All the Right People
Sunday, January 29, 2006
As they gathered in the lobby of the Capital Hilton heading into the annual Alfalfa Club dinner last night, there were snatches of what the rich or powerful say to each other. A woman in blue said to a woman in red: "You look lovely. Your dress matches your medal."
A man in black slapped another man in black on the shoulder: "Hey! Bob, how you doing? How's life?" They stood there and talked about their golf swings. "Flexibility is tough," one said to the other.
Then in comes Martha Stewart and the crowd parted. She was wearing a sparkling charcoal gray sweater with gray slacks. But she looked warm and stunning. Asked about the night, she smiled with such graciousness and sincerity that you now understood her charm. "I'm a guest of Catherine Reynolds," Stewart said. "I've been to this dinner before and I anticipate tonight will be fun." Before Stewart walked away, she was introduced to a man named Frank who smiled and kissed her on the cheek. Then she shook hands with Vernon Jordan, who looked tall and beautiful and deep rich like velvet.
You began to understand more about the purpose of this dinner organized by the Alfalfa Club, an exclusive circle of the rich and the powerful founded in 1913 for no real purpose except to organize a banquet each year to honor the birthday of Gen. Robert E. Lee. (The club takes its name from the legume whose roots probe deeply for liquid. An Alfalfan, it is said, will do anything for a drink.)
"It's an evening that helps restore the bipartisan tone of the town at least for one night and that's good," said Landon Parvin, a member. "You get a patriotic sense when the Marine Band marches in, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat or an independent, you are thrilled."
Because no reporter is allowed inside the ballroom, we gazed from the outside, hoping to catch a glimpse, a quip, a meaning. Standing behind the ropes. Spying. Desperate for leaks. Before the night was over, we had gathered enough information to make a sketch of what happened inside. For the sake of democracy, this is what we found.
On the guest list: Chief Justice John Roberts, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida. Vice President Cheney, who seems to emerge from wherever he goes when there is something really important to be said.
We learned that the powerful and the rich sit next to each other at a head table spanning the length of the ballroom. President Bush was to sit next to Roberts, who was seated next to the ambassador of Germany, who sat next to Rice, who sat next to O'Connor. In between was the secretary of the Treasury and the ambassador of Japan. Then came Rumsfeld and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. According to a seating chart, to the president's left were places for George H.W. Bush, Justice Anthony Kennedy, Mayor Anthony Williams. And down the line was Laura Bush, who was to sit next to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson and OMB Director Joshua Bolten and Alan Greenspan, who was to sit next to Barbara Bush. And somewhere in the room was Karl Rove.
And for four hours, we are told, they dined on $230-a-plate meals of coriander-poached lobster with artichoke and fried dill lotus root. They ate filet mignon and pistachio-encrusted sea bass with roasted beets and baby carrots and black currant sauce. And they were served a salad with dates and raspberries and brie with table water crackers.
The salad course gave them the break they needed to get up and shake hands.
We were told the night was filled with speeches.
And President Bush would split sides with unexpected laughter.