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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.

Too pooped to party?

When Obama was elected, people began singing "Happy Days Are Here Again." Expectations were over the top. It would be only hours before we would all be dancing on tables. They were beautiful and glamorous, hip and fun. They were the new Kennedys, and Washington would come alive again. They would set a new social tone. Young people would be out every night, partying, mixing and mingling. Members of Congress, who had been sleeping on sofas in their offices and in group houses because their families lived back in the home districts, would start accepting invitations again instead of working for 18 hours, three days a week, and then going home for four.

It was all a Camelot fantasy. Obama inherited the helm of the Titanic. Many of those he brought in were from past administrations. A lot of his crowd came in from Chicago and stuck together. People are working around the clock, and too exhausted and overextended to go out. The Obamas rarely entertain, except for large events. They are raising two young children and, understandably, prefer to stay home most nights with them, enjoying a family dinner and helping with homework. They have said that going out is such a huge production (sharpshooters, ambulances, decoy limos, motorcades, etc.) that it's almost not worth it. They have hosted only one state dinner. That, unfortunately (aside from the gate-crashers), was used to reward White House staffers instead of being an opportunity to bring in the best and the brightest from around the country.

Consequently, the Obamas and many of their top advisers have not had the opportunity to circulate and meet the natives. They're damned if they do and damned if they don't. One top White House adviser was seen at a gala a few months ago and a local scold snapped, "Why isn't he back at the White House saving the country?"

You gotta have friends

So what is the answer?

Making friends is crucial. I'm only being partly facetious when I suggest that there should be some sort of in-house list where members of the administration (any administration!) are designated to go out a certain amount, in exactly the same way they make the rounds on Sunday talk shows.

This includes the president! Even senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said this week that Obama "likes the rigor of having a conversation with someone who's going to push him." She told The Post, "There's really no point in him wasting time with people who simply agree with him all the time because it's not going to refine his position, it's not going to enlighten his position." In other words, he'll certainly accomplish some of that once he gets around town.

Indulge me for a moment on the topic of our cultural bellwether, "Avatar." In the film, the Pandora natives worship the goddess Eywa, who is the spirit that connects them to their planet. If there is such a goddess in Washington, I believe, it is the spirit of community. Those who live here want to welcome new friends. Washingtonians are open and willing to invite newcomers and make them part of their lives. If they can't do that, there is automatically a distance that is created so that if -- no, make that when -- the administration gets into trouble, there is too little sympathy or support.

When an administration begins to express hostility to those in the community, the Na'vi pull out their arrows with the poison tips and begin taking aim. The rougher things get, the more members of the administration need to reach out, not withdraw. Nobody has ever been able to master this yet. Consequently everyone suffers -- needlessly.

It would be inspiring to see a new administration understand the simple secret of how to belong to the community. Then, they would never have to hear, as the heroine of Avatar, Neytiri, says to the would-be hero, Jake Sully: "You will never be one of the people."

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