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 firstname.lastname@example.org.