The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Washington’s power brokers are adapting to the New Normal — and that includes how they party and raise money

Attendees during the Meridian International Center’s virtual VIP reception kicking off its annual summit, which is usually capped by a black-tie ball. Because of the pandemic, this year’s event shifted online. (Meridian International Center)

The Meridian Ball went casual this year: tequila instead of champagne. Grubhub instead of embassy dinners. And dogs instead of dancing. “We’re going to make the dog an honorary co-chair,” the Meridian International Center’s president, Stuart Holliday, told John Walsh, the ball’s actual co-chair, whose pup crashed the virtual VIP reception.

Washington is adapting to the New Normal — and that includes how it parties and raises money. For more than five decades, A-listers have flocked to this annual black-tie soiree, one of the most elegant social events of the year. Billionaires mingle with ambassadors, Supreme Court justices, lawmakers and White House officials, sipping champagne in the candlelit garden of a historic mansion designed by John Russell Pope, the architect who also created the National Gallery of Art and Jefferson Memorial. The party attracts a bipartisan crowd of power brokers dedicated to the center’s mission of global understanding and cooperation. It’s glamorous, prestigious and packed shoulder-to-shoulder.

And then the world turned upside down. “We all expected the summer to see an improvement in the situation,” said Holliday. “And so we held on to the idea of doing the ball, maybe in a different format, slightly fewer people. We played around with different scenarios, but it became clear in April or May that we didn’t want to do anything to this ball that would not be up to the health and safety requirements.”

But canceling would have been a huge hit to Meridian’s bottom line, and the decision was made to shift the fundraiser to a virtual event. In one respect, Meridian was lucky: The theme for the Oct. 23 summit — traditionally the substance leading up to the style of the ball — was global health, a topic selected before the pandemic hit. Two people with extensive international experience — Richard Jonas, a pediatric heart surgeon, and Walsh, whose father founded Project HOPE, the global health organization — signed on to be this year’s co-chairs. Pfizer came onboard as the lead corporate sponsor. The event turned out to be an unexpectedly easy sell to philanthropists looking for a way to do something meaningful in 2020.

“What all this has taught us is that the work of Meridian is more important now than it ever was,” Walsh told reception guests. “Communicating with other countries during this pandemic is essential. We have to understand how different countries are handling this, how we interact with them, how we can be compassionate with them, and how we can bring this terrible epidemic to an end as a world community.”

But how to re-create the allure of the ball online? The fun? A number of virtual fundraisers this year have delivered four-course dinners to their sponsors — a generous but expensive way to keep people engaged. The Meridian Ball is technically an after-party: Ambassadors donate private dinners held at their embassies beforehand (those have been rescheduled for the spring), and then guests head to the ball for dessert and dancing. That was obviously out of the question in 2020, so the only real party was a pre-summit VIP cocktail reception, held on Shindig — kind of like Zoom, but with the option of breaking off into small groups to network and catch up. And what’s a cocktail party without cocktails? To get donors into the spirit, Meridian delivered a specialty craft cocktail set to their homes: tequila, fresh lemons, cinnamon and pear syrups.

The small talk was less “Where did you summer?” and more “Where are you living?” Five dozen sponsors and guests (a fraction of the 850 people at last year’s ball) logged on from all over the country, offering a view of pandemic life from their libraries and dens. Some dressed up; others opted for pandemic cozy. The conversations were short and sweet: babies, weddings, new pets. One of the small pleasures of this time is a more intimate glimpse at private life: Walsh gave his toast while his Boykin spaniel, Coco, joined in with a few booming barks. Not to be outdogged, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) took the opportunity to show off his puppy, Otto.

Shindig allows guests to have private conversations by clicking on anyone’s head as they float around — which allows them to “work the room” and ignore the speeches, just like at an in-person party. The reception had the inevitable technical challenges: a few hard-to-hear speeches, the awkward etiquette of electronically crashing a group huddled on one corner of the screen. There were also two surprises: a performance by the American Pops Orchestra and a duet by Grammy Award-winning violinist Joshua Bell and his bride of one year, opera singer Larisa Martínez.

The following morning, the day-long summit attracted more than 1,000 participants — a record number, as people could join from anywhere around the world — with speakers including U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams and Cleveland Clinic CEO Tom Mihaljevic. To keep top donors glued to their screens, Meridian sent them banana bread and coffee mugs for breakfast, and a Grubhub voucher for lunch of their choice.

The ball’s $850,000 take was on par with past years: It lost revenue from individual ticket sales but made that up from reduced expenses and larger gifts from longtime donors.

The night of the summit, when the ball traditionally would have been held, had the kind of flawless fall weather organizers dream of. Instead of greeting guests and dancing, Holliday spent the evening in his backyard with a few friends grilling steaks. “The tux stayed in the closet,” he said. “But I had a glass of champagne and got texts from some of our regulars who wished they were at Meridian on such a beautiful night.”

Roxanne Roberts is a reporter in The Washington Post’s Style section.

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