In these harrowing times, a glance at how World War II changed society in Washington may be cautionary.
From the beginning of the war in Europe, both Allied and Axis embassies entertained lavishly, to influence the United States to enter the war -- or to stay out. Their parties, awash with drink, were also prime places for spies, or at least were believed to be.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor brought war home to the United States.
The war brought to Washington a great influx of dollar-a-year men. These rich industrialists, well-paid lobbyists and eminent academicians -- consultants to the government war effort -- brought their money and their hostesses.
Washington also had a few rich women, confined to ladylike pursuits, who in frustration exercised their talents by running their mansions on a scale suitable to large corporations or military bases. They specialized in giving umpteen-course dinners "in honor of" European royalty who, run out of their own countries by war, sought refuge here.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was among those who didn't approve of "the class of people who live in Washington for social reasons ... people who live in 20-room mansions on Massachusetts Avenue, for instance." Roosevelt called them "parasites" and suggested their houses could be better used as offices for government or business, David Brinkley wrote in his book "Washington Goes to War.
(Cissy Patterson, publisher of the Washington Times-Herald and a voracious critic of the president, owned a house on Dupont Circle with considerably more than 20 rooms. Roosevelt told his press secretary that he hoped Cissy would take his remarks personally.)
Stories began to appear on the wire services about Washington's mad frivolity -- likely often overworking the cliche: "Drink today for tomorrow we die."
A flood of letters, incited by those stories, washed onto the desk of Washington Post society editor Hope Ridings Miller. About the same time, she recalled recently, her husband, a medical corps captain, was sent overseas. "I was very blue, it made me sick to have to go cover parties."
And so, in 1943 on the front page of the society section, she wrote a "Farewell to Society," saying the letters "convinced me that many Americans still felt that capital society fiddled while Bataan burned and that most capital celebrities were far more concerned with their social calendars than winning the war."
She vowed to give up writing about "paper-thin sandwiches and cocktails" and cover instead "personalities who are contributing to the war effort." Her staff wrote stories celebrating the mobile canteen of the Red Cross on night duty, the war work of an ambassador's wife, the nurses' aides in the military hospitals, the volunteers who danced with the young enlisted men. Brinkley credits Miller with coining the phrase "parties for a purpose."
Before all these cultural shocks, society in Washington was properly carried on by people who had been formally introduced to each other, either by letters from a mutual friend or under the chandelier of an acquaintance.
Washington was still a place where, it was said, "Either you have a cook -- or you are a cook."
The rules of dress were still tighter than the girdles all respectable women were expected to wear. Cissy Patterson was said to keep a cabdriver stationed outside her door at all times, lest she need her white gloves taken to be cleaned. Lindy Boggs (who retired this year from Congress) at that time was the wife of the Louisiana congressman. She was warned by a constituent that she had to have a purple veil to go anywhere in Washington. Indeed, she was turned away from the family gallery in the House on the grounds that no representative's wife would come without a hat.
Kowtowing was a principal occupation of women in society. They were expected to spend their days in the ritual of making formal calls. Boggs had to call on the wives of all the members of Congress who took office before her husband. "At a party, you couldn't leave until all those senior to you had left," she remembers.
After the war, the city and its society were never the same again.
Today, no one but military officers and diplomats makes calls. Women no longer are expected to wear girdles or much of anything else and they go to work. The cooks all have been hired by new restaurants. Spies send messages by microwave transmission.
And what will be lost in Washington from the desert storm?