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Axelrod Joins a Group of Hardwood Heavies

By Al Kamen
Monday, July 27, 2009

When senior Obama adviser David Axelrod came to Washington late last year, he was thinking of joining a pickup basketball game to keep in shape and socialize a bit on weekends when he couldn't get back to Chicago to see his family.

He recently found a long-established game that includes a number of current, former and future administration officials.

It's full-court, five-on-five and, as Axelrod is about to find out -- if he hasn't already -- a very rough-and-tumble game, a hobbling testament to the need for health-care reform. In recent years there have been countless broken fingers, sprained ankles and torn calf muscles; two rotator-cuff tears; a couple of dislocated shoulders; one broken nose and limitless stitches.

It got so bad that, for a while, there was rumored to be an ambulance standing by to cart the wounded off to the hospital -- although we suspect that's apocryphal.

One of the roughest players is former Navy secretary -- and secretary-of-defense-in-waiting -- Richard Danzig, who honed his court etiquette at the elbows of the late Supreme Court Justice Byron "Whizzer" White when he clerked for White and the clerks played in the gym on the building's top floor, called, yes, the highest court in the land.

Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, is another regular, as is Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jonathan Leibowitz, who used to work for Milwaukee Bucks owner Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.). Other regulars include former Peace Corps director Mark Schneider, now at the International Crisis Group, who was one of the early founders of the game; Hans Binnendijk, another founding member and a former top National Security Council aide who is now a vice president at the National Defense University; John S. Gomperts, former chief of staff at the Corporation for National and Community Service; and Max Stier, another former Supreme Court clerk who now heads the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

The group, which started at the Landon School more than 20 years ago, moved to the former Navy complex on Nebraska Avenue NW when Danzig became Navy secretary. They continued to play there for a while after the grounds became headquarters for the new Department of Homeland Security. Founding Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge played occasionally. The games are now Sundays at Sidwell Friends School.

The game is informal. There are no uniforms. Instead, everyone wears T-shirts, which sometimes leads to mischief. Genachowski is notorious for calling for the ball when he's not on your team. (It sometimes works.)

Although most players have a government connection somewhere, it's not all government folks. Some reporters and local lawyers have been regulars, as well as business types such as real estate honcho Larry McAdoo.

Despite travel schedules, injuries and other distractions, the group manages to ensure enough players by bringing sons and daughters on occasion to round out the teams, care for the injured . . . .

NO MORE SONG AND DANCE

We mourned the apparent passing last week of a Loop Hardy Perennial: the yearly skit at the closing dinner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' annual meetings. Who can forget Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright's spectacular "West Side Story" duet in 1998, with her as Maria and Russian counterpart Evgeny Primakov as Tony? Or her "Evita" take-off with "Don't Cry for Me, Aseanis"?

And, while there were lame performances -- a tune by Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, another by Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick -- there was also Secretary of State Colin L. Powell doing "YMCA" and Russia's Sergey Lavrov as Darth Vader.

And the Asian delegations were really into it, coming up with elaborate skits, lavish costumes and long-rehearsed cartoons. It was, for the most part, the only newsworthy occurrence at the somnolent gabfests. We were told that diplomatic relations improved with each performance.

Then last year, the humorless Singaporean hosts canceled the skits, which traditionalists derided as unbecoming and a waste of time. (Oh, right, wouldn't want to waste time at an ASEAN meeting.) Former State Department spokesman Sean McCormack last year called the skits "acts of ritual silliness in the name of diplomacy." Really?

Well, look what happened at the skitless meeting last week. We ended up with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton comparing the North Koreans, who were attending the conference, to "small children and unruly teenagers and people who are demanding attention . . . they are acting out."

And then, predictably for the wacky North Koreans, they got all offended by what they called her "vulgar remarks," said she wasn't very smart and then she "looks like a primary-school girl" or maybe a "pensioner going shopping," which could be a euphemism, we're checking, for "bag lady."

So how about we bring back the skits?

FAMILIAR FACE, NEW PLACE

Former undersecretary of state Nicholas R. Burns, who had been the State Department spokesman and ambassador to Greece before retiring last year, is joining the Cohen Group as a senior counselor. Burns, who was also ambassador to NATO and will keep his teaching job at Harvard, probably knows most of the folks there, such as Marc Grossman, his predecessor at State and former ambassador to Turkey, and former Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Joe Ralston.

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