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

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.

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.

Sophisticated politicians such as Obama use these informal settings to recruit like-minded allies and defang critics. This month, he offered his urban bona fides by stopping in at Ben's Chili Bowl for a half-smoke with Fenty. A few days later, he headed to Chevy Chase for a long dinner party at the home of columnist George F. Will, where the president-elect charmed a cluster of conservative pundits. Afterward, The Washington Post reported, Fox News commentator Michael Barone acknowledged: "It's harder to hate someone you've had close contact with and who has pleasant characteristics."

Eric H. Holder Jr. first met Obama at a small party four years ago, when host Ann Walker Marchant sat the two men next to each other. Marchant, who owns a corporate communications firm, and Holder both had worked in the Clinton administration; she was introduced to Obama on Martha's Vineyard, where her aunt Ann Jordan vacations.

Holder is now Obama's nominee for attorney general. He and his wife, Sharon Malone, a prominent Washington obstetrician, are no strangers to the D.C. social world, but if Holder is confirmed by the Senate, they will catapult to near the top of the list.

The protocol of this city demands that people are invited by job title, regardless of race or sex. The well-constructed guest list begins with the president and vice president and their wives, the Cabinet, and anybody with "the Honorable" on a place card: members of the House and Senate, the Supreme Court, the mayor and other prominent city leaders, diplomats, and a billionaire or two. Two black couples on Washington's permanent A-list are the Jordans and Colin and Alma Powell, longtime insiders who effortlessly move across boundaries of race, class and party, but the rest of that list seldom shows much diversity.

"It's easy to attribute this to a lack of integration," said event planner Carolyn Peachey, who manages many of Washington's most prestigious fundraisers. "If you invited the entire Senate to an event, you would have a single African American. By definition, without anyone intending it to be, you're confronted with a problem. It's basically a societal problem -- we're not diverse enough in many, many professions."

Some of the problem is rooted in economics, said Bob Johnson, who co-founded BET and owns the Charlotte Bobcats. "There are very few African Americans who are in the position to lead fundraisers or can attract money by the use of their name," he said.

But the Obamas, like the Kennedys in 1961, are bringing a new generation of power to Washington that will change the traditional hierarchy.

"White people could use a little wake-up exclusionary experience," said Rosen, a CNN contributor and a high-profile lobbyist for almost two decades. "It's kind of great that black people are in charge and white people are worried about being in -- when it's been the other way for so long."

* * *

Obama's insiders come from Chicago, where many African Americans hold positions of power and prestige in a strong city government and corporate structure. They're moving to a far smaller, predominantly black town, where power in city government finishes a distant second to power in federal government.

Historically, influential whites established themselves in Northwest Washington, where "Georgetown dinner party" became shorthand for privilege. Prominent African Americans settled east of Rock Creek Park off 16th Street in an area dubbed the "Gold Coast." Their social life was rooted in membership in traditional black organizations such as Jack and Jill, sororities and fraternities, and such prestigious private clubs as Boulé (the fraternity Sigma Pi Phi), which has boasted among its members founder W.E.B. Du Bois, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Jordan and Holder.

"Black and white people work together because they have to, but then there are black parties and white parties. There are black restaurants and white restaurants," said Fred Cooke Jr., a former D.C. attorney general who served as ex-mayor Marion Barry's lawyer and is now a partner at a local firm. "It's a quintessentially Southern city. We have been that city where black people didn't control any of the levers of power. . . . We don't control business."

As a result, Washington's social pages were overwhelmingly white, especially during Republican administrations. At a gala held for Bush's 2001 inauguration, lobbyist and lawyer Weldon Latham recalled a $25,000-a-table dinner he attended as a guest of then-Mayor Anthony Williams. They sat with Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. "There were about 2,000 people in the room, but only 20 were black," Latham said.

Clinton lunched with black journalists and attended dinners at the homes of connected black lobbyists, but the cozy integration did not go beyond White House dinners or insider private parties.

"We're all talking about a very rarefied level of Washington existence," said Peggy Cooper Cafritz, cofounder of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. The majority of people in the city, she said, are not socially integrated. True integration requires a mix of generations, race and class. "Unless you address all three, you are not addressing the core issue. The core issue is people feeling comfortable with each other."

In a transient city where people work punishing hours and show up at parties with a "good list" because they "should," time for real friendship is in short supply. When people tear themselves away to relax, they gravitate to familiar friends and neighborhoods.

"Every once in a while, relationships of convenience and profession morph into friendship and trust," Rosen said.

One man in the middle of D.C.'s new mix is multimillionaire Don Peebles, an African American who was raised in the District but who made his fortune in Miami. The 48-year-old real estate developer, who served on Obama's national finance team, and his wife, Katrina, have homes in Florida and the Hamptons and now plan to spend more time in their $8 million Cleveland Park Tudor. They will hold a late-night inaugural party Tuesday at the private Georgetown Club and are positioning themselves to be players on the scene.

"We've made some new friends: people who have worked on the campaign, some from Illinois," Peebles said. "This is my home city, and they are new to Washington. So we see an opportunity to kind of help them in their transition."

* * *

The Obama era has ushered in plenty of talk that the country has transcended race or that race is incidental.

"There is no question there's been more race discussions in social circles this year than there's ever been," said Rosen, who is part of a longtime integrated group of friends that includes political strategist Donna Brazile, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), journalist Karen Tumulty and former Democratic National Committee official Minyon Moore. "We were having dinner, arguing about what 'post-racial' meant," Rosen said. "Ultimately we decided there was no such thing."

The subject is close to former defense secretary William S. Cohen and his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen, who wrote "Love in Black and White" about their interracial marriage. The couple have been a fixture at Washington parties, where she has often been the only African American in the room.

"Most whites don't like to talk about race when I'm there," she said. "But it always comes up at mostly black dinner parties." In their own home, the Cohens and their guests talk more freely about race. "They feel that they are among equals and are really willing to discuss and engage," he said. "They are not afraid to say what they think."

But Johnson is skeptical about whether more frank conversation leads to integration. Hosts will be "politically correct" and invite African Americans, he said, but that will last about a year.

"I don't think that's a sustainable socialization model for Washington," he said. "Integration socially, as opposed to business or sports, is really tough because it involves people's personal lives. . . . Once people get comfortable -- 'I've got my two black friends' -- they can stop. Real integration on a personal level doesn't happen without a deep commonality of interests."

Vernon Jordan thinks it's too early to tell. His wife is much more optimistic.

"It will change overnight," she predicted. "It really will. It's been changing, but this is a jump-start. Once change takes place, you can't go back. That's the great thing about it."

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