It was, perhaps, not the best possible time for the Republican Party to hold a soiree.
The war in Iraq reached a macabre milestone yesterday afternoon as a 2,000th soldier was added to the list of the U.S. dead. Consumer confidence took a surprise tumble to a two-year low, the Conference Board announced. Support for the GOP fell to its lowest level in at least 13 years, according to a poll released by the Pew Research Center. All of Washington, meanwhile, was waiting for Friday's deadline for a prosecutor to say whether he is indicting top White House officials.
And yet, there they were at the gilded Mellon Auditorium last night: the Republican Party's biggest donors, men in tuxedos and women in cocktail dresses, dining on Asian spoon canapes, orange carpaccio and seared mignon of beef, and listening to the soothing tones of a jazz band and a keynote address by President Bush. About 250 Republican Eagles -- those who have contributed $15,000 or more to the party -- and guests were in town for the Eagles' 30th-birthday dinner, which was expected to bring the party more than $1 million.
Of course, the event was scheduled when nobody imagined this would be the darkest political week of the Bush presidency. But that didn't stop the minority Democrats from enjoying something that party has not seen in years: a chance to gloat. "We should not be throwing parties at a time when we've got serious problems," said Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Karen Finney.
Finney's Republican counterpart, Tracey Schmitt responded thusly: "Regardless of the news cycle, the party is committed to our long-term goals: advancing the president's agenda and making sure we have the resources we need to be successful in 2006."
But the juxtaposition between the day's news and the night's festivities was awkward. In the Mellon Auditorium, its 45-foot stone columns decked with blue and white fabric, guests were greeted with cocktails at the entrance and crystal paperweights on their tables. A band, the Wright Stuff, played from a stage in the middle of the ballroom floor. Only the wine selection -- a pedestrian Clos du Bois -- hinted that these are not fat times.
RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman, who, like Bush, had the political judgment not to dress in formal attire, took an innovative view of recent days. "This has been an incredible fall!" he announced, pointing to the approval of a constitution in Iraq, elections in Afghanistan, confirmation of a new chief justice and education reforms.
"Yaaaaay," a lone woman in the audience yelled.
Bush was not quite so ebullient, reminding the donors that "we face a brutal enemy." But he avoided most of the controversial issues, opting instead for timeless truths: "We stand for freedom. . . . We believe that democracy is the best form of government. . . . This is a land where you can dream the big dream."
The donors greeted Bush warmly, but they struggled to rouse themselves to honor the applause lines. Bush earned only a smattering of applause for his usually reliable call to end "frivolous lawsuits." His boast that his economic plan "is working" garnered no applause. And his mention that "I've been talking about Social Security" was greeted with dead silence.
When the president said he would "lay the foundations for peace for generations to come," a few donors jumped up to applaud, but most lumbered gradually to their feet and several remained in their seats.
Such a reception from Bush's friends is becoming familiar as his support slips (to 38 percent in an American Research Group poll yesterday) and Americans say the country is on the wrong track (65 percent, in yesterday's Battleground poll). Conservatives have launched a campaign to defeat the Miers nomination. And Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to the president's father, this week joined a corps of erstwhile allies condemning the administration's actions.
The causes of the discontent have grown: high fuel prices, a national debt that reached $8 trillion last week, a trio of hurricanes and the destruction of New Orleans, the indictment of Tom DeLay, the SEC probe of Bill Frist -- and, of course, the wait to see if Patrick Fitzgerald's grand jury will indict a sitting White House official this week for the first time since the 19th century.
Many of Bush's natural defenders are silenced: At the White House yesterday afternoon, Scott McClellan declared 11 times that he could say nothing about the CIA leak, because it's an "ongoing investigation." In case that gave away too much information, he added: "Just because I'm not commenting on it doesn't mean you should read anything into that one way or the other."
Even the RNC's Mehlman had been less than helpful, comparing Bush's standing this week to that of Ronald Reagan after Iran-contra, the loss of the Senate and the defeat of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.
But last night, Mehlman recovered. "Our economy remains strong!" he said. "Our deficit has dropped by almost $100 billion!" When his list of unmitigated triumph ended, Mehlman added: "None of this progress is an accident or a coincidence. It's just the result of an historic leader with a bold vision for our nation and our world."
The Eagles crowed.