Sally Quinn announces the end of power in Washington


Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham greets Nancy Reagan and President-elect Ronald Reagan in December 1980 as they arrive for a party at her Georgetown home. (Harry Naltchayan)
June 7, 2012

In April, at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, my husband, Ben Bradlee, and I found ourselves sandwiched between the Kardashians and Newt and Callista Gingrich. Heavily made up and smiling for the cameras, the reality TV family and the political couple were swarmed over by the paparazzi, who were screaming and shouting the celebrities’ names to make them look toward the cameras for that million-dollar photograph.

I was shoved up against Callista’s hair and nearly broke my nose. It was scary. I felt as if I had been caught in a crowded theater and someone had yelled fire. Ben and I (he spouting expletives all the way), grabbed onto each other and managed to escape to the equally crowded hallway where desperate celebrity guests were heading toward the ballroom, murmuring to us as they passed, “Get me out of here.”

It was telling that Vanity Fair had bought more tables at the dinner than most of the Washington news organizations.

On the way home (we skipped the after-parties), I suddenly realized that this grotesque event signaled the end of power as we have known it. That dinner — which seemed to have more celebrities, clients and advertisers than journalists and politicians — was the tipping point.

As Tom Brokaw noted the next day on “Meet the Press,” it’s time to rethink the “glittering” annual dinner. The event, he said, “separates the press from the people they’re supposed to serve, symbolically.”

The decline of power has been happening for a while. In 1987, I wrote a piece for this magazine called “The Party’s Over.” In it, I chronicled the demise of the Washington hostess. That was 25 years ago, and people were complaining even then that Washington would never be the same.

But power still trumped money in those days. Today, money trumps power. If Katharine Graham, the late publisher of The Washington Post, were having a party today, and politicians or statesmen received a conflicting invitation to a party put together by Sheldon Adelson (Gingrich’s super PAC guy), where do you think people would go? Adelson. No question. Now, at a party, if you find people staring over your shoulder to see who’s more important in the room, they’re usually looking at someone rich, rather than someone powerful. (Or perhaps they’re staring at themselves in a mirror, as I once observed.)

Power in Washington used to be centered on the White House, the Congress, the Cabinet, the diplomatic corps and the journalists. Today, all of those groups depend on money for their very existence. The real power lies with the lobbyists, the money-raisers, the super PACs, the bundlers, the corporations and rich people. The hottest ticket on the planet is not an invitation to the White House but an invitation to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The irony is that in New York, I’m told, people are interested in power. In Washington, people are interested in money.

Think about it. The White House’s power comes from the money people give the president. He wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for his big donors. He had a Hollywood fundraiser last month  at George Clooney’s house where he raised $15 million. Those are the people who count. If the president thought that there was real power in Washington, that the Congress, the diplomatic corps or the journalists could help him in any way, then he and the first lady would surely go out more often.

The Obamas have been roundly criticized for not being part of the Washington social scene. The question is, does it matter? Could Obama win or lose the presidency because he has dissed the Washington community? I suspect the answer is no. It doesn’t matter anymore.

What he needs to win is big bucks, and he can see the people with that privately.

When I wrote “The Party’s Over,” I quoted Susan Mary Alsop, one of the great hostesses and wife of columnist Joe Alsop, the subject of a new Broadway production, “The Columnist.”

Susan Alsop told me then that a great Washington party “is a question of electricity. It’s also luck. If you’re fortunate enough to get the secretary of state and the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the night of an international crisis …

“It sounds ghoulish,” she said, “but it’s something you want to have.” I then wrote: “Good luck and good timing are great, but ultimately, a Washington party rises and falls with its power quotient. This has always been the case.”

Ain’t no mo’.

First of all, the senators are probably out trolling for money. When a senator or congressman walks into a room now, you don’t think power. You think, “Poor guy or gal, what a nightmare life that is.” They are beholden to so many people. They can’t get anything done on the Hill because of the hideous lack of bipartisanship. And they don’t even have the advantage of being treated especially well publicly, because they are not seen as having power. People on the Hill have the power to stop things, to investigate things, but not to get anything done. We used to celebrate the great compromisers. Now, they’re all denigrated.

The diplomats, too, have no power. The good ones, such as the British and the French, are more interested in economics than in power. They follow the money, as well.

The White House could have power but doesn’t engage. It doesn’t use its power, so its power doesn’t matter. If members of the administration do go out publicly (they see each other privately and in small groups of friends), they’re more often standing in a corner than in the center of the room, unlike, say Henry Kissinger, who used to dominate every party he attended by standing dead center as people clustered around him.

Journalists used to be powerful. But now there are so many 25-year-old bloggers, many of them showing up on the TV talk shows, that the old-timers are struggling to catch up, tweeting their hearts out and using hip language like “hashtags.” And those young bloggers care about money, too. There aren’t enough jobs, and newspapers and Web sites are struggling to make profits. Even the people on top are insecure. Nobody knows when he or she is going to be let go; the guillotine drops on media stars with alarming frequency.

Interest groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,Citizens United and American Crossroads have become more and more powerful, beating out everyone else in the game.

In the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin writes that the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United, allowing corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose political candidates, will change things dramatically: “The Roberts Court, it appears, will guarantee moneyed interests the freedom to raise and spend any amount, from any source, at any time, in order to win elections.”

There you have it. Money is power. The fundraiser has replaced the Washington dinner party.

Washington has become a community of small groups of people, mostly staying within their circles, occasionally making a foray out into the bigger world to large events, only to be turned off by the endless corporate “fundraiserness” of it all. How special can you feel when you know you have to pay to go to an event and then get a bad seat on top of that?

Could it be that the Obamas, not knowing Washington, think that’s all there is to the social life here? Who wouldn’t want to stay away? On the other hand, he is the president of the United States and, whether he likes it or not, the leader of social as well as political Washington.

But maybe this small-group trend is not such a bad thing. Maybe, as in one of those post-apocalyptic movies where the planet has been destroyed by war, people will begin to make their own lives.

That’s what Ben and I have done. In the past, we might have attended five-course dinners a couple of nights a week, with a different wine for each course, served in a power-filled room of politicians, diplomats, White House officials and well-known journalists. Those gatherings don’t exist anymore. Now, we host and go to small dinners with close friends, dinners with some meaning to them, dinners that are celebrations of something. These evenings are sacred to me. They are filled with love and respect and caring. People are never looking over their shoulders to see who is more powerful, or, more likely, richer.

For just a few hours on those nights, we enjoy one another’s company — and forget about the money.

Sally Quinn is editor in chief of On Faith and a Washington Post columnist. To comment on this article, send e-mail to wpletters@washpost.com.

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