Venerable Federal City Club Has Had Its Last Policy Lunch

By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Federal City Club, formed when bold ideas and strong martinis made the ideal luncheon in Washington, was quietly dissolved last week. The organization that began in 1963 and peaked with 400 members in its heyday had dwindled to 54 dues-paying members.

Lisa-Joy Zgorski, the club's executive director, informed members via e-mail on Tuesday that the board of governors had voted to dissolve.

"The Washington marketplace for public policy programs has changed," Zgorski said. "The club was founded in the days of smoke-filled rooms with martini lunches, when 'good old boys' got together to talk public policy. They were the movers and shakers of D.C. 40 years ago."

The Federal City Club was formed in rebellion against the whites-only policy of the city's Metropolitan Club. One of the upstart club's founders, James W. Symington (D-Mo.), who was a member of the House from 1969 to 1977, helped lure some members of Washington's elite to join the new organization, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., Robert S. McNamara, Carl T. Rowan, David Brinkley, Hugh Sidey, C. Wyatt Dickerson Jr., Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and George Stevens Jr.

"We wanted to reflect a new way of thinking and of governing openly," Symington said. "The initial impetus was to promote great ideas in a new frontier, in a new wave of national energy."

Of course, there were enormous lunches, debates, gossip and a steam room. Unlike the Metropolitan Club and the Cosmos Club, the Federal City Club had no home of its own; it met regularly at the Sheraton Carlton Hotel. Members signed the bill and paid at the end of the month. In the era before e-mails and cell phones, the gatherings were valuable venues for trading information and making contacts. The lunches began as off-the-record events, but the policy was dropped after pressure from members, mostly the journalists.

The club flourished during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations but began to wane toward the end of Richard M. Nixon's presidency. Accepting blacks as members proved far less controversial than admitting women, which the club did in the mid-1970s.

After 17 years at the Sheraton Carlton, the club floated from one location to the next, causing some members to drop out. The erosion continued as think tanks began featuring guest speakers and as C-SPAN's coverage made the Federal City Club's speeches less vital.

The culture of modern Washington changed, too. Said Symington: "In order to have a club, you have to have people who want to be with each other."

Charles L. Bartlett, a founding member and past president, says that he has even given up lunch these days. "Club life is for the lobbyists, and the rest of us are eating at our desks," Bartlett said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company