Every so often a diplomatic superstar emerges here whose party invitations are the most coveted, and in whose embassy, week after week, Washington's A list gathers to warble on about the day's events -- hoping, always, for a chance to sit next to the headline of the day.
Remember those glitzy, caviar-filled nights when Iranian Ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi whirled Liz Taylor around his dance floor? And there was the far less public salon of former British Ambassador Nicholas Henderson, where in the early '80s you might find Caspar Weinberger arm in arm with Anatoliy Dobrynin.
Enter Canadian Ambassador Allan Gotlieb and his wife Sondra, four years ago.
"I call them the George Burns and Gracie Allen act of the diplomatic set," says Canadian columnist Alan Fotheringham. "Crazy Sondra and bright Allan."
"You know when you go there you will meet people who are xr crucial," says writer and Georgetown grande dame Susan Mary Alsop. "I'm honored and grateful to be invited."
"He was a very effective ambassador and they gave very good parties, unstuffy parties," says one frequent guest of the Gotliebs. "One could be confident of running into the people you wanted to see. It was . . . " She pauses to correct herself. "I want this in the present tense. I mean, they're not dead yet."
Or are they?
Precisely the question the social lions and political tigers of Washington are asking these days. Washingtonians love a soap opera as long as they themselves don't have center stage. They'll gossip about Sondra Gotlieb slapping her social secretary, and mull over Allan Gotlieb's involvement with Michael Deaver's controversial lobbying efforts on behalf of Canada. And they might even show a little pity over the rumors that Gotlieb soon could be recalled to Ottawa.
But will they still go to their parties? This is a town known for its arbitrary ins and outs and quicksilver ups and downs. Today's cachet is tomorrow's passe', and the fact is, the Gotliebs have been extraordinarily fortunate to remain hot as long as they have.
To understand how they did it -- and why they may not last -- consider how these Four Rules for Making It and Keeping It in social Washington apply to the Gotliebs' case.
1. Make Some Important Friends, and Heed Their Advice.
The way to climb Washington's social ladder without toppling off is to meet people who can walk you up. For the Gotliebs, that meant the late columnist Joseph Kraft and his wife Polly, a Georgetown socialite.
Kraft was very friendly with Richard Gwyn, a prominent columnist for the Toronto Star, and whenever he visited Canada he would run into the Gotliebs at Gwyn's home. So when the Gotliebs moved here, the Krafts showed them the way, giving a party for them in Georgetown where they met all the right people.
The Krafts coached the Gotliebs on the difference between the A list and the B list in what Sondra Gotlieb has come to call "Powertown." The C list, of course, simply never figured in.
"We were always invited with a personal call from them," says one A-list journalist and frequent guest, "and that made a difference. They would call and say, 'I'd really like you to come.' And the mix of people there was impressive . . . "
Guests at the embassy say Allan Gotlieb always seems so earnest, so interested. And Sondra Gotlieb, they note, has always been extremely entertaining, if a trifle eccentric.
She quickly learned how the social scene works -- a process she satirized in her "Letter From Washington" columns, which run periodically on the op-ed page of The Washington Post. Sondra Gotlieb joked about having the title "wife of," and about the problems of seating powerful guests and the necessity for kissing up to power.
"Powerful jobs, everywhere, like being kissed by young wives of men who are their subordinates," she wrote. "When I first came to Powertown I didn't kiss anyone and nobody kissed me. But after a year or so I realized that there was a lot of social kissing going around and I would have to be a part of it."
Soon Washington was kissing the air behind their cheeks as the fast-moving Gotliebs lunched with Barbara Walters and vacationed at Laughlin and Jennifer Phillips' summer home in Martha's Vineyard. And like the old-society "cave-dwellers," they rarely invited the press to cover their cozy little dinners.
"I warned her about that right from the start," says one of Sondra Gotlieb's friends, herself a cave-dweller. "If you want to get anywhere, don't have working press at your parties."
And Sondra took her friends' advice to heart. In her book, "Wife of . . . An Irreverent Account of Life in Powertown," she writes: "Now I spend hours making up seating plans . . . Parties in Washington are an extension of work, and people will go to an embassy party if they think they might see someone they have missed during the day. They particularly like to see the Powerful Jobs . . . "
Indeed, many of the headline makers and the major media figures who cover them eventually found their way to the Gotlieb's tables.
Among those who have dined, lunched and brunched there: Michael Deaver, George Shultz, Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige, Attorney General Edwin Meese, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Drew, Joan and Tom Braden, David and Susan Brinkley, Wall Street Journal Washington bureau chief Al Hunt and MacNeil/Lehrer's Judy Woodruff, Sens. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), and assorted other well-known names from the Hill.
At some point, before or after dinner, Allan Gotleib would arrange to visit some of these same people to pursue issues important to Canada: trade, acid rain, lumber.
Wrote Sondra: "People come to parties to gather information, make a contact, and try to influence those who make the decision" -- the same reasons, of course, that people give parties.
2. Don't Forget What You're Here For
"I think if they only gave parties and this were not followed up by good work and an intelligent approach, he would not have been able to be effective, which he has been," says Elizabeth Drew. "He has made the embassy and Canada more of a force . . . A very large part of the ball game here is getting in to make the case. You're nowhere until you can start talking, and he has a very good record for getting his case made."
Allan Gotlieb's grasp of issues and his adeptness at Hill and government maneuverings have certainly given him a jump on cocktail-hour conversation -- and of course, they also have helped him at home. Although he had been appointed by Pierre Trudeau, Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney reportedly allowed him to continue because of the stature he attained here.
Congressmen and congressional staffers say that rarely has an ambassador had such a pronounced presence on Capitol Hill. He pounds the marble hallways regularly, conferring with contacts like Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.).
"He's very good at understanding the local politics of the place," says Mark Helmke, Lugar's spokesman. "He understands that Senator X has a particular problem and therefore is able to approach him with bilateral concerns."
"He understands Washington and and knows the issues," says Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead, who deals with Gotlieb regularly and who also has been a dinner guest at the embassy.
But even the most skilled ambassador can't always cover every base. One member of the Senate Finance Committee staff tells this story:
For a moment, a few weeks ago, it looked as if a trade agreement with Canada might not make it out of the Senate Finance Committee. Fearing the toll Canadian competition would take on American industry, committee Chairman Bob Packwood delayed the measure and met with Gotlieb. Afterward, the senator heard that Gotlieb was telling officials in Ottawa that there would be no problem with the legislation.
"We were hearing from the White House that the Canadians didn't feel they had to compromise at all," said the staffer, who was involved with the negotiations. "The committee and Packwood interpreted this as Gotlieb not taking them very seriously. I wouldn't say that he and Packwood now have a bad relationship . . . But he could have handled it better."
Gotlieb's visibility here (how many people can name the last Canadian ambassador?) has for the most part nicely complemented Canada's recent push to develop a higher profile itself, as well as more influence with its largest trading partner. But now, some say, the ambassador's profile could be a little too high.
3. Avoid Mistakes That Might End Up on the Evening News
Part of Sondra Gotlieb's allure here came from a certain kind of daffiness and nonchalance. This surfaced in her columns, where she tried to distance herself from the haughtiness of Washington society by teasing the power-grabbers and the socially self-conscious. And Washington was amused by her, at least at first.
Until The Slap, at a dinner in Mulroney's honor. Soon afterward, rumors came out of Ottawa that the prime minister was furious at having his visit embarrassingly upstaged, and Allan Gotlieb's days here were numbered.
And the same women who had sipped Sondra Gotlieb's tea, eaten her veal and glossed over her sometimes odd behavior were asking themselves: How could someone who didn't seem to care slap her social secretary in the face over a missing guest?
One answer: Maybe she cared too much.
Some who know Sondra Gotlieb say that she was never really carefree about entertaining, but in fact was "high-strung" (as one embassy source put it) and frequently anxious before her dinners. "She always seemed to be running off to do something when you tried to talk to her," said one guest.
This was, after all, their first diplomatic post (even though Gotlieb is a career public servant), and the rules and rituals of fast-lane life can be overpowering. "The slap had nothing to do with Richard Darman," said the embassy source, referring to press reports that the deputy treasury secretary's last-minute cancellation had upset Sondra Gotlieb. "Anything could have triggered it . . ."
Since the incident, Washington society has shown a less tolerant side. Although its first instinct was to circle the wagons and protect one of its own, many Gotlieb guests were genuinely shocked by the insensitivity and arrogance Sondra Gotlieb's behavior implied.
"I don't approve," said one woman who has dined at the embassy since the slap. "I think it was awful."
"I really don't know how I feel about going back there again," said another woman, a frequent guest. "I guess it would depend on who the party was for."
Meanwhile, in the past few weeks Allan Gotlieb has found himself in the embarrassing position of fending off questions from Capitol Hill and the General Accounting Office about Canada'a $105,000-per-year lobbying contract with Michael Deaver. Gotlieb played a key role in having Deaver hired by the Canadians.
At issue is whether Deaver violated federal conflict-of-interest laws by lobbying his former executive branch colleagues about a research and cleanup agreement with the United States on acid rain, a critical problem for Canada -- and whether he discussed with Canadians the possibility of representing the country before he left the White House.
Yesterday, Gotlieb made headlines again with the release of a letter he had written to Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) who heads a subcommittee investigating the Deaver case. The letter acknowledged that one Canadian official did make a "lighthearted conversational remark" to then White House deputy chief of staff Deaver about how Canada "could use a good man" like him. (An embassy spokesman has said the remark was not made by Gotlieb.)
"There is some worry that this could rebound on the acid rain issue," says embassy spokesman Bruce Phillips. "Some of the opponents on the Hill could use this . . ."
None of this will do the Gotlieb's any good on the social front either, of course. But Sondra's faux pas is still their biggest problem.
"I don't think the Deaver thing hurt them socially," says columnist Fotheringham. "It's the other thing. This is a society which is terribly formal and pompous. They delighted in Sondra's eccentricities and barbed manner . . . but now that she's stepped over the line in one flashing moment . . . They want her to be eccentric but not that eccentric."
4. If You Do Make a Mistake, Lie Low
The Gotliebs have managed in the past month to brave the storm and yet stay out of its way. They have had a few parties recently, all of which were low-key and without any press coverage.
They declined to be interviewed for this piece. But when reporters have accosted them about The Slap -- at the Kennedy Center, for instance, the evening after it occurred -- both have been forthcoming.
Sondra Gotlieb kept a speaking engagement shortly afterward, then thanked the audience for not asking her about the incident. She has written only one column since, which wasn't up to her usual standard of snideness. In it she talked about her friend Popsie Trible's craving to get her house into Architectural Digest, and avoided all talk of dinner parties.
The embassy has issued consistent statements that Gotlieb has done no wrong in the Deaver case. "One man's judgment is not another's mistake," said Phillips, himself a Mulroney appointee. "The ambassador is here, and there has not been any plan to move him."
But no matter how well they're doing, the fact remains: An important part of an ambassador's job is to be a kind of public relations man for his country, paid to engender good relations and press coverage -- but only the positive kind. So, the rumors and the speculation about their future in Washington persist. Will they return to Canada? Will they be back giving power parties next fall? Or will the "wife of" and the "husband of" fade quietly from social view?
"Oh, so many other terrible things are happening in the world," says Susan Mary Alsop. "Of course, they'll survive this."
"One reason people will still go to their parties is because there's no one else right now," counters a well-placed Washington businesswoman. "Besides, at some point he's going to get recalled and everyone knows that.
"So you can just go on being nice to them and know it won't be for three more years.