It’s that time of year again: when the biggest of bigwigs don black tie garb and descend upon the Capital Hilton ballroom to bask in the collective glow of their stunning accomplishments — and consume lots of booze. It’s the 106th annual Alfalfa Club dinner and, despite the collective PTSD of the longest partial government shutdown on record, the party must go on.
In fact, according to our source in the room (the dinner is closed to press), Saturday night’s celebration — held just one day after President Trump agreed to reopen the government for three weeks — was surprisingly one of the most harmonious in years.
“It was quite remarkable,” the person said, “considering what everyone had been through.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) were all in the room together. Democrats originally planned on skipping the affair if the federal government remained closed, as the optics of knocking back flutes of champagne while hobnobbing with the 1 percent over lobster and beef tenderloin weren’t, shall we say, ideal.
But with the government open, at least temporarily, the night was the first unofficial test of whether those on opposite sides of the aisle in official Washington could play nice, and for the most part, everyone did. Exhibit A? Former secretary of state and outgoing club president John F. Kerry hugged incoming club president, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).
Apparently it was Kerry’s opener from the podium that set the tone: “This is the only speech in Washington that hasn’t been canceled by Nancy Pelosi.” Boom tiss.
The onetime Democratic presidential candidate, who was fresh from Davos, Switzerland, then targeted every major player in the news from Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh to rising Texas politician Beto O’Rourke. About Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who was sitting in the ballroom, Kerry joked, “I want to thank him for taking care of dessert. He went to the kitchen and said, ‘Let them eat cake.’”
But seriously, folks. The emotional punch among all those punchlines came when Kerry delivered a touching tribute to his fellow Navy men, late Alfalfans senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former president George H.W. Bush, that received a standing ovation. “It was a nice moment that contributed to the feeling of the evening,” said our source.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. delivered the “Crop Report,” which is the official introduction of the club’s newest inductees, or “sprouts.” This year’s new crop included Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.); Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.); Robert Bellinger, chief executive of ASB Real Estate Investments; Timothy Collins, chief executive of Ripplewood Advisors; Kenneth C. Frazier, chief executive of Merck & Co.; John Hess, chief executive of Hess Corporation; Doug McMillon, chief executive of Walmart; and Phebe Novakovic, chief executive of General Dynamics.
Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, was there to give a speech and announced the club’s faux nominee for president in 2020, former Senate majority leader Bill Frist. Frist, who is a heart surgeon, then launched into his own speech, which included a bit featuring a physical exam of McConnell, who appeared onstage in a hospital gown over his tux (apparently you had to be there).
Though the president and Vice President Pence were not in attendance at the annual dinner, there were plenty of West Wingers both present and put-out-to-pasture in the ballroom. Former Trump administration staffers such as John F. Kelly (chief of staff), Jim Mattis (secretary of defense) and Rex Tillerson (secretary of state) were there, as were current staffers Kellyanne Conway, Commerce Secretary Ross and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Senior advisers to the president Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, who have attended the hoity-toity affair every year they’ve been in Washington, weren’t in the room Saturday.
The night ended on a serious note, however, as Mattis delivered the night’s closing remarks. He chided the audience on the government shutdown, and praised members of the U.S. Coast Guard and their families before proposing a toast to the troops that had the room — Republicans and Democrats alike — on their feet.