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The Salons of Yesteryear

By Lloyd Grove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 22, 1998; Page B01

A few weeks before Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was to be inaugurated president of the United States of America, he attempted to make nice to the power elite. One evening he found himself at the Georgetown home of Katharine Graham, doyenne of The Washington Post Co.

Graham had assembled all the usual suspects for a sumptuous dinner – opinion-makers, policy-makers, power brokers and a smattering of social lions – and at the proper moment she graciously toasted the incoming president and welcomed him to town. Clinton responded with his own toast. Its tone, according to a witness, was surprisingly pugnacious. It boiled down to this: Thanks for dinner, I'm looking forward to being your president – and I'm warning you [smile]: You're not going to like me.

Five-and-a-half years later, Clinton's prophecy has turned out to be much more than legally accurate. The grand jury may still be out on the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but the Washington Establishment has pronounced its verdict: "What a jerk," as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) pithily summarized after watching Clinton's televised admission that he misled the country about his inappropriate behavior with the twenty-something former intern.

But not to worry, an unnamed White House official told the New York Times as pundits, columnists and editorial cartoonists heaped scorn and derision on Clinton's head. After all, this official argued, pointing to various public opinion polls, one of the core themes of the Clinton presidency has always been "the disparity between the reaction of the country and the reaction in the salons of Georgetown."

Which brings up a number of challenging questions: Is there actually such a disparity over the Lewinsky affair? Do issues so basic to the human condition – namely, sex, lies and DNA – really divide the populace according to social status, regionalism, political preference and the nuances of high policy? In other words, are the president's peccadilloes like NAFTA? And what is meant by the "salons of Georgetown," anyway? Do they exist in 1998?

"Honestly!" exclaims Susan Mary Alsop – who, with her late husband, the supremely influential columnist Joe Alsop, ran one of Georgetown's premier salons in the 1950s and 1960s. "I think everybody feels the same way – deeply unhappy and deeply confused. I don't think there's any difference. In any case, I don't think there have been salons in Georgetown for the last 10 years – do you?"

"I don't think so," ventures Alsop's fellow Georgetowner, Polly Fritchey, wife of newspaper pundit Clayton Fritchey. She adds that Clinton's troubles leave her "sick at heart." Fritchey continues: "I think your boss lady has the nearest thing to a Georgetown salon that still exists."

Yet Katharine Graham says of this apparently defunct institution: "It was always a figment of the imagination of presidents who hated the Washington Establishment."

Maybe. But certainly the so-called Georgetown salon wasn't the sinister cabal of Ivy League swells imagined by Lyndon Johnson – who used to deride squash-playing columnist Rowland Evans, a member in good standing of the Georgetown set, as "that man with Staycomb [pronounced "stake-em"] in his hair." It surely did not fit the paranoid fantasies of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter – a club of elitists out to subvert the public will, rich snobs with no feel for the workaday world, no feeling for real people.

Yet, clearly, something important was going on.

"We were just discussing the issues of the day," Alsop explains with an abundance of modesty. "Just the way you would do with your family." Except that her dinner guests were apt to include President Kennedy and his brother Bobby, the attorney general, who felt very much at home at the Alsops' Dumbarton Avenue manse.

"Yes, there were a lot of very grand dinners with very important people," says Polly Fritchey. "But I do hope I'm a real person. I used to be married to the deputy director of the CIA [the late Frank Wisner]. I've been married to a newspaperman for quite a while. I believe Clayton thinks I'm a real person."

Writer and Georgetown denizen Christopher Ogden – whose book "Life of the Party" chronicles the life of Pamela Harriman, the late courtesan and hostess extraordinaire – says the Georgetown salon once served a serious purpose that has been overtaken by modern communications. One of the few places in Georgetown that Clinton felt comfortable was at the N Street mansion of the fiercely partisan Harriman, a loyal Democrat who was Clinton's ambassador to France at the time of her death.

"When it was going strong, particularly during the Kennedy era and even to a certain extent during the Johnson era, the Georgetown salon lived on issues and gossip and characters who were not exposed every day on an infinite number of television channels," Ogden says. "When you had them to your house, there was something special about it. You felt you were getting special inside information, and you were part of a group that doesn't exist anymore.

"There was a time, and it wasn't just Camelot, when politicians and writers and diplomats and people interested in cultural affairs came together and conversed and kept some confidences," Ogden continues, "because they thought they could interact with one another in mutually helpful ways. The White House policy-makers courted the Georgetowners because they were considered to be opinion-makers. The opinion-makers courted the policy-makers so they could tell them what their opinions were.

"Now all that's been taken over by television. The discussions they used to have at the dinner table in Georgetown are now being conducted in front of the cameras. It used to be retail. Now it's wholesale."

In other words, the Georgetown hostesses of the past have been replaced by . . . Larry King.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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