By Marissa Newhall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 27, 2008
While Democrats in South Carolina spoke last night of pursuing change, Washington's elite spent their evening engaged in a resolutely traditional rite.
The annual dinner of the Alfalfa Club, an exclusive fold of about 200 rich and influential people, is an odd yet entrenched Washington affair. Last night, the black-tie dinner, now in its 95th year, drew former secretary of state Colin L. Powell, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), former senator Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). (Those were just the ones glimpsed from the Capital Hilton lobby, where journalists and camera-wielding tourists were firmly made to stay.)
The members came not only to schmooze but also to hear President Bush, who came with plenty of family members and delivered remarks to the club one last time as commander in chief.
"It was a moving evening with the president saying farewell," said Landon Parvin, a longtime Alfalfan.
Though Bush has eschewed many Washington social institutions, the Alfalfa is one that his entire family has always warmly embraced. Bush first spoke to the Alfalfa 10 years ago, when he was the governor of Texas, and has not missed a dinner since moving into the White House. His father, George H.W. Bush, is also an enthusiastic member of the club, along with his brothers Marvin and Jeb. His late grandfather, Sen. Prescott Bush (R-Conn.), also belonged.
The Alfalfa Club was founded in 1913 by four Southern gentlemen, apparently for no purpose other than holding an annual dinner on the last Saturday of January (in historical reverence of the Jan. 19 birthday of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.)
Still, even after nearly 100 years, Alfalfan proceedings remain shrouded in mystery. Journalists, forbidden to attend the dinner, are relegated to staking out the lobby, foraging for scraps of insight from anyone who dares duck out for a bathroom break or a cigarette.
Luckily, some of the evening's highlights always seem to make their way out of the ballroom.
For example: At each year's dinner, the club names a mock presidential candidate, who accepts the Alfalfa Party's "nomination" by making some witty, sharp-edged remarks. This year's nominee was New York Mayor (and rumored real-life presidential hopeful) Michael R. Bloomberg (I), who -- as an Alfalfan himself -- knows that well-meted topical humor rules the roost.
"Someone just said to me, 'You know, Mike, not having a spouse could really benefit a candidate. Spouses say the wrong thing. They get jealous of the attention,' " read Bloomberg's prepared remarks. "I said, 'Hillary, you're absolutely right.' "
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), the incoming Alfalfa Club president, came armed with his own campaign-related barbs, including one twitting former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R).
"Mitt says: I'd rather be a politician who flips than a candidate who flops. I say to Mitt: 'You're from Massachusetts. You should know that they're not mutually exclusive.' "
When it was Bush's turn, he acknowledged the large number of family members in attendance -- his parents, his four siblings and his wife, Laura -- and alluded to the upcoming wedding of his daughter Jenna to Henry Hager.
"Riding over tonight, I said to Laura, 'You know, we could've saved a bundle if we'd just had Jenna and Henry get married at Alfalfa,' " Bush said.
After the guffaws subsided, according to attendees, Bush recalled his first Alfalfa speech -- given before Sept. 11, 2001. The sentiment was clear: Change is not always for the better.
Staff writer Roxanne Roberts contributed to this report.