You walk into a fancy dinner and pick up the little envelope that reveals your fate: the seat assignment for the evening. Did you score a prized spot at the best table? Or are you in “Siberia,” consigned to a seat in the back of the room? In a city full of status symbols, nothing distills power more quickly than your literal place at the table.
“Probably the most important single thing at a gala or dinner party is seating,” says Lucky Roosevelt, chief of protocol for the Reagans. “That determines whether or not people are going to have a good time.”
Who sits where is at the center of every social event in Washington — now in the thick of the fall party season — and the issue is complicated by titles, tradition and endless egos.
Roosevelt, who presided over the Washington National Opera’s season opener last month, spent weeks working with Kennedy Center officials on putting guests at just the right table. But a few people switched their seats at the black-tie dinner, which was a major breach of etiquette. “It’s an absolute no-no to change place cards,” she says.
That never stops the senator’s wife (no name for publication, of course, but notorious among hostesses) who used to call before dinners and demand to be seated next to the guest of honor. Most of the time she got her way, but not every time. Now she just combs the room during the cocktail hour to find her chair, then moves her place card to a better seat. And, according to event organizers who have watched her do it, she almost always gets away with it because . . . well, who’s going to tell her to get up and move?
“The protocol in every dinner revolves around the host and hostess — whomever they esteem most highly sits beside them,” says Lea Berman, who served as White House social secretary under George W. Bush. “It’s a mark of favor, and believe me, people pay attention to this. I’ve known Washingtonians who’ve held grudges for years because they felt they were seated below their rank at a dinner. And if you don’t think an undersecretary of agriculture knows that he outranks an assistant secretary of state and won’t mind if he’s not seated accordingly, think again.”
To prevent all those ruffled feathers, there’s an established formula for seating every elected official, foreign dignitary, diplomat and more called the “order of precedence.” In the United States, the president holds the highest rank, followed by foreign leaders, the vice president, governors, the speaker of the House and so on down a long list. Spouses are treated as if they held their partner’s title.
Rima Al-Sabah, wife of the Kuwaiti ambassador, is an expert in the gentle art of managing a room full of big names. She says protocol is of “paramount importance” because diplomats expect to be treated according to their rank. “It would be insulting to do otherwise.”
At this month’s fundraiser for the Bob Woodruff Foundation at her residence, Al-Sabah sat between the secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, her husband between national security adviser Susan Rice and Teresa Heinz Kerry. Several A-list ambassadors were deployed around the room — Al-Sabah uses them as anchors for different tables and then seats people with similar interests, so they have plenty to talk about.
“I mix all of the guests, after the basic protocol has been set, because I don’t like the idea of a host taking all of the most important VIPs at their table and putting all the other guests together at what might feel like a lesser table,” she says.
Traditionally, a host and hostess sit at opposite ends of a long table or at separate tables, with the guests of honor and highest ranking officials closest to them. Married and dating couples are seated apart; the only exception to this rule is engaged couples who are presumed too besotted to be separated.
Beth Ann Newton, editor of the Social List of Washington — a.k.a. the Green Book, the capital’s definitive guide to official titles and protocol — gets calls for help whenever a host has one or more titled officials on the guest list. As a courtesy, she’ll create a seating chart, only to get a last-minute call that requires shuffling the entire plan.
It is the hosts who ultimately decide who sits where, and the Obamas have shaken up decades of tradition by seating themselves together at several White House state dinners. The first lady has sometimes opted for fun over protocol by seating George Clooney and Stephen Colbert at her side for state dinners instead of a boring official. And really, can you blame her?
You may be thinking: All this talk about protocol and rank has nothing to do with my life. But every wedding planner has a story about guests who switched chairs or even tables because they didn’t like their seat. And lots of people without any official rank — say your boss — might be really peeved if they didn’t like their seats at the corporate lunch you organized.
“You can’t win, but you can definitely lose,” says Laura Liswood, secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders and senior adviser at Goldman Sachs. “People walk into a room and there’s an immediate assessment: Am I at the grown-ups’ table or the kids’ table?”
Events in Washington are harder to seat because of all the officials, and it becomes even worse when people decide to upgrade themselves (Liswood calls them “bodysnatchers”) to a better table.
But nothing is quite as bad as hijacking an entire table. “I’ve seen people change whole table numbers,” says event planner Susan O’Neill. The daughter of former speaker Tip O’Neill, who has dealt with every seating headache imaginable, had this happen to her twice: a rogue guest actually picking up the number identifying a table and switching it with another, better table. (People at, say, Table 26 found it near the back of the room; Table 77 was now in front between Tables 25 and 27.)
However, a great seat is in the eye of the beholder. Years ago, O’Neill placed a top donor next to a big movie star at an Actors Fund dinner. She assumed he’d be tickled with his glamorous seatmate and was stunned when he came up to her in the middle of the meal and hissed, “Don’t ever ask me to give to one of your dinners again!” before storming out. Turned out he had zero interest in sitting next to the actress; he expected to be next to a member of Congress.
Seating a large Washington event is more than a skill, it’s an art form. Organizers try to pick people who don’t know each other but have similar interests, then mix ages and professions. They pick a VIP to serve as table host and need to balance the bores with the charmers, the tolerant with the talkers.
“The people who do this are very good at puzzles because, in fact, that’s what a lot of seating is about,” says veteran event planner Carolyn Peachy, who says placing guests at tables is the hardest part of the job.
About three days before any gala, the cancellations start to roll in. Some are understandable — members of Congress get stuck with floor votes — and some are just rude. Peachy has to calculate who will arrive late and who isn’t coming, then pull place settings and spread out the chairs, all while putting out the inevitable last-minute fires.
Sometimes, it’s an easy process. Mary Haft, who chaired last week’s PEN/Faulkner gala, has the luxury of a small group of donors that attends year after year and celebrated writers who perform readings and anchor tables at the Folger Library.
“This is not one of those see-and-be-seen events,” explains Haft, who says this fundraiser is less about ego and more “a gathering of like-minded souls” — and therefore easier to seat than the typical Washington gala. “Is there a deft touch that one gives? Absolutely. But there is an ease because so many people have been with us so many years.”
And Meridian International Center is lucky enough to have embassy dinners on behalf of its annual fundraiser later this week, with social secretaries having final say on seating. Meridian’s president, Ambassador Stuart Holliday, tries to put together interesting lists for each embassy with politicians, Washington social leaders and corporate donors. “The goal is to create a mix that allows the embassy to feel value — that this is something that helps them, too,” he says.
Dinners are much easier to seat than theater performances and performances easier than funerals. At Gerald Ford’s funeral, there was a fight in the back of National Cathedral because several members of Congress were outraged that diplomats got better seats. An event planner at Ronald Reagan’s funeral was berated by a low-level former Reagan staffer who was furious that she wasn’t placed within the camera shot.
Let it be known that all that bad behavior is noted and remembered.“I always thought of seating a dinner as the social secretary’s revenge,” Berman says. Boors and bullies were rewarded with a “deadly seat” — a table in the far corners of the room “next to someone who was generally expected to be drunk by the entree service, or a woman who would only talk about shopping at outlet malls.”
So what’s a good host to do? All those rules, all those social climbers, all those hurt feelings. The trick, for many, is finding workarounds to prevent all the drama.
For last month’s Spacey Foundation fundraiser, philanthropist Adrienne Arsht skipped tables altogether and held an outdoor post-performance supper at the Hotel Monaco where all the guests floated between food stations and jockeyed to meet “House of Cards” star Kevin Spacey. The party was inspired by a fictional reception in the show’s first season; translating that to real life was both a nod to the hit series and a practical way to allow Spacey to talk to more of the guests. It worked; he closed down the party.
For private dinners at her home, Arsht keeps the guest list small enough for everyone to sit around one round table with one conversation and always sends brief bios about each guest in advance so everyone knows who is at the table.
Of course, she can’t prevent getting a bad seat or awful dinner companion at every event she attends, but as a good guest she grins and bears it — up to a point.
“I owe it to my host and hostess not to spill wine on that person, but at some point I stop talking to that guest,” Arsht says. She was recently at a power dinner in New York where she was placed next to a titan who was clearly unaccustomed to (and not too happy about) sitting with people he didn’t know.
“What do you do?” he asked dismissively. “Whatever I want,” she shot back.
But that doesn’t include switching place cards — which she has never done, thank you very much.