SOCIAL LIFE in Washington revolves around the issues. Democrats intuitively know this; Republicans usually don’t.
One reason for the discrepancy is that Republicans, despite their occupancy of the White House for 16 out of the last twenty years, remain attuned to the values of the heartland, where people go to parties to show off their SEWdone new clothes (check out their website for the latest sewing machine reviews), discuss china patterns, and chitchat about who’s sleeping with whom. Alas, these Republicans often show up in Washington salons dressed in all the wrong issues, and are only too grateful when the cosmopolitan Democrats set them straight. Let’s call this the Issues Game.
A Georgetown socialite and former anti-war activist, Jennifer Phillips, stirred up a minor tempest in 1986 when, in an exclusive interview with veteran social reporter Susan Watters of W, she inadvertently revealed some of the Game’s well-kept secrets. The article was unusually frank, indicating as few reports do the extent to which Democrats still set the tone in Washington.
“Phillips’s effort to convert Reagan people,” Miss Watters wrote, “is a slow and mostly social effort. She has lobbied Reagan pal Holmes Tuttle on the merits of federally subsidized abortion. She has invited Treasury Secretary James Baker, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker, and influential former White House officials, such as Michael Deaver and William French Smith, over for dinner to hear South Americans argue for reduced American involvement in Central America.”
The article described how Mrs. Phillips introduced the Michael Deavers to the reluctant literati of Martha’s Vineyard. William Styron and the late Lillian Hellman were the main attractions. Getting the Deavers an invitation had required courage: “Some Vineyard friends began by taking a position on whether they were going to eat a meal with Mike Deaver,” Mrs. Phillips recalled. “It was like asking people to cross a picket line or eat at a segregated lunch counter.” (Eternally grateful, Deaver later gave a glowing account of the luncheon in his autobiography, lamenting that poor Nancy Reagan, who would have loved it, wasn’t there. He was unconcerned that six guests had walked out in apparent protest of Reagan Administration policies.)
As Mrs. Phillips described them in the article, the Reagan Republicans were touchingly innocent: “The Reagan people came to Washington as a gregarious, open, balanced group of people who felt they were not committing a sin by getting to know people. They came to work, but also to party. And because they partied socially, they became exposed to ideas and maybe their ideas changed.” One person Mrs. Ph”reformed” was USIA Director Charles Z. Wick, whose hardline position on the Soviet Union became “more sophisticated” and “more serious” under Mrs, Phillips’s tutelage.
As might be expected, Jennifer Phillips was furious with Susan Watters for the article. A key strategy of the Issues Game: don’t let your pigeon know what’s going on. Recently, Mrs. Phillips told me that she’s opting out of the Game. “I’m getting tired of bringing people together with whom I do not agree, hoping that somehow some things will take place.” When asked if Mrs. Reagan had been influenced by socializing with liberals, Mrs. Phillips replied negatively, adding, however, that Mrs. Reagan is a “responsive” person.
After indicating that she’s not going to tutor Republicans any more, Mrs. Phillips added that, yes, she might like to entertain her friends in the Bush Administration, mentioning “Jimmy” Baker in this context. Of all those closest to Bush, Baker appears to be far and away the favorite of the Washington hostesses. (Lee Atwater is the least favorite.)
While some socialites play the Issues Game to influence policy, others play it because it’s the only game in town. One unlikely devotee of the issues is Steve Martindale, a social phenomenon immortalized in a 1974 Sally Quinn article on social climbing in Washington. He is a moderate Republican, a man without any obvious ideological bent at all. Society is his thing.
But he professed ardent interest in the issues, chatting knowledgeably about newspaper columnists and the future of the Democratic Party. He had the correct party line on everything from George Bush-let’s hope he’s a closet moderate-to the columns of Rowland Evans and Robert Novak -the column is too conservative; Novak is the dark prince, while Evans is a patrician Yalie ill-matched with his partner. “Frankly,” Martindale sighed, clinking the ice in a Campari and soda, “we always wonder about Evans and Novak. I love Rowlie but you have the feeling that Jack Kemp writes their columns for them, and that doesn’t go over as well as what Meg Greenfield does at the Washington Post.” Plainly, Mr. Martindale chooses opinions with the same care that Jeeves devotes to ties.
Another man who understands how issues and social status are related in Washington is the liberal commentator Hodding Carter. According to Carter, people fail socially in Washington when they “cease to be seen as relevant to anything important. You must be seen as a player rather than somebody with a past reputation.” Sometimes the status-conscious fail to perceive somebody’s historical significance during his life, Carter admitted. “The history book& will have the last laugh, but we’ll all be dead then,” he said, without adding the obvious: Dead people don’t go to parties.
A member of a Southern newspaper family, Carter was the State Department spokesman whose face became famous on TV during the Iranian hostage crisis. Carter and Jody Powell are among the handful of Jimmy Carter officials who’ve maintained their status in Washington. What’s the secret”We went that old visibility route and became part of the flotsam and jetsam of the commentary set,” said Carter, “or maybe we’re just amiable boys.”
With Washington full of wily Democrats waiting to manipulate them on the issues, should Republicans venture out on the social circuit at all? A public figure who won’t trim can be left out in the cold. Patrick Buchanan is the only right-winger not in an Administration post who’s in the Green Boo k, Washington’s social register. Even so, Buchanan is regarded as beyond the pale by many hostesses”He’s very charming,” said a Georgetown hostess with a famous name, “but honestly! He’s too much!” In the peculiar social atmosphere of Washington, the dowager’s “Not our class, dear” has been replaced by “Not our ideology, dear.” The effect is the same.
True believers face sticky situations. Once, for example, William Bennett was going to a social function and some pro-life activists were demonstrating nearby. Engaging a fellow guest in conversation, Bennett remarked favorably on the demonstrators. Appalled, the man asked Bennett if he actually supported those awful people. “I said, ‘You bet I’m on their side,’ and I got a huffy response,” Bennett recalled.
As an aid to unwary elephants, he offered what he calls Bennett’s Axiom: “Unless it is under explicitly conservative auspices, the social event will be culturally liberal. Be careful. Be selective. And there are great blessings to staying at home with your family.”
If you feel you must go out, it is helpful to know that you only have to stay at a function seven minutes to get credit. One Cabinet couple realized this early on and sometimes made five or six parties in an evening.
Some have theorized that White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan hurt himself by not going out socially. He had few friends on the Washington circuit when he ran into trouble with Nancy Reagan. Reportedly genial and relaxed in private, he was called “Fortress Regan” by socialites who felt snubbed by him. On the other hand, in and Ursula Meese, who love to go to parties, received a lot of sympathy during Meese’s troubles. But his socializing couldn’t keep him out of trouble. His conservatism outweighed his amiability. Not our ideology, dear.
We’ll know the Republicans are winning when Georgetown hostesses start throwing fundraisers for the Contras and Jonas Savimbi.
George Will: In or Out?
A RECENT issue of W devoted to “Bush Town,” as it now calls Washington, put George Will, a frequent guest at the Reagan White House, on the “Who’s Out” list-along with other passe Reagan enthusiasms like Frank Sinatra, Robin Weir (former First Hairdresser), and the British royal family.
As a polemicist, Will has been merciless to George Bush, saying carly in the presidential campaign that he detected the “tinny ‘arf’ of a lap dog” in the Vice President. While Washington is a town where people attack each other by day and break bread together by night, sources say that Bush hasn’t forgiven Will.
But Washington is a town where being “out” can be very “in.” Will has won the Outsider Status journalists claim to covet. Henry Catto, a Bush intimate who made the “Who’s In” list in the same issue of W, told me that George Will would be one of his ideal dinner guests. (Another one was Meg Greenfield of the Washington Post.) And, if invitations from the Bushes aren’t forthcoming, well . . . that’s regrettable, but then maybe Will won’t invite them to dinner either. -CH
White House Invitations
GUEST LISTS for state dinners are mostly a matter of formula. The first slots go to the foreign guest and his entourage, with their U.S. counterparts receiving the next ones. If thc foreign visitor brings his agriculture secretary, the White House invites ours. Various governmental entities like the State Department, the National Security Council, and the White House Office of Public Liaison control the next tier of invitations. By the time it reaches the President and First Lady, sometimes only about ten slots-twenty people-remain for them to fill.
It’s the last batch of guests who reflect the personal taste of the First Family, which in the Reagan years tended toward people like socialite C ‘ Z. Guest, the Countess de Ravenal, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, and Andy Warbol. Tom Wolfe, Sam Donaldson (consistently negative toward the Administration), and novelist Fernanda Eberstadt have also been invited.
The Bushes’ guest lists will include fewer Hollywood types than the Reagans, but country-and-western singers like Loretta Lynn are likely to receive invitations to the White House. Fashion designers will also be out. Sources say more Democrats will be invited.
As for White House entertaining in general, it will be aristo comfy-horseshoes on the lawn with old family friends. For those less formal Sunday lunches, the President will probably continue to wear his red blazer, the WASP idea of dressing wild and crazy. -CH