By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
These past six months, Stacie Walters's social life has been fairly typical:
There were the presidential debate parties, of course, held in bars or in people's crowded apartments, with fistfuls of SmartPop to be thrown at the TV.
There was a glorious State of the Union party, with hot wings and salad, with prizes for the children attending who could identify the most politicians.
There were the post-primary and post-SOTU phone conversations, in which Walters, a lobbyist for the Livingston Group, conference-called her closest friends inside the Beltway. They spent hours dissecting what was said and what was worn: "It's about what kind of jewelry Nancy Pelosi had on, what colors Condoleezza was wearing," Walters says.
Naturally, there will be a Super Tuesday bash tonight -- something good enough to tide everyone over until the Democratic National Convention in August. Something elaborate involving betting pools, something like the festivities most people put together for the Super Bowl, which in these circles seems like a funny prelude to the main event.
"But seriously," says Walters, 35. "Doesn't everyone do this?"
Wonk out: 1) to salivate and obsess over the arcane details and minutiae of politics; 2) to have a social life -- a uniquely bizarre, confusing-to-newcomers, nostalgic-to-the-recently-departed, social life -- in Washington.
* * *
Sixteen grad-student, nonprofit and temp types are crammed into the Shaw group house living room of Allyson Rudolph, an editorial assistant at Congressional Quarterly Press.
A few weeks ago she'd sent out an Evite:
"He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union. -- U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section III.
"And we shall watch, and drink. -- Allyson."
Now the group eats Trader Joe's peach salsa and memorizes four pages of guidelines for a State of the Union drinking game. It's the same game that comes up as the first Google hit when "State of the Union 2008" is typed into the search engine. Rules: drinking at the buzzwords "terror," "foreclosure" and "Pakistan"; drinking at Bushisms; drinking when current presidential candidates are shown; drinking.
"Do you remember in 2006, when Laura sat next to the woman in the head scarf?" snickers Lizzie Tomber, 25. "It was very touching."
This is a crowd on a first-name basis with its politicians, offering dishy assertions of a vaguely stalking and sometimes illusory nature:
Condi has a dress very similar to one Michelle Obama wears. It's the pink suit? Very similar!
I heard Cheney can barely walk. He has a heart surgeon with him at all times!
Did he just say Hispanish? Bushism! Everybody drink!
Nancy SO has something stuck in her teeth!
Barbara Mikulski is my home state senator! Driiiiiiink!
One attendee is Ben Kreider, 24, who moved to the city four months ago for a graduate program in German studies at Georgetown. He knows Allyson from college in Maine; this is the first politics 'n' partying event he's been to.
"It was just a little bit . . . weird," he says, to see the invitation in his inbox. He'd heard the rumors that gatherings like this existed. "But I was a little surprised to find myself at one."
Ah, a newbie. How quickly he'll get sucked in.
You move to the city to read European literature and before you know it you're sitting on the floor in someone's living room chugging a Yuengling every time the camera pans to Ted Kennedy. Your roommates are aides, or aides to aides, so you start attending the Drinking Liberally happy hours at Timberlake's. You succumb to it gradually; political chitchat is the best social lubricant in town -- politics + booze, even better.
You wonder, on the first night you bypass "Grey's Anatomy" in favor of an Obama meet-up, whether this is really you. It's so easy to meet people this way in a city that is otherwise cold and fast. Someone always wants to invite you to watch some concession speech or some caucus results. You never knew there were so many things to watch; never knew there were so many C-SPAN channels to flip through. It's good to be part of the group.
Still, you were sort of curious to see what happened to Sloan and that new heart doctor.
How did you get here?
You rationalize your behavior:
"D.C. seems to be a lot about multi-tasking," says Kreider. Parties like this "kill two birds with one stone. You have to watch political coverage anyway, you might as well do it with other people and have a good time. It's fun."
When Josh Nelson, 26, lived in Cincinnati, he hosted a weekly college night at a local bar. The activities centered on his two passions: music and sports. He moved to the District about a year ago to take a job with the National Wildlife Federation, and, through forces he can't quite articulate, shifted his social focus to politics. He now co-hosts political blog TheSeminal.com's weekly happy hour. "The majority of my friends are people I met through talking about politics," he says. He enjoys the ability to combine socializing with networking. And even if he moves to another city, he says, "I think I'll be in this scene for the long haul."
Then again, he is deep in the thick of it, without the dubious clarity of the newly arrived or the receding, fuzzy memories of ex-Washingtonians. Then again, perhaps he does not see that this scene, in this mega-concentration, exists nowhere else but here.
Lisa Lindberg, 27, has fond, if fading, memories of the 2004 election: She held a John Kerry fundraiser in her Logan Circle studio apartment, complete with homemade swag bags for the big donors. She watched every debate, usually with friends, and attended a bawdy election result party at the Chi-Cha Lounge with a group of increasingly drunk revelers.
Then in 2005 she moved to Minneapolis and enrolled in law school.
"I didn't even watch the State of the Union," she says. "I didn't even realize it was happening until I logged on to CNN" in the morning. And: "The night of the SOTU, I actually spent the whole evening watching DVDs -- of 'The West Wing'!"
The irony, the irony.
Was her time in the District all just a dream? Did she really -- really -- think that asking her friends to donate to John Kerry was an acceptable social activity?
When she hears from old friends whose Saturday nights still revolve around politics, "I'm glad to not be a part of that." But at the same time: "Not being in D.C. for the presidential election seems ridiculous. I'm already thinking about booking my ticket."
It's like Stockholm syndrome.
The love and the hate of the political social scene. The awareness -- tinged with longing and disdain -- that there are movies to be seen, and sports to be watched, and a whole myriad of social activities to be done that do not involve the word "earmarks."
"In 2006 when the Democrats took the House, some friends and I totally crashed the DNC headquarters," says Nick Kolakowski, who worked for the Magazine Group in Dupont Circle before relocating to New York last fall. "On weekends we'd walk into Top of the Hill and then crawl out after watching political coverage all night."
He's recovering from all that now.
His new job is with Trader magazine; he writes about money and has a whole new culture to be immersed in. Still, he did float the idea of hosting a State of the Union or Super Tuesday party in his Brooklyn apartment. "But people didn't exactly light up and say, 'We should totally do that,' " he says. "They thought it was kind of odd."