Elite Officially Welcome Obama

Guests arriving at the Alfalfa Club dinner at the Capitol Hilton include Elaine Chao and husband Sen. Mitch McConnell.
Guests arriving at the Alfalfa Club dinner at the Capitol Hilton include Elaine Chao and husband Sen. Mitch McConnell. (By Juana Arias For The Washington Post)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 2009

Change has come, President Obama likes to say. But in this town, the Alfalfa Club is eternal.

So last night, the new president was at the head table at its annual dinner, embracing a long-standing rite of the Washington and Wall Street elite that hadn't embraced him until he occupied the Oval Office. Obama -- who escorted the first lady and opted for a long white tie with his tuxedo -- isn't a member of this most hoity-toity of Washington clubs, and he had never attended its dinner as a guest. But being president earned him an automatic invite this year.

As a jazz quartet played, dozens of gawkers crowded behind rope lines in the lobby of the Capital Hilton, clapping when they recognized Beltway glitterati. Half a dozen senators sauntered through without a murmur from the rubberneckers, who seemed most excited about catching a glimpse of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld lingered in a hall jammed with the likes of former presidential candidate Steve Forbes, onetime Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan and TV talkers Charlie Rose and Brit Hume. "Hey, you're famous!" Rumsfeld said to a tall man.

A group of guests eavesdropping nearby looked confused, whispering "Who's that?" to one another.

Finally, someone came up with the answer: Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), suddenly a head-turner in this power klatch because he's rumored to be the next commerce secretary nominee.

Once inside the banquet hall, which is always off-limits to the media, the Alfalfans took turns trying to crack each other up. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) -- the club's outgoing president -- noted that former vice president Richard B. Cheney injured himself while moving into his new home, according to a source inside the dinner.

"I had no idea waterboards were so heavy," Lieberman quipped.

The incoming club president, Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), reminded guests that a newspaper recently published a list of the 25 people most responsible for the global economic meltdown. "You know who you are," he said, according to the source. "And it's good to see you here tonight."

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who botched Obama's oath of office, also mangled the oath he administered to Bond, the source said. Roberts lamented his "verbal clumsiness" on Inauguration Day, and Obama hugged him, the source said.

Powerhouse insider Vernon Jordan was scripted to enter the room in a stovepipe hat and be announced as the club's annual fake nominee for president of the United States.

Jordan was to offer the hat to Obama as a gift, and to note that "the difference between me wearing this hat and you wearing this hat is that I don't have to pull a rabbit out of it."

The Alfalfans have been doing this since 1913, gathering each year on the anniversary of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's birthday for an evening of lobster -- always lobster -- and heavy drinking. (The invitation-only club gets its name, members say, because alfalfa is a crop that will do anything for a drink.)

The official leaking of their remarks is a time-honored tradition for many of the speakers. Before the dinner, former Florida governor Jeb Bush -- the son and brother of presidents -- caught a club official handing a sheaf of papers to a reporter.

"Whatcha doing?" Bush asked. "Leaking?"

However, the Obama administration, which has promised to be the most transparent in history, decided not to join in that part of the ritual. Despite much begging, the text of the president's speech remained a pre-dinner secret.

Once the doors closed, though, the White House relented and revealed that Obama quipped that "every day is a swearing-in ceremony" for his famously foul-mouthed chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company