Social Diary: Power and Society

by Virginia Coyne

Connectors in Washington discuss the state of the city’s social scene and the importance of breaking bread together to get things done.

Susanna Quinn, Sally Quinn, Rep. Debbie Dingell and Esther Coopersmith chatted with us in Coopersmith's Kalorama home.

Susanna Quinn, Sally Quinn, Rep. Debbie Dingell and Esther Coopersmith chatted with us in Coopersmith’s Kalorama home.

In his best-selling book the “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell labels individuals with “a very special gift of bringing people together” as Connectors. “People who link us up with the world … who introduce us to our social circles … people on whom we rely on more heavily than we realize.”

Ahead of our 25th anniversary issue, we gathered a quartet of the city’s top connectors to discuss social life in Washington. The central question: how important are social gatherings to the fabric of the city?

Weighing in were our gracious hostess Esther Coopersmith, who served as U.S. representative to the United Nations under President Jimmy Carter and who frequently welcomes ambassadors and others players on the world stage to her Kalorama home for a meeting of minds; Rep. Debbie Dingell, who succeeded her husband John as a U.S. representative from Michigan, and throughout her years as an auto executive and Democratic lawmaker has been known for bringing people together; author and journalist Sally Quinn, a renowned Georgetown hostess whose parties with late husband and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee were legendary; and Susanna Quinn, founder of the on-demand beauty and fitness app Veluxe, a granddaughter of former Senator Mike Monroney of Oklahoma and frequent host, along with husband and former White House general counsel Jack Quinn, to a rotating cast of journalists, politicos and tech entrepreneurs.

WASHINGTON LIFE: How has the social scene changed in the last quarter decade?

REP. DEBBIE DINGELL: The social scene has changed. Period. It used to be that that members of the House and the Senate got together with the media. There were hostesses like Sally and Esther who brought people together. You got to know each other. The thing that I’ve been most struck by, especially in the last two years, is how members get in a cocoon and never leave the Hill. They don’t go out at night, they don’t socialize. So, who is socializing in Washington right now is a good question.

SUSANNA QUINN: I think the congressional schedule makes such a difference. Twenty-five years ago members lived here with their kids. Democrats and Republicans socialized together. Today their schedule doesn’t allow them much time here. They go home on the weekends. And then there’s the time they spend fundraising.

SALLY QUINN: Years ago I wrote in a column that what killed the social life or certainly the atmosphere of bipartisanship and community in Washington was the advent of the airplane. What I meant was that people then could fly easily back to their home district. Whereas the families, as Susanna was saying, used to live here, most of them now live in their district so the members will come in Monday night, sleep on their sofa or in some group house and then fly out Thursday night. So, they’re not even here and when they are here they’re working until 10 or 12 at night, so they don’t go out. They don’t know each other.

REP. DEBBIE DINGELL: I’m the first to say I’m the member of the “last plane in/first plane out” club the minute votes are done. Rep. Candace Miller and I race to see to see who will be the first person on the plane. John’s at home. I want to be with him. But that is how the world has changed.

WASHINGTON LIFE: Do you think there’s any going back to how it used to be or will this be the status quo going forward?

REP. DEBBIE DINGELL: We have to find ways for people to get to know each other without there being a stigma attached to it. A lot of people would never even want to be part of a piece that says “Washington Society.” But it isn’t bad for people to get to know each other. It isn’t bad for people to work on causes.

SALLY QUINN: When I first started covering the social life in Washington, at every dinner there were Republicans and Democrats. And they were friends. At five o’clock they’d shut down and go into each other’s offices and pull out the bottle of bourbon and sit there and schmooze and have a good time. And now they don’t know each other. It’s easier to vilify someone if you don’t know them, don’t know their personal life and don’t know their stories.

When President Obama and President-Elect Trump met at the White House recently, Trump seemed humbled by the conversation and it struck me, they’d never met each other. So he looked at Obama and saw that he was a real person – a human being and a decent human being. He wasn’t “the other.” And I think that one of the problems in Washington now is that everyone else is “the other.” You don’t see them as real people.

ESTHER COOPERSMITH: It’s so much easier when you come together socially and then
from the social part it evolves to take care of business, because you’re actually meeting and talking and doing.

WASHINGTON LIFE: Can you give me examples of work that has gotten done at social events?

REP. DEBBIE DINGELL: John got a lot done at night. People talked at night. You build up the trust that ended up resulting in bills, legislation being developed. As John says, compromise isn’t a dirty word.

ESTHER COOPERSMITH: When I introduced Madames Begin and Sadat, that was a big one.

WASHINGTON LIFE: Some say that led to the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement…

ESTHER COOPERSMITH: Yes. I decided it was time they should know each other. I had the nerve to invite them both and it worked. It was fine and the women were terrific. The press was more concerned than me.

WASHINGTON LIFE: How would you describe the current social scene? I know the tech community is part of it now, too.

SUSANNA QUINN: The tech community is very interested in policy. I host Sunday barbeques attended by fellow entrepreneurs, as well as members of Congress and the Secretary of Homeland Security. But, I feel unlike any other city that I’ve ever spent time in, Washington is a place where its all about “what have you done today? What have you accomplished today?” Even if you make $500 million the next question is: “What are you going to do with it? Are you going to do something good with it?”

REP. DEBBIE DINGELL: People want substance now. You know, in Washington “social” is a bad word. People want to get to know each other but they want substance and policy. They don’t want fluff.

SALLY QUINN: But there’s a fine line between having substance and having a meeting. You don’t want to have a meeting. You want people to have fun, but they also want to discuss things that they care about. I sort of go high/low. We can talk about Aleppo and then switch to Brad and Angelina’s divorce. That’s very important to having a great dinner party.

This story appears in the December 2016 issue of Washington Life.

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