In Washington back then, parties mattered— not party lines
Why can’t we party like it’s 1989?
In Washington back then, parties mattered— not party lines
BY SONDRA AND ALLAN GOTLIEB • Was it
Jane Austen who said, “Everything happens at parties?” During the Reagan era, when we occupied the official residence of the Canadian ambassador to Washington, it was certainly true.
No doubt this was, in large part, thanks to the trickle-down effect from the White House. The president is like the Sun King, and the new royal couple, the Reagans, fresh from California, wished to entertain and mingle with the locals. The West Coast “kitchen cabinet” of Ron and Nancy (consisting of their personal friends), the White House appointees and high officials, took their cue from the Reagans and also mixed with the Washington locals—many, indeed most, of whom were Democrats. Democrats, especially former senators and congressmen, often stay in Washington even if their party is out of power, while Republicans tend to go back home.
If president Reagan was the sun, Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, was the moon, the most powerful and prominent non-politico in Washington. Both
Nancy Reagan and Kay Graham liked to entertain and be entertained. Eventually Mrs. Reagan and Mrs. Graham, a Democrat, became good friends, even though the Washington Post destroyed the Republican Nixon administration, and they remained so even when the Post and the Democratic Congress were trying to bring down the Reagan regime during
the Iran-Contra affair. Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor, and most of the gleeful liberals on the Post, believed they had another Watergate on their hands. Whether Mrs. Graham agreed or cared was hard to tell.
We were staying with Katharine Graham at her summer house in Martha’s Vineyard a week before Nancy Reagan was coming for an informal visit. Kay was pretty nervous, pacing out how many steps Mrs. Reagan might like to walk along the shoreline and worrying about whom to invite to dine with the president’s wife. Kay was astonished that Mrs. Reagan wasn’t even bringing her personal maid.
Many people in Canada still underestimate Reagan and his presidency, but the American public would love to see him back. The American “Camelot” usually refers to the Kennedy period, but a less legendary but longer lasting Camelot emerged during the two terms of president Reagan. Ronald Reagan was a
genial and generous optimist, who gave the Americans back their confidence stolen by Jimmy Carter with his talk of an American malaise. Carter’s regime was a dour one—he gave orders to serve Coke in cans at White House receptions and banned hard liquor on the premises—or sometimes billed people if they insisted on a real drink. The Reagans brought back the crystal glasses and a social life that the public associated with the Kennedys and their glittering White House.
If the Republicans took their cue from the president, the Georgetown hostesses and the high media took their cue from Mrs. Graham. Evangeline Bruce, Polly Fritchey, Ben Bradlee and his wife, Sally Quinn, broadcaster David Brinkley and his wife, Susan, former columnist and Kennedy pal Joseph Alsop, Post columnist Joe Kraft and his wife, Polly (except for Brinkley, all the aforementioned were Democrats), happily entertained the Republican administration over and over again.
There were Sunday brunches, barbecues, buffets, luncheons, sit-down dinners and huge fundraising events, given by lobbyists, to which ambassadors were rarely invited. Foreign countries don’t, of course, provide funds or find votes for American politicians. But political fundraisers were one of the best
places (if not the most enjoyable) for an ambassador to meet those all-important congressmen whose agenda could have so much impact on the interest of their countries. The Canadian ambassador, if not the wife, was always delighted to be invited to an American political fundraiser.
This was also the era of
the Georgetown salon, where a dozen or so power-players, Republicans and Democrats, could sit across the table and argue about politics to the point of throwing buns at each other. They certainly did so at our embassy, as well as at Joe Alsop’s Georgetown house and his ex-wife Susan Mary Alsop’s and at Polly Fritchey’s intimate sit-downs. There was nothing garish or vulgar about these parties.
Most of the Washington hostesses had inherited money as well as pedigree. (Joe Alsop was related to the Roosevelts and Susan Mary was a Jay.) They decorated their not
very large but elegant Georgetown houses with long puddling taffeta curtains and they served lots of liquor and indifferent food, except for Katharine Graham’s French chef, who always provided five rich and delicious courses, which she deplored. “He’s used to doing what he likes,” she explained.
It cannot be overemphasized how much Mrs. Reagan and Katharine Graham played a part in this phenomenon of political miscegenation. On the other hand, Pamela Hardman, also a grand hostess, rarely added any Republican pepper to her parties. Winston Churchill’s former daughter-in-law was a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat who devoted her time to fundraisers. We were invited to many
of her parties, including her husband Averell Hardman’s wake, but her partisanship was usually in evidence.
According to virtually all sources, convivial Camelot has now disappeared. Almost all the grand hostesses of the era are dead and have not really been replaced by younger women. Perhaps the rise of feminism has something to do with the decline of the hostess—the role is no longer seen, perhaps, as appropriate for an ambitious woman.
The George W. Bush regime has not followed in
the Reagans’ path for a number of reasons. First, the events of 9/11 resulted in a period of mourning in and out of the White House. Formal dinners for official visitors became a rarity. Then there was the Iraq war, which has divided the two political parties far more deeply and pervasively than Iran-Contra. Thirdly, last but not least, George W. likes to go to bed early and has no interest in socializing with the locals unless they happen to be close friends.
“The salon party which included the media, some prominent Democrats and members of the Republican administration,” we are told, “has all but vanished from the Washington scene.” The only times you see any political mixing are at “disease of the week” events, the Washington National Opera and galas at the Kennedy Center, such as the Kennedy Center Honors, where political people of all stripes are willing to spend a fortune to mingle with the Hollywood stars.
Another factor that has brought about change is that there has been an explosion of money in McLean, Va., where the dot-com types live and party, as well as extraordinarily rich lobbyists like Ed Rogers from Alabama, whose Scarlett-in-Sheetrock l8,000-sq.-foot mansion is a place for extravagant Republican fundraisers. How the Alsops, Mrs. Bruce and Mrs. Graham would have scorned them. In the Reagan years, fundraisers, of course, gave parties. But the fashionable parties were never about money: they were about power— and yes, conversation.
But as in those years, everything still trickles down from the top. The White House insiders, the cabinet and the high officials follow the President’s lead and are not as eager to
THE SALON PARTY HAS VANISHED. THESE DAYS, THE KUWAITIS THROW THE BIGGEST BASHES IN TOWN.
entertain or be entertained as the Reagan White House. There continue to be small parties among Republicans and small parties among the Democrats, but the twain does not meet, as in the old Reagan style.
Still, people try. Buffy Caff itz—her husband is the grandson of Gwen Cafrtiz, who used to be a leading hostess during the time of Dwight Eisenhower—entertained during the Reagan years and is still at it with her Christmas party at the Willard Hotel. Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee entertain and even had members of the Bush administration, past and present, including Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove, to their Georgetown house.
Everybody writes a book in Washington, and book parties have become almost a plague. If it’s a non-partisan book, people from both political parties will attend. The big entertaining embassy these days is the Kuwaitis. The Kuwaiti ambassador (for all kinds of political reasons, like his country’s support for the Americans in Iraq) attracts members of the administration as well as the Congress. Another bipartisan attraction is getting an invitation to see a football game from the owner of the Washington Redskins. In our time, former Canadian Jack Kent Cooke owned the Skins, and Art Buchwald, a passionate Democrat, and Democratic party power broker
Robert Strauss, as well as Republican Bill Safire and vice-president George Bush, were happy to be his guests. Daniel Snyder, today’s owner of the Redskins, also uses his box to attract the famous and powerful.
Hillary Rodham Clinton recently held a fundraising party for 40 people in her house. It’s called a bundling event, where a core group of supporters reach out to a large number of modest contributors whose gifts must conform to legal limits but, when taken together, add up to a lot.
“I think the Democrats and Republicans meet in church,” another source told us. “Everybody is going to church a lot more than in
Reagan’s Washington.” People also meet at restaurants, like the popular Café Milano, and the young staffers who, then as now, live in holes in the walls, meet and mix at bars, Democrats and Republicans alike. “They are too poor to be fussy,” says a different source.
Aventure capitalist purchased Katharine Graham’s mansion in Georgetown, but we’re told “the place looks a lot quieter.” A friend of ours, a young banker, recently bought Evangeline Bruce’s grand house a few blocks away. He does not aspire to be the next Joe Alsop. M
Allan Gotlieb, former Canadian ambassador to Washington, is the author of Washington Diaries 1981-1989. Sondra Gotlieb has written two books about life in Washington, Wife Of and Washington Rollercoaster.z
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