Washington is exhausted. Washington is optimistic. Washington is desperate for change.
Biden and wife Jill “know how to get around Washington, how to be a part of the establishment, how to make it work for them in their everyday lives,” says an influential Republican hostess who, like many of the city’s social leaders, spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly without retribution. “People who have always enjoyed the Washington scene are yearning to get back to that, have some semblance of what they enjoyed so much before. There are a lot of Republicans who sat out the Trump years and bit their tongues for four years who are thrilled to have Biden.”
At the heart of this optimism is the belief that politicians on both sides of the aisle get more accomplished when they like each other.
And the other business of Washington — the cultural institutions, the diplomatic corps,the gala fundraisers, the hundreds of historical traditions — need bipartisanship to really thrive. They struggled during the Trump administration, when everything became a test of loyalty and the notion that good people could disagree without being disagreeable was laughable.
Sure, not everybody is going to kiss and make up overnight. But Washington’s elite social world can pivot faster than a prima ballerina. With the promise of a coronavirus vaccine and a call for comity, it’s ready, willing and able to press the reset button and start fresh.
"The tone is set from the top," says Anita McBride, former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush.
For the last four years, the tone from the White House was contemptuous of Washington, dismissing the permanent establishment — the longtime politicians and former administration officials who call it home — as the “swamp” or “deep state.” The social arbiters, traditionally respectful of a new administration, quickly found themselves between a Trump and a hard place: To invite or not to invite?
“The attendance of the president or vice president is important to the cultural and historic life of this city,” explains McBride. Trump went to a handful of galas but his attendance — even the prospect of it — often brought controversy and protests. Kennedy Center honorees threatened to boycott the event if he came.
Without Trump, the White House correspondents’ dinner — typically a night of mutual goodwill between the administration and the press that covers it — became an awkward defense of the First Amendment, sometimes tense (when comedian Michelle Wolf eviscerated Sarah Sanders), sometimes lackluster (when Ron Chernow was recruited to speak the following year).
Back to normal will mean more state dinners, a prestigious and glamorous way of reestablishing global ties. And it means that Washington events traditionally attended by the president and first lady for the better part of five decades — the Honors, the Alfalfa dinner, the Gridiron, the Ford’s Theatre gala and the correspondents’ dinner — will likely return to their former glory.
The Bidens are not what anyone would call party people — they support causes dear to them, but have never been regulars on Washington’s social map. “These are people who go to things because they think it’s their responsibility to show up, not because they’re looking to be seen,” says a former ambassador.
But Joe Biden’s 47 years in Washington will be a huge plus. “The president-elect has a great number of friends who are Republicans that he served with,” says Ambassador Capricia Marshall, a veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations and author of “Protocol: The Power of Diplomacy and How to Make It Work for You.” “And he will be inviting them into the White House because that’s how you get work done: creating those relationships in these social atmospheres, making people feel invited and welcomed.”
And that bipartisanship — or even just the veneer — is critical to the other business of Washington: fundraising. What passes as a social event is usually a benefit for one of the thousands of nonprofits who use the nation’s capital as the primary source of funding. The quickest way to attract money is to have support from both sides of the aisle: a Republican and a Democrat prominently displayed at the head table, with the corporate support and underwriting that greases all those wheels.
The events industry, already on eggshells during the Trump years, has been devastated by the coronavirus and sees a Biden administration as a way to recover. The inauguration cannot celebrate the new president with the traditional excess and festivities. But the spirit is there and, God willing, the parties will come back in the future.
“The inaugural, the Kennedy Center Honors, a lot of these things in town really showcase the best of who we are as a country,” says Philip Dufour, one of the city’s top event planners. “This idea that we are a democracy, we disagree on a lot, but we come together around certain moments. You may not be happy with who wins, but you understand and recognize the power of it.”
When President Trump first moved into the White House, there were the traditional overtures extended to him and his administration to attend exclusive private dinners. Washington has always had a soft spot for titles, if not the man. Ivanka Trump and husband Jared Kushner were expected to be the middlemen in this deal, bringing together her bombastic father and the city's social elite in a gesture of civility.
The hosts wanted to be gracious, but the Trumps wanted loyalty — whatever that was supposed to mean — and made even longtime Republicans uncomfortable. The invitations soon dried up; Trump’s Washington’s social life revolved around his golf games and his acolytes at the Trump hotel.
A number of GOP insiders stopped entertaining altogether, fearing even an offhand criticism by anyone at the party would get back to Trump and result in the kind of withering tweetstorms directed at senators John McCain and Mitt Romney.
“A lot of people didn’t want to take that on and have their reputation destroyed because they said, ‘Trump is wrong about this’ or ‘I disagree with the president,’ ” says one prominent hostess. “It didn’t take much to be considered disloyal. A lot of people who sat back now probably feel a little guilty, but it was a form of self-preservation.”
Much will be written about the silence of Republicans during the Trump years, but suffice to say: Washington gets self-preservation. Everyone is officially thrilled when their party is in power, and bipartisan when it’s not.
And yes, the classic friendly-rivals dinner party will be back, likely bigger than ever, with VIP guests from the Biden administration, a few formers from the Obama crowd, a senator or two seated next to a Supreme Court justice. Washington has a front-row seat to history in the making; one of the pleasures is watching politicians tell war stories and debate in an informal setting.
“I fondly remember Senator [Daniel] Inouye and Senator McCain all getting into these wonderful debates about various issues on the environment and on the economy,” says Marshall. “It was very entertaining to watch. And in the end, they would lift their glass, give each other a toast, a smile, a great laugh and carry on.”
The election of Kamala Harris, the first female, Black and Asian American vice president, could inject a new, more inclusive element into the social scene. Harris had ties to the city even before becoming senator, as a graduate of Howard University and the historic Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, and will bring those institutions new attention. Their celebrations of her inauguration are already in the planning, says Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, and events honoring Harris are likely to continue in a variety of forms.
The jury is out on whether any of the Trump officials will make the leap to Washington's permanent A-list. "The question is do or will they care about being accepted by Establishment Washington?" asks McBride.
Most won’t; a few might. The president and his family will not be welcomed back, many insiders say privately, nor will most of his team. “I think that all of those people who stuck with him and were his apologists to the end and his enablers are going to be treated with extreme negative prejudice,” says a former George W. Bush appointee. Senior staffers in Trump’s White House are already making calls, asking for help in landing new jobs — and they’re not getting those calls returned. Someone like senior adviser Stephen Miller will probably still get booed in public; no one in elite social circles wants anything to do with him.
Pragmatism almost always wins the day: Trump loyalists (Pence, Cruz, et al.) hoping to run for president in 2024 will still want to curry favor with well-connected former officials, and the city’s conservatives won’t want to freeze out their access to a future White House. Money always sands the rough edges, as it does with multimillionaire commerce secretary Wilbur Ross and his wife, Hilary Geary Ross.
“The Rosses were the only people in the Trump administration who not only supported local causes but socialized the old-fashioned way by welcoming a mix of guests that included diplomats, members of the press and even a few Democrats like Senator Amy Klobuchar,” says Washington Life Senior Editor Kevin Chaffee. “They are experienced hosts who entertain beautifully with superb food and wine. And, of course, there is Wilbur’s impressive collection of Magritte paintings to marvel at. If they remain here — and I’ve heard they might — they will continue to be warmly received.”
And what to make of Kellyanne Conway, the most visible Trump official to court Washington’s social elite?
Even before making history as the first woman to run a winning presidential campaign, she was a regular in conservative social circles. Afterward, she was everywhere — the Gridiron Club dinner, the British and French embassies, A-list parties. She charmed many people who expected to hate her. But she also defended the president’s most controversial policies.
“She has worked hard to develop personal relationships with people that frankly, somehow or other, have a view of her as a person and another view of her role,” says a former ambassador. “Certainly, the more partisan people are going to have strong feelings about her. But I think she’s made enough efforts and inroads with people that, you know, she has a brand.” If that brand segues into a prominent media role, she has a place in a city that (for better or worse) puts political pundits on most guests lists. And that, too, is normal.
So it goes, as it has always gone. Washington never forgets, sometimes forgives, and carries on.
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