Diary: That's entertainment

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The Independent Culture
It astonishes me to realise that I have lived in Washington for seven years - long enough to see administrations come and go; long enough, too, to witness the collapse of a social scene that is still considered famous throughout the world.

The other day, for example, I had to rack my brains to remember the name of a Republican strategist with whom I'd once had breakfast. He was incredibly important at the time, one of the most sought-after names in Washington. And yet it took me ages to recall that he was Lee Atwater, who later died of a brain tumour. And, once, just to know the White House Chief of Staff, Sam Skinner, and his wife, Honey, on warm social terms (as we did) was the stuff of journalistic dreams. Yet Sam is now gone, running the gasworks in Chicago. Likewise, who in 10 years' time will care about Leon Panetta, the present Chief of Staff, or Janet Reno, the Attorney-General?

Washington is full of reminders of the past. Outside my house, there is a ring and chain embedded in the pavement where horses were once tied up. A friend's grandmother, Hannah Parker, remembers Teddy Roosevelt (president from 1901-9) riding home on his horse after a hard day at the White House. And six months ago, when we were engulfed in snowdrifts, I recall seeing an old lady with a walking stick make her way precariously up the hill where we live. Her name is Susan Mary Alsop; three decades ago she was one of the most fashionable social hostesses in Washington. Her late husband, Joe (Ivy League Wasp journalist, social flatterer, closet gay), was the "inventor" of that renowned Washington institution, the Georgetown dinner party.

That very lifestyle has now all but disappeared. It wasn't long ago that the China policy referred to Nancy Reagan's decision to buy 4,732 pieces of new china for the White House. Now the $15,000-a-guest Reagan-esque world of Galanos and Adolfo gowns, Winston and Bulgan jewels and Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1979 has gone for ever.

It is not just that Democrats are more spendthrift than Republicans. There are far more important reasons why the Domino Pizza company broke all records with orders for 12,000 takeaway pizzas in Washington on the night the Republicans triumphed in the polls a couple of years ago: a decade ago, there would have been lavish parties all round town.

The Democrats, of course, are dull entertainers. For their Convention in Chicago last month, their delegates were scrupulously broken down into 50.2 per cent male, 49.8 female, 18.9 black, 9 Hispanic, 66.8 Caucasian, 3 Asian Pacific and 1.4 per cent native Americans. And they tend to believe that any gathering of human beings should be similarly calculated. (For me, it is salutary and shaming that I have met only two blacks at dinner parties in a city that is two-thirds black: Vernon Jordan, an immensely powerful lawyer and Clinton confidant, and Roger Wilkins, a distinguished academic and writer. Nothing, though, makes me cringe so much as the memory of our host turning to Professor Wilkins and asking: "Roger, what is the current state of race relations?")

What few realise is that the 73 new Congressmen elected in 1994 have a puritanical streak that eschews the Waspish, Alsopian salons. Grover Norquist, an influential Republican behind the scenes, has fellow Republicans round for beer and takeaway Chinese. Bill Kristol, editor of the right- wing Weekly Standard, will order in a pizza for a senator. The New Republicans are ostentatiously unimpressed by Georgetown dinner parties and the Washington establishment.

Embassies have cut down on their entertaining, too. Neither Clinton nor the New Republicans are remotely interested in meeting ambassadors, with Clinton keeping the Italian Ambassador waiting for six months before granting a hurried audience. ("Don't you feel humiliated?" I asked the wife of a Nato ambassador. "We would do, but we know we're all treated the same," was her reply.) Sir John Kerr, Britain's Ambassador, does noticeably less entertaining than his socially ubiquitous predecessor, Sir Robin Renwick. Most "glittering events" these days, in fact, are fundraising dinners where a table might cost as much as $10,000, although everyone pretends that money has no part in the evening and that they're all there because they're important.

Perle Mesta, the queen of Washington hostesses, used to say that all she needed to do was to hang a lamb chop in her window to attract people to her parties. But she is long gone. Evangeline Bruce, who succeeded her, died last year, and Pamela Harriman has hardly distinguished herself as US Ambassador in Paris. Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, a would- be successor, has earned few friends through her espousal of the Californian guru John Roger and her secret taping of a dinner-table conversation, which so enraged Ben Bradlee, former editor of the Washington Post.

Being a resolute party pooper, the decline of the dinner-party scene hardly worries me. But for those who think these things matter, it can be devastating to find that lavish entertaining has all but gone. Personally, I always take refuge in friends and family and am happy to stay away from the Washington rat-race, it being full of utterly rapacious rats.