UPDATED 7 p.m.
Well, look who decided to come around! President Obama, whose White House years have been marked by a careful avoidance of so many black-tie Beltway traditions, attended the most elite of them all Saturday night.
Why the Alfalfa Club dinner? In his remarks to political and business heavy hitters — many of whom had walked to their steak-and-lobster meal at the Capital Hilton along a gantlet of Occupy D.C. protesters outside — the president explained:
“You’ve heard it from the pundits: ‘Obama is cloistered in the White House.’ ‘He’s aloof.’ ‘He’s in the bubble.’ ‘He’s not connecting.’ . . . One of my big goals this year was to get out and be among everyday, ordinary Americans — like the men and women of the Alfalfa Club.”
Ha ha! How everyday and ordinary were they? “I’d like to acknowledge a very good friend of mine,” he added, according to excerpts released by the White House. “Warren Buffett’s secretary’s boss is in the house.”
Also: John Boehner, Michael Bloomberg, John Kerry, John McCain, David Rubenstein, Pat Leahy, Steny Hoyer, Madeleine Albright, Steve Case, Cal Ripken, Valerie Jarrett, and Jose Andres, to name a few. And, randomly, Sally Field, a guest of student-loan titan Catherine Reynolds. Both Joe Lieberman and Mark Warner were there with glitter in their hair, having been glitter-bombed by the demonstrators.
It was the first time since 2009 that the president had attended the closed-door, off-the-record conclave — and the first time in history that Alfalfa had hosted three presidents, with the return of George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, a regular who seems to love these dinners as much as Obama hates them.
Maybe Obama’s starting to warm to this stuff? Last spring he attended his first Gridiron Club Dinner since becoming president — a similar kind of thing, but with white tie and elite media.
Or. . . maybe not. The president usually speaks last at Alfalfa, but the White House got him booked in the middle of Saturday’s dinner. (He also joked that he had “about 45 more minutes on the State of the Union that I’d like to deliver tonight,” and mused about his own “promising future — as an Al Green impersonator.”) After his speech, he and Michelle Obama (in a flowing, violet dress) got the heck out of there, which left some guests grumbling and some speakers scrambling to jettison jokes that needed POTUS in the room to work.
Oh well. At least he got to hear one of the best-received jokes of the night, from outgoing club president Sandra Day O’Connor.
It’s ironic, the retired Supreme Court justice quipped: Mitt is the Mormon — but Newt is the polygamist. (Paraphrasing here, via guests who leaked the night’s best gags.)
But he missed the surprise star turn by the night’s honoree, Jeb Bush. A hallmark of the annual dinner is the club’s jokey “nomination” of a VIP guest as its candidate for president — this year, the former Florida governor, whose easy and witty speech had some Republicans in the room misty-eyed about the one who got away.
With two presidents in the family, he said, you got to deal with a lot of bossiness. “If I say, ‘Who put you in charge?’, Dad says, ‘The American people.’ And George says, ‘The Supreme Court, five to four.’ ”
Musing about the 2012 GOP hopefuls, Jeb went on, “The field was so muddled, at one point my brother was thinking about running again. ‘George,’ I said, ‘The Constitution prohibits you from running again.’ He said, ‘Wow, they put my name in the Constitution?’ ”
What is the Alfalfa Club, anyway? A power broker’s fraternity (and sorority, since it admitted women in 1994) that now exists solely to host this dinner, always held on the last Saturday in January. It was founded in 1913 to honor the birthday of, er, Robert E. Lee. That fact gave Obama a decent zinger when he addressed the club in 2009, just days after his own historic inauguration. “If he were with us tonight, the general would be 202 years old,” the president joked. “And very confused.”
Updated. Earlier versions of this story were published at 12 a.m. and 5:30 a.m.
Read also: Occupy D.C. contemplates McPherson decampment, protest Alfalfa Club dinner, 1/28/12