Most afternoons in Yemen, the men gather for social occasions and political discussions. They chew the fresh leaves of a plant called khat. The leaves are a mild stimulant and the men store them in their cheeks as they talk. Though they may be armed with machine guns, Kalashnikov rifles and crescent-shaped swords, there is never any fighting at these events. The purpose is to bond, negotiate power relationships, share information, make policy decisions and explore solutions to particularly divisive issues. These are called "khat chews."
Here's what we need in Washington: more khat chews.
Here's what we don't need: more inaugural balls.
In this administration, the idea of getting together socially with colleagues, political adversaries and even members of the president's own party seems to be regarded, as Attorney General-designate Alberto Gonzales has said of the Geneva Conventions, as "quaint" and "obsolete." Many in Washington's diplomatic and social circles have concluded that President Bush and those around him have no interest in meeting new people, exchanging ideas with those who differ with them, reaching out to the community in which they live, or, through the embassies, to the larger world.
Yes, we all know that President Bush doesn't drink. And yes, it is important for the president to get enough rest. But the guy's got to eat.
Why not have dinner with small groups once a week? Seven to nine people, in and out. He could meet people he doesn't know. Meet his critics. Listen to them. Let them listen to him. Most people who spend any time with George Bush, even those who are adamantly opposed to his policies, find him an engaging and disarming person. You'd never know it talking to most Washingtonians, who have hardly ever laid eyes on our president. He might as well live in Crawford. He and his administration are viewed as an occupying army based in the White House, which is off limits to everyone else. This must be how the Iraqis feel about the Green Zone.
In the beginning, the Bush White House invited a few outsiders to movie screenings, including several members of the Kennedy family. The president seemed to be reaching out. But that soon slowed to a trickle.
The lack of social contact only serves to reinforce the global perception that Americans are arrogant and have no interest in or concern for the rest of the world. Many prominent ambassadors in Washington complain that they almost never see the president and that while they continually invite top members of the administration to their parties, they never show up.
The diplomats feel insulted. This is unprecedented in Washington. The administration is like a black hole in the social universe of the city.
Since President Bush has been in office, there have been only four state dinners. His father had more than that in his first six months in office. The honored guests were the leaders of Mexico, Poland, the Philippines and Kenya. What about all the countries the United States has called on to send troops to Iraq? What about the countries assisting in the fight against terror?
Bush has had heads of state to the ranch and Camp David, and that's good. But those are small, private events with a few close friends and family. They don't include so many Americans from different walks of life. The White House is, after all, the people's house, and it's the element of "the people" that's missing from these encounters with foreign guests.
There is plenty of precedent for the administration to draw on. It used to be that after hours, government officials would meet for social gatherings with congressmen from both parties, diplomats, attorneys and members of the media and put their differences behind them. They would hear other points of view, see the human and personal side of their political adversaries and discover things they had in common. Work got done, policies were conceived and information was exchanged, all over drinks and dinner. While differences remained, sympathy and understanding were established.
The Bushes have been heard to remark to friends that they haven't entertained much in the past four years because it would have been unseemly after 9/11 and because the country has been at war. But that is exactly why they should be entertaining. In a time of crisis it is more important than ever to bring people together, to reach out and try to work with a wide spectrum of people.
Republican Tom Kean, co-chairman of the 9/11 commission, spoke at a small private dinner recently. He recounted the daily workings of the body, which comprised equal numbers of members from both parties. They worked so well together, he said, because they had dinner together almost every night and really got to know each other. Sounds like a no-brainer, doesn't it?
Now comes the inauguration. Suddenly Sept. 11 and the war are no longer inhibiting factors. Nine inaugural balls are scheduled, plus three candlelight dinners, a week of parading, partying and socializing, all for the big donors, at a cost of more than $40 million. This as American troops and Iraqis are dying daily and the death toll from the Asian tsunami continues to rise.
President Bush missed an opportunity to make a statement and to change the image of the United States abroad. This is his second inauguration, after all. Franklin D. Roosevelt didn't have a parade or inaugural ball during his final inauguration, in 1945, during World War II.
The president could have had one party for close friends, family and those who have been the most valuable to the campaign. He could have asked those big corporations and fat cats who made donations to the inauguration to donate instead to tsunami relief efforts or to support American troops. I'll bet most Americans would have celebrated the president for downsizing this hugely expensive and glittering social event.
The president has it backward. He eschews the kind of meaningful entertaining that reaches out and makes connections, and embraces the kind that speaks only to those who are already on his side.
What he needs is a series of khat chews.
According to Yemen expert Lisa Wedeen of the University of Chicago, khat chews "are a commitment to verbal disagreement. The participants temporarily forswear the use of violence, which makes them not so scary." Khat, she says, is hard on the stomach; you must eat first. "The whole point is to get your bellies full so you can have a khat-chew conversation."
Second-term presidents often think that because they don't have to run again, they don't have to reach out anymore. This is shortsighted. Recent second terms have been notoriously disastrous. George Bush will need friends and sympathizers.
Though it may be only symbolic (khat is, after all, illegal in this country), what the president needs to do in his next four years is chew a lot more khat.