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Opinion Pompeo’s ‘Madison Dinners’ aren’t scandalous. I went to one.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a Cabinet meeting on May 19 in Washington.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a Cabinet meeting on May 19 in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

When assessing the Trump administration, let’s make sure that our outrage meters are well-calibrated, so that we don’t waste time on trivial topics. A case in point is the recent uproar over the “Madison Dinners” held by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife, Susan.

I have an unusual personal perspective on this latest “scandal,” because my wife and I were among the guests at a dinner hosted by the Pompeos on Nov. 18.

Critics have argued that the secretary was misusing public funds at this dinner and a handful of others, but it didn’t feel that way sitting in the room. It seemed like the many other times I’ve been with previous secretaries at events like these. The only surprising thing was that I was invited, given what I had written about Pompeo. But I’ll get to that later.

There were about 20 guests, as I remember, mostly couples. We had cocktails in the lavish, main Diplomatic Reception Room where the State Department holds big events and then retreated to a smaller room, known as the James Madison Dining Room.

This was supposed to be a social event, as opposed to a business dinner. But in Washington, let’s be honest, it’s all business, all the time. The other guests included an ambassador and his wife, a senator, a member of the House, a former baseball commissioner and his wife, and several prominent businesspeople.

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Similar events take place nearly every night in some embassy or think tank, when the city isn’t shut down by a pandemic. The idea is that people will do their jobs better if they know each other, have a drink, socialize. I think that’s probably true, including for journalists. One reason Washington is such a nasty, partisan place these days is that people don’t see each other outside work.

On the way to dinner, Susan Pompeo gathered the guests for a talk about some of the heirlooms — the fine china and porcelain that have been assembled over the years, thanks to private donations that began during the Kennedy administration. She spoke without notes and with detailed knowledge of the items in the collection. She’s an active, engaged spouse now, as she was when Pompeo headed the CIA. That strikes me as a positive, not a negative.

Each guest was asked to say a few words. I said something about how, in covering the State Department since the 1980s, I’d learned that U.S. foreign policy is more powerful when it has bipartisan support, and when the news media are able to cover it freely. Bland, maybe, but that’s what I think.

The secretary nodded; so did others around the table. On to the next set of bromides. Some of the comments had a political edge, but for Trump-era Washington, it was mostly pretty tame stuff. It was genial, but it felt like work: People were trying — hard — to be friendly and get to know each other.

The only surprise about the dinner for me was that I was there at all. My wife and I had received our invitations in October. Two weeks before the event, on Nov. 5, I had published a column with the headline: “Where is Mike Pompeo? He’s hiding in fear of Donald Trump.” The Ukraine investigation was unfolding then, and I wrote that while Trump was attacking former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, Pompeo “has essentially been in hiding, protecting himself while his subordinates took the hit.”

I didn’t mince words: “Pompeo has badly tarnished his reputation in accommodating Trump. He joins the long list of those damaged by their service to this president.”

After that column appeared, I called one of Pompeo’s top aides and said that if he preferred to withdraw his dinner invitation, I would understand: Nobody should have to socialize with someone if it’s going to be uncomfortable. But the aide, after consultation, said no problem, come ahead. Pompeo and his wife were gracious throughout the evening.

I’ve criticized Pompeo since that dinner, noting, for example, “he has a belligerent streak that even his supporters have long recognized is a severe liability.” I’ve also endorsed policies of his that I thought were sensible. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. We tell the truth, upside and down. This is journalism, not war.

To be clear: Our democracy faces some severe threats under President Trump. But social events at the State Department with the secretary and his wife are not among them.

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