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Chilly Alfalfans, Cozying Up to a Nice Warm Toast

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page D01

Snow blanketed the nation's capital. The streets were rivers of chocolate slush. The list of canceled Saturday evening activities came over the radio like a dreary sermon. It was shaping up to be a lonely evening at home in front of the fire.

And then suddenly they appeared from out of the blizzard like characters in "Dr. Zhivago," done up in fuzzy hats, creamy scarves, long, black overcoats, cascades of fur. They swept into the lobby of the Capital Hilton in great gusts of perfume and cashmere winter freshness. They were masters of the universe, yes, rulers of the free world, certainly. But above all, they were Alfalfans.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld schmoozes with Sen. Mitch McConnell, right, at last night's dinner. (Photos Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

Neither war nor inauguration party fatigue nor the current raging epidemic of partisan bitterness -- and definitely not a snowstorm -- could disrupt the annual Alfalfa Dinner last night.

"I wouldn't have missed this if there had been a tornado," said Jack Valenti, former head of the Motion Picture Association of America. "You know how few places you can go and laugh and not feel guilty?"

"Alfalfa gets thirsty every year," said John Breaux, former Democratic senator from Louisiana. "We can't afford to cancel."

He was referring, of course to the origin of the club's name back in 1913: the legume whose roots probe deeply for liquid. An Alfalfan, it is said, will do anything for a drink.

By late afternoon, only about six Alfalfans and their 12 guests had called to say they couldn't make it. They were said to be jet-setters from New York and New England who, alas, couldn't get their Gulfstreams through the heavy weather.

That left 600 or so black-tied and silk-gowned swells to participate in one of the most unshakable yet curious rituals of Washington's permanent establishment. The whole ziggurat of political, corporate, military, judicial and media power was on display, with President Bush and Vice President Cheney and their wives perched at the apex.

"As at all Alfalfa dinners, lots of well-known faces are here tonight," Bush said, according to excerpts of his dinner remarks obtained through the usual journalistic voodoo. (Reporters aren't allowed into the dinner; they must waylay potentates in the lobby, cadging for bits of wit.)

"Good to see Vice President Cheney," Bush continued. "I have this habit of giving out nicknames, but Dick is the only person who's given me a nickname. He calls me 'The Apprentice.' "

Bush also said, "Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice is here. People often ask me what Condi is like. Well, she is creative; she is tough -- think Martha Stewart with access to nuclear codes."

Bush also singled out his nominee for attorney general, Alberto Gonzales. "As you know, he's replacing John Ashcroft," Bush said. "John's heading home to Missouri -- where he intends to cover up naked statues in the private sector."

In the bipartisan tradition of the club, Sen. John McCain spoke as the outgoing club president, former Democratic senator from Tennessee and Ambassador to China James Sasser spoke as the incoming club president, and Breaux spoke as the club's joke nominee for president of the United States.

"Now I know what many of my Republican friends in this room are thinking: A Democratic president of the Alfalfa Club?" Sasser said, according to the excerpted remarks. "How did we let that happen? Well, I've got three words for you. Bob. Shrum. Retired."

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