Washington in the '80s: All Dressed Up and Someplace to Go
By Roxanne Roberts and Donnie Radcliffe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 6, 2004; Page D01
On the eve of Ronald Reagan's first inauguration in 1981, Frank Sinatra performed "Nancy With the Reagan Face" for his dear friend:
I'm so proud that you're first lady, Nancy,
And so pleased that I'm sort of a chum
The next eight years will be fancy
As fancy as they come.
And fancy they were: White-tie parties. Fur coats. Limousines.
Washington has always embraced wealth and privilege, as long as it's done well. John and Jackie Kennedy defined modern aristocratic grace and transformed a sleepy political capital into a world-class city.
But then came Lyndon Johnson's Texas thunder, Richard Nixon's dour intensity, Gerald Ford's Midwest earnestness and Jimmy Carter's down-home modesty.
Just when natives despaired that there would never be another reason to break out the Important Jewels, the Reagans swept into the White House with a heady combination of old-fashioned charm, money and Hollywood style.
And Washington lapped it up.
"It became the true center not simply of government but of glamour," said Ken Duberstein, Reagan's White House chief of staff. "Georgetown parties were in again. So were tuxedos and, occasionally, white tails. People got dressed up to go to dinner."
Washington's Establishment found plenty to like about the new First Couple. First and foremost, the president liked Washington -- or at least said he did, and reached out to both Republicans and Democrats in the city.
On his first trip to the city after the 1980 election, the president-elect hosted a small dinner party at the F Street Club. "The difference between the word 'president' and 'resident' is only one letter," Reagan told the 50 guests, who included Vice President-elect George Bush, Mayor Marion Barry, lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, National Gallery Director J. Carter Brown and businessman John Hechinger. "I want to feel that I am both the president and a resident of Washington."
There was an undeniable charisma around this former movie star, a quality that won over even the most serious of Washington's elite.
"I can remember people talking about how you could disagree with his politics and programs, but if you spent five minutes with the man you couldn't help but like him," said Elaine Crispen, former press secretary to Nancy Reagan.
"He was a wonderful guest," said former chief of protocol Selwa "Lucky" Roosevelt. "He rose to the occasion. Everyone, at first, was a little tongue-tied. He would start by asking you something, then telling a wonderful anecdote. He laughed a lot."
Lacking the easy charm of her husband, Nancy Reagan took another route into the heart of Washington: the Ladies Who Lunch.
"She went around and had lunch with various Washington hostesses, girl to girl, to get to know the Old Washington Establishment," said Letitia Baldrige, Jackie Kennedy's social secretary. "None of the other first ladies had cared to do that."
The residents of Washington were wooed and won. In a kind of reverse snobbery, Jimmy Carter had effectively snubbed the locals for four years. Now, even before the inauguration, the Reagans were guests of honor at dinner parties hosted by Katharine Graham, George Will and Howard Baker.
Everything in the nation's capital became more formal, reported Glamour magazine in 1981. The fancy parties got fancier, and the people accustomed to casual entertaining were issuing formal invitations and using caterers and florists. Fine food and wine were once again political and correct. So many parties were black-tie that one retailer reported a surge in tuxedo purchases instead of rentals.
"It elevated the standard," said Roosevelt. "If you received [the Reagans], you wanted it to be the best you could do, and if you went to their house, so to speak, you knew it was the best it could be."
Bluejeans were out. Designer gowns were in. The first inauguration was celebrated with a white-tie, four-day, $11 million extravaganza complete with Sinatra, Johnny Carson, Bob Hope and Charlton Heston. There were rich parties with richer guests: Walter and Lee Annenberg, Betsy and Alfred Bloomingdale, Averell and Pamela Harriman, and Evangeline Bruce.
"They brought together Pennsylvania Avenue, Fifth Avenue, Rodeo Drive and Main Street," said Duberstein. The parties were an exciting mix of politics, money, glitz and populism -- standard presidential politics these days, but unprecedented in 1981.
Art historian Anne Hollander deconstructed the Reagan glamour:
"The much-vaunted 'style' allegedly sweeping Washington and now representing the nation is nothing new -- it is only new in Washington," she wrote shortly after the Reagans arrived in town. This particular style of wealth, she continued, had a cinematic aura, ladylike and gentlemanly in the simplistic manner of movies before explicit sex, drugs and Vietnam. "One other attraction in the new presidential style may be that it generally reflects the taste of older people after all these relentless years of youth. Perhaps, as the number of citizens over 60 increases and can be inspired by such a glittering ideal in the White House, our younger Americans may at length wish to copy their elders, instead of the other way around."
If the Reagan style sparked a restoration of grown-up elegance, it boosted even more the restoration of America's pride during the last years of the Cold War. The formality, the pomp and circumstance were sold as a kind of old-fashioned, majestic patriotism.
"The Reagans were able to integrate style -- what you might say architects call form and function," said Jim Rosebush, a former aide to Nancy Reagan. "They were able to integrate style with diplomacy, with policy and politics. . . . They interpreted the presidency in a way that made Americans feel important and made Americans feel the presidency was important. Things have totally changed today. Everything has become more casual -- it wouldn't work today -- but at the time, particularly because we needed to win the Cold War, it was very important that Americans felt they could stand tall."
And so each White House event was staged for maximum impact, thanks mostly to the first lady. "She was the one who had all the fashion sense and cared about the tables," said Baldrige. "She wanted everything to be perfect, she made it that way."
"The women wore their nicest evening dresses," said Roosevelt. "The flowers were stunning -- those were Mrs. Reagan's pride and joy. The food was delicious, absolutely perfect."
During their eight years in the White House, the Reagans hosted more than 50 state dinners, including the one for England's Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1985 with guests such as Clint Eastwood, Tom Selleck, Neil Diamond and John Travolta -- who danced with the beautiful young princess in the marbled White House foyer.
Gradually, the love affair between the Reagans and Washington cooled. They were all style and no substance, social critics sniffed privately. Glamour was not an acceptable response to a growing deficit or the Iran-contra scandal. The furious behind-the-scenes battles and Nancy Reagan's astrology obsessions were chronicled in ousted chief of staff Donald Regan's memoir, "For the Record."
Even Clark Clifford, the consummate Washington gentleman renowned for his impeccable manners, was secretly taped calling the president an "amiable dunce."
Although the first lady still frequented local haunts such as the Jockey Club, the president preferred to spend his free time at the White House or, better yet, at his California ranch during his second term.
After the 1988 election, People magazine crowed: "No fancy Nancy, unflappable Barbara Bush brings a simpler Yankee style, 10 lively grandchildren and the first man she ever kissed to the White House."
The glamour days were gone.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company