As the party got going it looked -- at first glance, at least -- like Washington seen by conspiracy theorists.
People from government, business, the media and lobbying firms rubbed shoulders and chatted quietly in the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton hotel. At one table was Tom Foley, the former speaker of the House, his shock of white hair visible from across the room. At the next table, Boisfeuillet Jones Jr. , publisher of The Washington Post, leaned over to talk to D.C. Council member Jack Evans; across the table was Anne Wexler, chairman of the lobbying firm Wexler & Walker, and David M. Rubenstein, managing director of the big investment company Carlyle Group.
It was the final dinner of the year of the Economic Club of Washington, a group of Washington's business elite that aims to recapture a bygone era in Washington business.
Many local business events are populated by mid-level marketing executives scurrying to sell things to each other, laminated tags announcing their name and profession lest anyone end up talking to someone who might not be a sales lead.
The Economic Club is different. It hears speeches from economists and Cabinet secretaries, and its members are heavily weighted toward people with "chief executive" or "managing partner" on their business cards. Its president, until last week, was George J. Mitchell, the former senator turned big-league lawyer turned chairman of Walt Disney Corp. His replacement: Vernon Jordan, the prominent lawyer and investment banker.
There are no nametags; it is one big, 288-member club after all, and in theory at least, everyone knows each other, or will soon. Before dinner, there are cocktails. With dinner, there is good wine. After dinner, cigars and cordials. More so than other business events, it is supposed to be a real party -- just as in the old days of Washington business.
That was the 1960s and 1970s, when business in Washington was dominated by a few dozen companies. There were the bankers, like Lew Jennings of Riggs and Joe Riley of National Savings & Trust. There were real estate developers like Oliver Carr and Calvin Cafritz and utility executives like Reid Thompson at Pepco and Don Bittinger at Washington Gas. They were centered downtown, intently focused on doings within the Beltway and used their connections as both a political force and a social network.
"There were about 30 people in town who were involved in most of the important civic decisions, and most of them had their offices within a few blocks of the Metropolitan Club" at 1700 H Street NW, said Kenneth R. Sparks, the executive vice president of the Federal City Council, an influential group of businesspeople from which the Economic Club is an offshoot.
They were almost all men, almost all white, and sometimes wielded power in undemocratic ways. But they got things done, perhaps most impressively spearheading the creation of the Metro system.
By the 1980s, though, the old guard was fraying. Local banks were taken over by out-of-state competitors or went under. The same happened in retail and in real estate. Meanwhile, businesses sprouted up in the suburbs that sold newfangled stuff like software all over the world.
The private sector in Washington is bigger than it has ever been, but the companies that have driven that growth are less part of the club. Of the region's 10 biggest companies based on the value of their stock, eight are based in the suburbs and only three are represented on the 84-member board of directors of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the region's chamber of commerce.
So, in 1986, Ed Hoffman, president of the now-defunct department store Woodward & Lothrop Inc.; lawyer R. Robert Linowes and others decided to start the Economic Club.
Their major goal was to expose executives to ideas shaping the world of business. "As it turned out, t became particularly important to have as a vehicle for social interchange, especially as all these businesses have moved their headquarters out of Washington and it was harder for businesspeople to have that sense of unity," said Linowes, of Linowes & Blocher LLP.
But if this is the cabal secretly running Washington, it's not as tight-knit as conspiracy theorists might think.
There, for example, was Dennis R. Wraase, the chief executive of Pepco Holdings Inc., chatting with John T. Schwieters, who headed the now-defunct accounting firm Arthur Andersen LLP in the region for a decade ending in 1999. George Vradenburg, a former senior vice president of America Online who still advises the company, sidled up and joined the conversation.
"This is actually my first time at the Economic Club," Vradenburg asaid moment later. "I'm here as a guest."
At another table sat Sparks, a D.C. power broker for more than 30 years. John M. Germano introduced himself.
"Good to meet you," Sparks said pleasantly. Germano manages the largest commercial real estate brokerage in the region, CB Richard Ellis, the local affiliate of a Los Angeles-based company.
"Hi, I'm Ed Mathias," another man at the table said. He and Sparks shook hands. Mathias is a co-founder and managing director of Carlyle Group, which manages $18 billion from its headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue.
In the old days, it may go without saying, people like Sparks, Germano and Mathias would need no introductions.
"We're really better known in London or Tokyo than here," Rubenstein, the evening's speaker, said in an interview. "Not much of our money comes from here, and very few of the companies we invest in are around here. It just happens to be where we're based." Carlyle, with 216 people at its headquarters, has no executives on the Federal City Council and is not significantly involved with the Board of Trade.
At 9:02, Rubenstein finished his speech. Before the question and answer period could begin, about 40 people fled the ballroom. "I'm tired! I have a 7:30 breakfast tomorrow," said Linda D. Rabbitt, president of Rand Construction Corp., on her way out the door.
At 9:11, the questions were answered and the crowd rushed the stairs for the exit. Of the 200 people attending, about two dozen stayed for a sip of scotch in the lobby outside the ballroom. A couple of people took one of the H. Upmann Lonsdale Cuban cigars offered. None smoked them.
At 9:30, a waiter came around to say it was last call for the bar. A moment later, the handful of people remaining -- among them Edmund B. Cronin Jr., longtime chief executive of Washington Real Estate Investment Trust; Henry W. Lavine, senior counsel with law firm Squire Sanders; and Bill Alsup, who heads developer Hines Interests LP in the Washington area -- trickled out and waited for the valets to bring their cars.
At 9:44, the ballroom was empty, and the party was over.