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D.C. and be seen
Honor an ex-president
This gambit is a winner in Washington, even if the former president is a tad self-satisfied with his good works relative to, say, other former presidents. Habitat for Humanity will honor Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter for their "lifetime commitment to strengthening democracy and alleviating poverty" on Oct. 4 at the Mellon Auditorium. Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood are co-chairs. You know exactly how it's going to go down: Hundreds of former staffers and volunteers, dozens of standing ovations, soaring videos, long tributes. No cynics allowed.
Recruit top co-chairs
Some galas get the lion's share of attention, headlines, big names. To wit: The 30th anniversary celebration Oct. 16 at the Kennedy Center for Nancy Brinker's global breast cancer foundation. Brinker, a GOP fundraiser and former ambassador, got Adrian and Michelle Fenty, French Ambassador Pierre Vimont and Kuwaiti Ambassador Salem Al-Sabah and his wife, Rima, to lend their names (and therefore their clout) for the party. She's connected, they're connected and together they'll attract an enviable roster of the usual suspects.
A note to everybody with a good cause: The competition is brutal, the parties shouldn't be. There's a world of need out there, and thousands of caring people who donate untold hours, write checks and show up at galas like these because they want to make a difference. So say thanks and leave it at that: Enough with the long speeches, the parade of egos demanding time on the podium, the arguments about why your cause deserves oodles more in federal funding, and the awkward, mood-killing live auctions designed to squeeze a few more bucks from donors. Passion for a cause is not an excuse to bore or harangue faithful donors.
Go old-school grand
There's a Washington trope that men hate to put on tuxedos but women love to dress up. What's probably true is that national politicians hate to see pictures of themselves wearing a tux in campaign ads smearing them as "elitists." (Grow up, people! There really ought to be a law against this kind of party politics.)
Nonetheless, a few parties go all out: Black tie, sweeping ball gowns, flashy (D.C. flashy, not Dallas flashy) jewels. The Meridian International Center will celebrate its 50th anniversary on Oct. 1 with dinners at embassies, followed by an elegant black-tie ball at the historic mansion. The gala boasts a mix of politicians, diplomats, business leaders -- you know, the kind of party that directors stage in fictional movies about Washington. This year's standout: hottie Sen. Scott Brown, making a rare social turn because his wife, reporter Gail Huff, agreed to serve as the night's congressional co-chair.
Do something fun
Sad but true: People don't really expect to have any fun at Washington galas. They eat, they drink, they applaud politely, they exchange business cards -- all the while hoping to make it home in time for the 10 o'clock news. Sigh.
Smart organizers will add at least one element to enliven the atmosphere. Dancing is the go-to pick-me-up, so a good many of the top galas spring for a band or a DJ. Others parties try whimsy (the Washington National Opera's masked ball that kicked off the "season" -- extra points for custom-made Venetian-style masks!) or wit (PEN/Faulkner's dinner last week featured clever readings by authors Jane Hamilton, Laura Lippman, Howard Norman and Audrey Niffenegger).
For 20 years, Fight Night and its sister event, Knock Out Abuse, have thrived by substituting unabashed, outsized rowdiness for low-key political correctness. The Nov. 11 events are poised to once again do what they do so well: 2,000 guys at the all-male fundraiser will smoke cigars, watch boxing matches and ogle models half their ages. Their wives and girlfriends will drape themselves in the latest designer duds, hoot and holler and raise a ton of money. Then they all gather for drinking, dancing and flirting. Shocking, really.
Speaking of over the top, one party can barely contain itself: the annual Human Rights Campaign national dinner. This gay-rights fundraiser walks that fine line between on-your-best-behavior and gasp-inducing-funny; this year's Oct. 9 lineup includes Pink and Bette Midler.
Make a little history
Every once in a while, Washington offers a unique, one-off event. Arena Stage, one of the country's most influential regional theaters, is unveiling its new space-age superstructure at a black-tie gala Oct. 25. Local theater and arts patrons will be out in force for a first peek at the shiny new building; if they needed any further lure, Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell will perform.
Serious food and drink
The average Washington gala will serve decent wines and, occasionally, a really sumptuous meal. But not so very often. And that's not the point of the evening, so no reason to get all foodie-snobby about it.
There's an exception to this rule: Galas featuring the increasing number of accomplished chefs in D.C. The standard fundraiser dinner is a sit-down affair with three courses. Chef's parties tend to be movable feasts, with guests roaming the room and sampling bite-size jewels of seriously good food -- and plenty of wine.
The party Sept. 30 at the Ritz-Carlton with 25 chefs (Michel Richard, José Andrés, Robert Wiedmaier and a number of the nation's top pastry chefs) is a fundraiser for the kids of Jerome Girardot, the Ritz pastry chef who died last year.
Mount Vernon got in the spirit a few years ago when it launched a night of drinking rare whiskeys, including one from George Washington's own distillery. Its Oct. 6 gala throws in dinner, fireworks and Olympian Apolo Ohno.
Speaking of spirits: Can we ask why the Catholic Charities fundraiser Sept. 28 boasts a concert with Patti LaBelle and Denyce Graves but a cash bar? Really? It's listed right there on the invite. Seriously, there must be smarter ways to save money.
Make it painless
After a long night of do-gooding, the last thing you want to do is hoof it for blocks to your car or wait endlessly on the curb. Especially in cold or wet weather. Look for "valet parking" on the invitation. The best party planners invest in enough valets so guests can swiftly drop off their cars and retrieve them without waiting for Godot or resetting the car radio. Trust us on this.
And you partygoers: Tip those kids generously. They're running around in the rotten weather so you don't have to.
And above all, try to have some fun, people.