on the social scene know who would still send them invitations and who wouldn’t if they lost their money, their rank or their job.

RR: People intellectually know it but when it happens to them they’re still surprised. Washington VIP’s sometimes act like teenagers with drivers licenses. They know bad things happen but they never think it’s going to happen to them.

[Grandes Dames, faux pas and making your social mark]

SW: People make social careers in Washington by finding the right junior secretary in an embassy and cultivating that person until he moves up. They’ll know him for 30 years. That’s an art.

RR: Are they trying to do it because they care about this city and the people in it, or to further their careers? There is a distinction.

KC: I don’t see any rising stars on the scene right now.

RR: I don’t think Washington will ever have a grande dame again because the circumstances that created them don’t exist today. The time a woman could devote to being a grande dame is now being put into a career. The social world changes faster than the rules can adapt. Everybody is constantly trying to figure out how to make it work from a logistical/practical standpoint, and from an etiquette standpoint. Can you invite your pals over for pot luck and sit around the TV watching a video, is that considered entertaining? Is it bad that everybody is so tired and exhausted and can’t plan in advance? Is it bad to invite your friends whom you genuinely like to pony up $1,000 for your favorite charity with the expectation that they’ll do the same to you?

KC: It’s called payback and it’s a very important part of the game.

SW: You can’t have friends who can’t afford that $1,000 ticket, which I think is the pits.

RR: The social world, the etiquette world, the business world — all these things are changing and everybody is scrambling to try to figure out how to adapt and fly between them.

KC: Only people with good manners survive.

RR: What are the faux pas of today? A faux pas could be doing this interview.

SW: A faux pas could be promising one million dollars and then reneging on it.

KC: That’s more than a huge faux pas, that’s social suicide.

RR: Every city has a cultural norm— most of which is unspoken— that a shrewd person attempts to deconstruct. You can’t come in thinking you’re going to take over just because you have money and ambition. Something that will be fine in California may not work at all here.

[Who entertains beautifully and what makes a good party]

KC: Many of the embassies such as Japan, France, Italy, Kuwait and Great Britain entertain beautifully. Private hostesses who do so are Ann Nitze, Gale Hayman, Buffy Cafritz, Deeda Blair, Ina Ginsburg….

SW: Lucky Roosevelt does interesting book parties, Mary Ourisman, Esther Coopersmith…

RR: The Brillembourgs, they’re very gracious.

KC: It’s a given that they have a beautiful house, beautiful flowers, food and service. It’s the guests that make it worthwhile and fun.

SW: I have been to a beautiful party in an Arlington Virginia basement and it was the guests that made it. Roy Pfautch always gave good parties and he’ll be an interesting person to watch because he did not entertain at all in the first four years of the Bush Administration. I think now he’ll entertain again. He is a really good party-giver and he uses paper plates.

RR: It’s not the guests, it’s how the host and hostess make the guests feel. A good host is like a catalyst. They create the kind of spontaneous combustion between people so that you walk away thinking, “I had the best time.” Sometimes it’s music, sometimes it’s lighting, You can have all the classic elements of a great party but if you don’t have that spark, that little bit of frisson that makes the guests really excited that they are there…

SW: But if you have the Secretary of State there, you get frisson right away.

KC: It immediately creates a buzz but most of the parties you go to are same old, same old. You know exactly who is going to be there and they are all very nice and you like them but it is essential to have new and interesting people, attractive people, etc.

SW: I remember a party back in the Stone Age when Henry Kissinger was pulled off to the side to take a call from the British Prime Minister. To me, what makes Washington social life fun is when you get those very rare moments when an event and history interact outside of a normal work day.

KC: I remember Jimmy Carter and John Anderson turning up at the same party in 1980 after Carter had refused to include Anderson in the presidential debates. Everyone watched Anderson slowly pursuing Carter around the room. Carter eventually got out without ever having to shake Anderson’s hand. That was great fun and everybody talked about it for at least a week.

SW: At the Democratic Convention, I was at a party where Al Gore was complaining to Howard Dean that he could not believe Fox had not run his speech and had put Ralph Nader on the air instead. It was interesting to see Gore’s anger and a spontaneous moment like that.

KC: It will never happen again if they don’t go out.

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