Administrations should befriend the locals -- they'll need them in hard times

By Sally Quinn
Wednesday, January 27, 2010; 9:34 AM

Imagine Washington as the planet Pandora in the movie "Avatar." Think of the permanent Washington establishment as the natives, the Na'vi. If you've seen the movie, you know that the Earth people invade Pandora and try to take over, hoping to throw out the natives and take over their lush virgin forests, valuable minerals and sacred lands.

The movie has pop-culture appeal not just because of its special effects but because of its many messages, whether about the environment, imperialism or spirituality. It has become a Rorschach test. And with its new milestone as the top box-office draw ever, this is not a frivolous debate.

We have all been considering the year since the new president and his administration moved to Washington and set up shop. They ran on a platform of being anti-Washington. Whether they are Republicans or Democrats, politicians have to do that to get elected. Even John McCain derided "Georgetown dinner parties" when he was out on the trail. Everyone promises to "change Washington." Everyone pledges not to get stuck in the old ways but to do things differently. Newcomers will oust the entrenched insiders and populate the city with their own kind, with fresh thinking and ideas.

The more things change

Not so fast.

I'm not talking about the Obama administration. This phenomenon applies to every new administration that comes to Washington, each one intoxicated with power and exhilarated by grand expectations.

On Wednesday, President Obama will give his first State of the Union address. Remember the elation, the sense of anticipation, the weeping, as the first African American took the oath of office? What a difference a year makes.

I get asked almost every day how Washington life has changed since the newcomers came to town. The answer is: not at all. In fact, it's probably duller than it's ever been. This is nobody's fault, per se, nor is it necessarily a bad thing. These are difficult times, and it's just the way it is.

Years ago, the city looked to the White House to set the social tone. Whatever style the president and first lady favored was the style adopted. The Kennedys enthralled the town with their youth, exuberance and glamour. They had round skirted tables at a state dinner, and suddenly everyone had round tables. The Johnsons came in with their down-home Texas barbecues and you couldn't go out at night without being served ribs and baked beans. It wasn't until Nixon that people started to do their own thing. He introduced U-shaped tables, like the Russians, and instructed the White House guards to wear imperial hats. Most of those close to the president (except for Henry Kissinger) were distanced from the establishment. Inevitably, hostility toward the White House grew.

Native Washingtonians began to rebel, coming up with their own style of entertaining. When Watergate broke, the Nixon administration, besieged, went underground, sensing that they had no support. Everybody was out to get them, including fellow Republicans. They never quite understood, nor has any other administration, that when things go badly -- and they always go badly -- you're going to need all the friends you can get.

Though well liked, the Fords were not in office long enough to create an imprint of their own. When Jimmy Carter arrived in Washington, he and Rosalynn and many of their advisers were decidedly not interested in the locals and made it known. That chill was such a mistake that Teddy Kennedy felt free to challenge Carter, which doomed Carter's reelection.

Since then, Washington has struck out on its own. New administrations have been greeted as warmly as invading armies. The Reagans, at first, tried to engage local Washington, with a dinner for insiders at the exclusive F Street Club, and hosted many state dinners. In the end, though, they drifted toward importing glamorous friends from New York and California, especially in the Iran-contra slog of the second term. The first Bush White House came in with a small coterie of friends and kept to them; no second term (see also, The Carters). The Clintons brought in a whole new crowd, many of them young and arrogant and clique-ish, which created such a competitive social atmosphere that the environment became toxic. In the beginning, advised by bipartisan fixer David Gergen, the Clintons hosted a series of small dinners for the chattering classes; these petered out as the first couple didn't find them useful (or fun). Ironically, President Clinton had given a toast at Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham's welcoming dinner for him shortly after he was elected. He talked about Washington being a place that was obsessed by "who's in and who's out, who's up and who's down." It was as though he were predicting his own tenure: A lot of enemies were made. When the Monica Lewinsky affair turned into a debacle, during his second term, Clinton was impeached partly because of the ill will toward him in the city. After that, the Clintons went underground and very few from the administration were seen out and about.

By the time George W. Bush arrived, despite the bitterness about the way the 2000 election had turned out, Washington social life was ready for renewal but found none. The Bushes almost never went out and the president was in bed by 9:30, even when they entertained, which was rare.

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