By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 31, 2010; A01
RHINEBECK, N.Y. -- In the vast concentric circles of Clintonian friendship, a new vocabulary defines coolness. The lingo doesn't pivot on name-dropping. But wedding-dropping.
"I'll see you after The Wedding" -- spoken at stage-whisper levels -- translates into "I'm so very, very tight with the fam. Wink, wink." Nary a mention of Bill or Hill or Chelsea necessary. Inclusion in the wedding confers an intimacy, an extra-special, next-generation "friend of the family" status that stands alongside FOB or Hillaryland bona fides -- a family triangle of triangulation. It's a kind of closeness that no private-jet sit-down, business collaboration or political grip-and-grin, no matter how exclusive, can achieve.
They're not A-listers, this "see you after the wedding" crowd, but something beyond. "That's the Triple-A list," says John Catsimatidis, a billionaire New York supermarket mogul whose chumminess with the Clintons, and knack for raising megabucks for their campaigns, did not, alas, merit an invitation. "They'll look at themselves as the lucky ones," Catsimatidis says.
The nuptials of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky are scheduled to take place Saturday in all their secretive, in-crowd glory at a secluded mansion protected by a no-fly zone and barricaded roads outside the village of Rhinebeck in the country-home paradise that is the mid-Hudson Valley. Managing the guest list, a scant 400 or 500 -- a big bash for life-size folks, a tiny gathering for the JumboTron-scaled Clintons -- presented a hyper-delicate challenge for Madam Secretary, Mr. Former President and their First Daughter, family intimates say.
The talking points that evolved seem to honor and elevate their only child, while providing cover for parents whose political and social lives intertwine, sometimes: The guests must have a personal connection to the bride or the groom. This is Chelsea's day, not her famous parents' day.
"They respect her and what she thinks. . . . They want what she wants," says a family friend who is attending the wedding and agreed to speak for a few moments only after a series of cross-my-heart, hope-to-die, stick-a-needle-in-my-eye promises of anonymity. "They raised her to be her own person -- independent in thought."
In some cases, intermediaries communicated the message to the dearly snubbed, family friends say, and sometimes even the former president himself lodged an I-feel-your-pain call. Still, there are whispers of injured feelings among the elites in Washington and New York who were left out. Some feel compelled to feel bad on behalf of others. New York donor Victor Kovner, not going? How could that be?D.C.'s top secret?
The allure juicing the celebration only intensifies because of the secrecy. (Another first daughter, Jenna Bush, had her own fabulous nuptials in 2008 when her dad was still commander in chief. Jenna took less of a wedding-as-state-secret approach, sharing dress details with Vogue editors.)
Divining the invitees to the Clinton soiree is a Washington parlor game of the most status-clarifying kind, an exercise in who's up, who's down and who's on the bubble. Wedding guests and non-guests alike shudder at the thought of the Clintons finding out any hint that they've been gabbing. The clampdown is a testament to the loyalty the Clintons inspire and the intensely genuine affection many feel for Chelsea, as well as an acknowledgement, for some, that banishment from the circle would be the assumed punishment.
"I'd have to kill myself after we talked, so I think I'll pass," one Washington pooh-bah and logical invitee says. A curious number of sources asked about the guest list simply respond "nope," as if working from a script. Even normally talkative types operate in a cone of silence, politely ducking interview requests through their assistants. "Thank you for thinking of Mandy for this piece," writes an assistant to Mandy Grunwald, a typically chatty Clinton spinmeister. "Unfortunately she won't be speaking on this topic."
The left-out group is more firmly established than the let-in group. President Obama, whose victory nixed the White House as a wedding venue, won't be going -- even said so on "The View" -- nor will former British prime minister Tony Blair, he of the Special Relationship with Bill Clinton, according to a spokesman. Al and Tipper Gore, now in the throes of a separation, issued a statement a while back that they won't be attending, without elucidating whether they were invited.
Among those widely expected to be "in" are Hillary Clinton's brothers, Hugh and Tony Rodham; whether Bill's brother, Roger -- always entertaining -- will make the scene is a favorite topic. The smart money is on Tony Rodham's daughter, Fiona, as flower girl. There will surely be plenty of school and work friends of the bride and groom, and the whispering classes are feeling awfully confident that the guests will include Washington power broker Vernon Jordan and his wife, Ann, as well as Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, a wealthy businesswoman and Clinton stalwart, and Elizabeth Bagley, a former ambassador to Portugal who navigates the upper tiers of Georgetown society.
Heavy speculation also centers on former White House chums, such as Melanne Verveer, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for women's issues who was once Hillary Clinton's chief of staff, as well as on Capricia Marshall, the current White House chief of protocol who is said to have grown close to Chelsea while serving as her mother's social secretary. Another widely expected guest is Huma Abedin, the elegant aide who is Hillary's right arm; she married New York's feisty congressman Anthony Weiner in a ceremony officiated by Bill Clinton earlier this month. Abedin is considered so tight with the MOTB that one Clinton friend quipped that two of HRC's daughters are getting married this summer.'A no-fanfare person'
Hillary Clinton's biological bride-to-be maintained her Garbo-esque reticence as her big day approached. "What she's trying to do is minimize the atmospherics that have been created around this -- all the stuff around the edges," a wedding guest says. "The irony is that Chelsea is such a no-fanfare person."
Chelsea -- now a stylishly flat-ironed and poised 30-year-old, not the gawky, curly haired teenager of our memories -- demands privacy, officially. Then again, she opts for a wedding extravaganza that commands spotlight attention, rather than following the au courant celebrity model of the tiny wedding in a private residence. To some, there is an element of "don't look at me, look at me" to the whole affair. She slips into a big floppy hat to conceal her identity, but heads through the front door to visit dressmaker Vera Wang -- an image predictably captured and splashed all over the Web.
"The wedding seems as conflicted as the Clintons can sometimes be," says Doug Wead, an aide to the first President Bush who has written extensively about first families. "She's a private, dignified woman; on the other hand, she's getting married two hours from New York City."
The shabby-chic rhythms of Rhinebeck resist the effects of hype. Still, it's impossible to avoid the wedding, especially when Bill Clinton is popping out of a vehicle in the middle of town, shaking hands and sitting down for lunch Friday afternoon at a place called Gigi Trattoria. Shop windows are festooned with happy-couple congrats -- an image of Chelsea and Marc on a wedding cake at Wing & Clover, an art shop a few steps from Rhinbeck's only stoplight; two doves kissing above a pencil drawing of Chelsea, and a streetside photo of Bill and Hillary Clinton at Pete's Famous Restaurant.
Before the former president's arrival packs the streets, the hordes of reporters occupy themselves with the ramblings of a couple promenading one evening in Bill and Hillary Clinton masks. "I was just on ABC and CBS, the Daily News and the New York Post, all in the past 20 minutes," Gary Kiernan says after slipping out of his Bill Clinton mask. In the lobby of the Beekman Arms, tourists interrupt tales of their canoe trip to observe a cameraman running past the window.
Not surprisingly, there's a fair amount of grumbling from villagers annoyed about the invasion of cars, the hubbub, the road closings -- there always are in these situations, regardless of the location. "I wanted to make a sign that said, 'Royalty, Go Home!' " says Michael Tucker, a filmmaker, from the back porch of his picturesque home on River Road, near the wedding location. "That's what it has been like -- royalty. . . . This is not the Hamptons!"
No one expects the full royal treatment, a Lady Di train or a Cinderella carriage, for these lavishly inconspicuous proceedings, but the rumors of price tags in the several millions and the daughter of George Soros hosting the former first family suggest a swankified affair. The invitations went out cryptically, revealing only that the festivities would take place outside New York on July 31. Guests were asked to select from several hotel price ranges, and a travel agent made the reservations, as well as transportation arrangements, one invitee explains. Just this week, guests began getting individual phone calls firming up the details. They will be bused to the wedding site, Astor Courts, a beaux-arts mansion hidden by thick stands of trees. The 13,000-foot spread, with striking views of the Hudson River, was designed by renowned architect Stanford White to resemble the Grand Trianon at Versailles, for John Jacob Astor IV, an industrialist who died in the sinking of the Titanic.
The vista, with the black-tie occasion expected sometime around sunset, is certain to be spectacular. But there will be much more than nature's magnificence on display. Once the guests arrive, they will know -- most for the first time -- just who's really in and just who's really out. And, surely, they will remember.
Staff writers Amy Argetsinger, Roxanne Roberts, Mary Beth Sheridan and Michael Savage contributed to this report.