The End of D.C.’s Elite Social Scene

It will never be the same after Trump and covid. And that’s a good thing.
Photo of a party at the home of American University President Richard Berendzen in 1981. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

One night in 2017, soon after Donald Trump was inaugurated, several top administration officials showed up at Cafe Milano, a popular Washington hangout run by Franco Nuschese for the past three decades. Apparently word had gotten out that it was the place to see and be seen. One by one they were seated, and the agitated buzz in the room became louder. Finally it seemed as if the diners — a typical Washington power crowd, which is to say a left-leaning one — would arise en masse and start singing “La Marseillaise” as had happened at the restaurant in “Casablanca” run by Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick. The guests ultimately calmed down, but there were some who would have liked Franco to play a recording of “As Time Goes By.” Afterward, some cynics referred to Cafe Milano as “Rick’s Cafe.”

Washington is, and has been, a Democratic town. Trump won 5 percent of the vote here in 2020; in both of his presidential elections, George W. Bush won 9 percent; Ronald Reagan never won more than 14 percent. However, throughout the years, the Washington Establishment always welcomed incoming GOP administrations. The D.C. social scene — which connected the most powerful people in any given administration with political donors, philanthropists, lawyers, lobbyists and journalists, all Washington fixtures — had a way of surviving, no matter the politics of the president.

In that spirit, every four or eight years, I would write a piece for The Washington Post with advice to the incoming administration about how to get along. Four years ago I wrote one as well. It wasn’t intentional, but the story turned into a satire, more suited for the Onion. After all, how do you give etiquette advice to someone who has bragged about grabbing women’s private parts; who has mocked a disabled reporter; who has called journalists “scum,” “phony” and “the lowest form of humanity”; who has falsely claimed that his predecessor was not born in America; who has demeaned a war hero by saying he preferred people who were not captured; who had insulting names for his Republican primary opponents and called his female opponent in the general election “a nasty woman”? The piece didn’t work. It never ran.

The D.C. establishment simply viewed the Trump people as an occupying army, and from 2017 through early 2020, the Washington social scene as we had known it dried up. People had their own gatherings and carried on as if there were no president. The president, his wife and those who work closely with them in any administration normally set the social tone. This time it didn’t happen. There were two camps and hardly any intermingling.

The winter holidays in 2019 were a round of obligatory parties, but subdued, desultory, dispirited by Washington standards. Everyone was exhausted — mentally, physically and emotionally. The trees were up, the wreaths were on the doors, the decorations were on the streets, the Hanukkah candles were lit, the Christmas carols were on the radio. But people didn’t have their hearts in it. The conversations were Trump, Trump, Trump. It was not very merry.

And then the pandemic hit. In the beginning of March 2020, our world shut down. Within days people were holed up in their houses or apartments. Nobody went anywhere, and if they did, they were masked and furtive. Now, 14 months later, even as the city begins to reopen, I am convinced that the social lives of Washington players will never go back to what they were before the double blow of Trump and covid. And despite — or perhaps because of — my decades immersed in the social life of this city, I won’t be unhappy to see it radically transformed.

Guests including, from left, Bill Frist, Mary Ourisman, Vernon Jordan, Rima Al-Sabah, Jan Smith, Gen. Richard Myers and Karyn Frist at a gala in 2004. (Rebecca D'Angelo for The Washington Post)
President George W. Bush at the annual Gridiron Dinner in 2008. (Chris Greenberg/White House Photo Office)

Trump and covid may have finished off what was once the traditional Washington A-list, but it was already in trouble long before January 2017. The George W. Bush administration was the last time it really thrived. Things slowed considerably during the Obama years. The First Couple was famous for not wanting to make new friends or go out in Washington except to see those already close to them. Neera Tanden, head of the Center for American Progress, once was quoted as saying that President Barack Obama didn’t like people. Many in his administration took their cues from the White House.

Feminism and other sociological changes were also undermining the A-list. In 1987, I wrote a piece about the demise of the Washington hostess. In it, I listed some of the reasons her numbers and stature were waning: Women were getting jobs and didn’t have time to entertain. A lot of would-be hostesses couldn’t afford the staffs that old Washington used to have. Parents were more family-centric and wanted to spend evenings with their children. Finally, being called a hostess, a compliment at one time, had come to confer a certain sense of frivolity on one’s reputation. A friend of mine declared, “If I thought my epitaph would read ‘hostess,’ I’d refuse to die.”

A little lightbulb went off in my head one day when I was reading an article about my late husband, Ben Bradlee, and me. He was described as the editor of The Post and I — having worked as an author, TV anchor and reporter at The Post for nearly 30 years — was described as a “socialite” and “hostess.” Ben was always involved in the planning of our parties, especially the seating — especially his seating. Never once in the 43 years we were together did I ever hear him referred to as a host.

I used to think of being a hostess as something good. I love nothing more than welcoming people I really like into my home, having a good meal, good wine, great conversation and lots of laughter. But I did and do have a day job. When you’re defined as nothing more than a hostess, it becomes demeaning. Let’s face it, the word — like “stewardess” or “actress” — has become antiquated. As the status of women in Washington changed — as more women assumed high-powered roles in politics, the Foreign Service, the judiciary, the military, journalism, business, publishing, medicine, science, law enforcement, academia, the arts and so many other fields — the role of the “hostess” was put under strain. Even referring to women as “hosts” wouldn’t alter that. And so, the demise of the hostess inevitably began to change the way Washington socialized.

On the heels of Obama’s indifference to social Washington, a few Trump people attempted to create something resembling a traditional D.C. society life. Hilary and Wilbur Ross, for instance, tried to entertain. Some went, some didn’t. After the Rosses arrived in Washington, Palm Beach Illustrated did a story about a party they had in their Florida ballroom where an acrobat swung upside down from a trapeze filling the guests’ glasses of champagne. That was thought by certain observers to be decidedly un-Washington. Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway was everywhere for the first two years. She had a good working relationship with many journalists; she was everyone’s biggest source. Things slowed down for her after her husband, George Conway, took on Trump in print and became his No. 1 detractor. Gary Cohn, a Trump economic adviser, arrived in Washington from Goldman Sachs and was seen frequently in his velvet jacket around town. But he got on the president’s bad side early and, toward the end of his very short tenure, seemed almost embarrassed to be working at the White House.

The president himself, meanwhile, spent his big nights out at his own hotel eating steak and fries and greeting admirers, one of the only safe places for him in town. There were rooms in Washington where some people wouldn’t speak to his daughter Ivanka or her husband, Jared Kushner.

The embassies had to entertain the newcomers. It’s part of the job. Rima and Salem Al-Sabah of Kuwait were all-in. The month after Trump’s inauguration, they even changed the venue for their annual National Day party to the Trump hotel. And they had Donald, Melania, Ivanka and Jared, as well as many prominent White House people and Republicans from the Hill, at their embassy.

Yet other ambassadors were not so happy. At an election night party in 2016, the German ambassador and his wife were so upset that she said to me she didn’t want to stay in this country. They left Washington as soon as they could. We know how British Ambassador Kim Darroch felt because his anti-Trump messages to Downing Street were leaked in 2019 and he was recalled. French Ambassador Gérard Araud was hardly subtle on Twitter about his views.

An invitation to the White House, usually the most coveted in the world, was suddenly unwelcome. Some said they would never set foot there as long as Trump was president. The guest lists were decidedly conservative, with hardly an entertainer, artist or celebrity in sight. At the first Kennedy Center Honors of the Trump era, Norman Lear declined to go to the White House reception; after another honoree dropped out, the reception was canceled. Trump became the first president not to attend the Honors, and he never went his whole term. The Kennedy Center higher-ups were said to have been relieved. They were terrified he would be booed — which happened two years later during the World Series at Nationals Park.

Playwright Sophy Burnham greets Shakespeare Theatre Company artistic director Michael Kahn at a party in 1992. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Pamela Harriman talks with architect Philip Johnson at a party in 1990. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., left, with Vin Prothro at the 1998 Alfalfa Club dinner. (Nancy Andrews/The Washington Post)
TOP: Playwright Sophy Burnham greets Shakespeare Theatre Company artistic director Michael Kahn at a party in 1992. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post) BOTTOM LEFT: Pamela Harriman talks with architect Philip Johnson at a party in 1990. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post) BOTTOM RIGHT: Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., left, with Vin Prothro at the 1998 Alfalfa Club dinner. (Nancy Andrews/The Washington Post)

In mid-March, as the pandemic began, I traveled with my son Quinn, his wife, Fabiola, and her 7-year-old daughter, Khloe, to our farm in Southern Maryland. I went for the weekend and didn’t come back for six months. Every day I walked my labyrinth, a 50-foot circle on a slope overlooking the water. It was a profound exercise in meditation for me. It was the labyrinth that saved me and changed me — and put everything in my life in perspective.

There was not a single moment when I missed my old life in Washington. Not one. All these years I had thought of myself as an extrovert, a sociable person, someone who loved to be around people and who surrounded herself with friends at gatherings, large and small.

How was it possible that during this entire period I simply reveled in being alone so much? I didn’t want to go anywhere, see anyone, do anything. I knew I wasn’t missing anything; even better, I knew there was nothing going on that I wasn’t being invited to. One of my Washington friends said to the other, “I think we’ve lost her.” I didn’t ever want to come back. I didn’t want to have to get dressed and go out to the endless parties and official events and stand around making polite conversation and drinking a glass or two of wine, my feet hurting in heels, and then come home feeling empty. I didn’t want to be part of the Washington social scene as I had known it. Somehow it all felt superficial and unimportant and a waste of time. What I had once thought was a glamorous and exciting life, filled with power and celebrity, no longer had any appeal to me. The magic was gone.

When I finally returned to Washington, I decided to start my new social life. At the end of September I tented my porch in plastic with a zippered door. I left the porch furniture out. I put down an indoor-outdoor carpet. I got several heaters and an electric fireplace with logs. I draped the chairs with fleece throws. I had candles everywhere. I began having friends over one or two at a time, ventilated, air purified, heated, socially distanced (six feet apart) with separate tray tables, wine, plates, hand sanitizer and masks off only when everyone was seated. It was my sanctuary. My doctor pronounced it safe. But it wasn’t just that it was safe physically. I wanted it to be a safe place psychologically.

So many of the people I saw over the ensuing months were people I liked and would see a lot at social events but had never really had a chance to get to know on a deeper level. It was an enormous and satisfying gift. I had always put a huge stock in friendship, especially here in Washington, but this past year has been an extraordinary revelation: It led me to believe that even though I will continue to reach out and socialize, my priorities and my interests and my values have become so different.

I don’t think I’m the only one. That’s why I don’t think Washington’s social scene after Trump and covid will ever be the same. We almost lost our democracy, and many even lost their lives. If nothing else, what we’ve been through surely focused the mind on what is important.

In many respects, the Biden administration signals a return to normalcy in Washington. But when it comes to those who once made up the social life of the city, I think this time really is different. President Biden and the people around him have been there and done that. They’ve seen the ruffles and flourishes, the pomp and circumstance; they’ve endured the sycophants and hangers-on and the climbers. My impression is that they don’t want it and don’t need it. The power they care about is the power to get things done. Humility is the watchword of the day. (There will be lapses. There always are.)

Even after covid, socializing is not going to be high on their list. The Bidens themselves never really socialized anyway. They are family people and, besides, they basically lived in Wilmington, Del., for all of those years. They will do the official things they need and want to do, but they are not going to be out on the town. The top staff are going to be working 24/7. There is so much to do and so little time: Two years from now, the House and Senate could be Republican again.

But the main difference, I think, will be in the kinds of things that Biden officials do socially. The dinners, I believe, will be small: six to eight people, intimate, personal and, in many cases, productive. In Washington it’s hard, if you’re in a position of importance, not to want to meet and get to know those you must work with on a professional basis, whether you are in the administration, Congress, the press corps or the diplomatic corps. Often the contacts make it worthwhile. It’s just that the big cocktail parties — especially the official ones, where you grab a drink, do a quick tour of the room and make small talk — have lost their cachet. They’re not fun. And if we’ve learned anything in the past year, it’s that we want to cherish every minute.

The clothes will be low-key. Jill Biden, with her simple, elegant dresses and medium-heeled shoes, and Kamala Harris, with her dark pantsuits and Converse sneakers, have set the style. Gone are the $51,000 Dolce & Gabbana jackets, the “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” coats, the five-inch stiletto heels, the false eyelashes, the long peroxide blond hair, the injected lips. Ostentation is out. The natural look is in. For many women, being forced to be natural for a year has been a glorious wake-up call.

These days there is a sense of revulsion at the grift, indecency and cruelty that has emanated from Washington. More important, too many people have suffered and died. There is also a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, and an increased awareness of racial injustice. So many groups in town now have their own hierarchies; in fact, what used to be called the A-list by some is not even in another person’s alphabet. For one thing, the old A-list was almost completely White, which makes no sense with the new diverse power structure in the Biden administration. Anything that smacks of elitism and privilege will not have much appeal. Those who really might be considered elite would recoil at the word, the notion. It is, well, elitist.

Once upon a time, of course, people in Washington were friendly with those across the aisle — and that era, for the most part, is gone for good. Because so many traditional Republicans allowed themselves to be imprisoned by Trumpism, any kind of social rapprochement with the other side looks to be nearly impossible. There was a time when those in political and social Washington had the same values, ethics and morals. That they may have disagreed with each other on how to achieve their goals was, for the most part, acceptable. But now many would ask: How can you sit next to someone at dinner who still supports Trump? What do you say? “What’s new?”

In the friendlier days, there was the white-tie Gridiron Dinner for journalists, an Alfalfa Club event for power brokers, and the White House correspondents’ dinner for both. They served a purpose in the beginning, a show of public comity. That doesn’t work anymore. Those institutions have now outlived their usefulness: The Gridiron Club, at only 65 members, is aging out; the sole reason for the Alfalfa Club is to have an annual black-tie dinner. The White House correspondents’ dinner was stultifyingly boring until it became a ridiculous circus, more about gawking at third-rate celebrities than the serious business of journalism. For the past four years, with Trump refusing to show up, it went back to being boring. It will never, I suspect, go back to its garish days.

Ritual, in every society, plays an important and necessary role. These institutions will surely be replaced slowly with more meaningful and relevant ones. Watch what the Bidens do. They will point the way toward inspired new versions of old rituals.

The Kennedy Center Honors is the one institution that will come back. Biden, more than likely, will welcome the honorees to the White House, and they will all come. He’ll attend the Honors. However, the glory days, I predict, are over there too. What used to be a houseful of congenial Washington stalwarts and celebrities from Hollywood has been transformed into a major corporate event, filled with advertisers and big-business types who buy expensive tables and fill them with colleagues. The once glamorous after-party had, before covid, dissolved into a lot of empty tables as celebrities raced to get to their private planes and head home.

Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham with Nancy and Ronald Reagan in 1980. (Harry Naltchayan/The Washington Post)
Dancer Natalia Makarova, left, and actor Dustin Hoffman greet first lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2012. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Spring has come to Washington again. People are beginning to crawl out of their caves. Most have had their first vaccine dose, many their second. Yet the Zoom parties continue, and I don’t think, despite complaints of “Zoom fatigue,” that they will ever go away. For books, anniversaries, remembrances, holidays, they are just too inexpensive and too convenient to give up. One hour, no dressing up (at least below the waist), no getting there, actually being able to hear the honoree — and the best part: scrolling through the guest lineup to see who’s there. For me, there is an intimate quality to Zoom — seeing people dressed casually in their own homes, speaking more candidly — that is very appealing.

One of the few parts of Washington that may continue to see something resembling traditional, in-person power gatherings are the embassies. They may be the only ones who have large parties. Look for British Ambassador Karen Pierce to take over Washington social life. She’s a pistol, loves to play and is indefatigable when it comes to entertaining. Even though the embassy will be shut down until December for renovations, she has not let that stop her. Last summer she was having socially distanced cocktail parties outside with up to the legal limit of 50 people. She even braved the winter inside with dinners of six to eight for the stout of heart (and lungs). The Irish ambassador and his wife, Dan and Greta Mulhall, have been hosting small meals on their terrace, and French Ambassador Philippe Étienne is inviting a few small groups as well. Yousef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador, will continue to be hot. Socially, Embassy Row was once considered, with very few exceptions, Death Row. Now it might well be where a lot more socializing — and business — gets conducted, which would, of course, suit some ambassadors just fine: If the “elite,” the “A-list” and “hostesses” don’t really exist anymore, the embassies could fill the void and end up exercising more soft power in Washington.

There will certainly be some other post-covid venues for D.C. social life. Sen. Joe Manchin’s houseboat on the Potomac will be hopping. Some of the new Cabinet members who haven’t been around Washington will probably want to get to know the people and the city: Pete and Chasten Buttigieg will be outgoing, and possibly Jennifer Granholm. You can’t keep former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe down. The perennial favorites, Nancy and Paul Pelosi, will continue to go out, not just to official events but to personal gatherings to celebrate their many friends. The most sought-after guests in Washington have been Secretary of State Tony Blinken and his wife, Evan Ryan, who’s the White House Cabinet secretary. They have two toddlers. Don’t expect to see a lot of them.

Whenever you have power, you have people who want access to power. Often, the only way to get it is socially. The human contact is invaluable and facilitates much that goes on in official Washington. So the official social life of D.C. won’t go away completely. It’s just going to be very different. And after everything we have been through — as a city and a country — it should be different. I am optimistic about Washington’s future in part because I think the city’s establishment is going to change. After Trump, after covid, I know that we in Washington can find our way back to something better. I keep thinking about Psalm 30:5: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

Sally Quinn is an author and journalist who has written extensively for The Washington Post. Her latest book is “Finding Magic.”

Design by Clare Ramirez. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.

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