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D.C.'s High-Level Social Scene Now Mingles Black and White

Rep. James Clyburn, left, attends a party with entertainers and other politicians at the home of Washington A-lister Debra Lee, right, chief executive of Black Entertainment Television.
Rep. James Clyburn, left, attends a party with entertainers and other politicians at the home of Washington A-lister Debra Lee, right, chief executive of Black Entertainment Television. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Roxanne Roberts and Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 18, 2009

Eleven days after the presidential election, 100 people were invited to the home of Vernon and Ann Jordan. The guest of honor was former Time Warner chief Richard Parsons, but the belle of the ball was Valerie Jarrett, one of Barack Obama's best friends and a newly named White House senior adviser.

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All night the Jordans' guests -- many VIPs in their own right -- surrounded Jarrett, eager to introduce themselves and welcome her to D.C. Business as usual. Every four or eight years, Washington's primarily white, influential, moneyed set rushes to cozy up to the new power brokers in town: Texans when George W. Bush arrived, Arkansas buddies when Bill Clinton came to town. The city's high-level social scene -- dinners, black-tie fundraisers, receptions, ubiquitous book parties -- is the place where money and experience are subtly traded for access and influence.

Except for the first time, the face of ultimate power is African American. With a black first family in the White House and a diverse group of appointees and Cabinet nominees, the all-white dinner party feels all wrong. Certain hosts are suddenly grappling with a new reality: They need some black friends. Overnight, black politicians, lawyers and journalists are hot properties, receiving engraved invitations from people they never got invitations from before.

Blacks have gone from barely being on the list to being in charge of the list.

"Everyone knows that his campaign was about inclusion," Jarrett said. "We would expect that spirit of inclusion to also reflect on Washington's social scene."

A swift shift is underway in this exclusive set of those who deal with the highest level of federal government. That's a signal of wholesale change, said A. Scott Bolden, managing partner of law firm Reed Smith's Washington office and a longtime politico in a city where professionals work side by side by day, but socialize separately at night.

"You see those 'What's In and Out' columns every year?" he asked with a laugh. "With Obama and the first family in town, arguably being black is 'in.' "

* * *

Debra Lee, chief executive of Black Entertainment Television, has been on Washington's A-list for some time, but she has been even more popular since Nov. 4, receiving invites from folks she doesn't really know.

"The first reaction is: 'Wow. Isn't that curious? Are they just using me?' " she said. "Then you think about Obama, who says he wants to be inclusive."

At the same time, an invitation to Lee's home is an even hotter ticket, after Jarrett and incoming White House social secretary Desiree Rogers showed up for one of her late-night parties last month. On Friday night, at Lee's VIP reception for this year's BET Honors, guests mobbed Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who vigorously supported Obama after the candidate swept his state's primary. Honorees Magic Johnson, Judith Jamison and restaurateur B. Smith mingled with D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, journalists Charlie Rose and Gwen Ifill, and actors Gabrielle Union and Samuel L. Jackson. Arianna Huffington, Hilary Rosen and Beth Dozoretz huddled with Oprah Winfrey's best friend, Gayle King.

A small social universe has been constructed to leverage the power and influence of the nation's capital, to both do well and do good. Washington's establishment offers advice and support for newcomers; the new political players open doors and reaffirm status for the palace courtiers.


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