Monday 2 May 2011
David Usborne: How to mingle at the best DC parties
Even though her home in the US capital is only up the road, Hillary never made it to the British Embassy to celebrate the royal wedding.
She got hung up with Mexico's Foreign Minister talking about drug trafficking. Barack and Michelle would have had a longer ride from the White House, but they had been viewing tornado devastation in the Deep South all day and didn't have Kate or Wills on their minds.
A bust threatened then, for our envoy Sir Nigel Sheinwald as he prepared to open his humble home – a sumptuous Edwin Lutyens mansion with landscaped gardens – to the anglophile great and good of the American capital. Never mind that the azaleas and aliums were in full flourish, a party is no party in this town if the right people don't come. These are the events where contacts are made and gossip is traded.
Only in Washington could I expect to find myself clasping a final flute of champagne on the steps leading from the garden terrace to the ballroom while searching for the right response for a friendly woman called Melanie who had just invited me and my friend Matt Frei of the BBC to attend an event in Washington this August the main purpose of which, if I understood it right, will be to boost the public profile of drones.
The exchange had already got off to a tricky start because I was sure she was saying "thrones" not "drones". (It was a royal do, after all.) What could I want with thrones? But I saw mymistake when she showed her trump card: if I came I would get the chance personally to inspect the latest model of the Predator drone, similar to those patrolling the skies of Libya and Pakistan now.
Melanie was just doing her job like the rest of us. We ignored the flat-screen TVs showing the happy couple in an open-top sports car over and over again and hunted down the people we knew we should talk to. Arianna Huffington was a must but it was hard prising her away from Janet Napolitano, the Secretary for Homeland Security. So Arianna was working too. Getting a word with Graydon Carter was much easier because he seemed content to loiter in the garden precisely to let people come to him.
As you see, the party was no squib at all but was quickly achieving that high-octane status that everyone so craves in Washington, notwithstanding the absence of Hillary and Barack. Colin Powell came to pay his respects to the Windsors and so did broadcasters, scientists – Steven Chu, the Energy Secretary, joined the throng – and members of Congress. And then a certain Joe Biden made his white-toothed entrance. He lives directly across the road and it is the job of vice-presidents to make an appearance when the main attraction can't. Well if Biden is in the room we had better try to talk to him, too. What is your most affectionate memory of Britain, we ask? Without a second's pause – Mr Biden likes to tell a story – the Veep recalled attending peace talks at Stormont Castle in Northern Ireland and taking his late and very Catholic mother, Catherine Eugenia Finnegan, along. Nothing tickled her more than being given a room to sleep in with a bed, which, she imagined, had also been slept in by the very Protestant Queen of England. Was this some kind of blasphemy she was committing? "Pop," she told her son, "will be spinning his grave."
Revenge is sweet – but is it always wise?
Now I understand why Barack Obama decided last week to descend into Donald Trump's absurd conspiracy underworld by releasing his so-called "long form" birth certificate from Hawaii. He was getting his ducks – or jokes – in a row for Saturday night's White House Correspondents' dinner at the Washington Hilton. Mr Trump, who claims to be getting ready to seek America's highest office himself, was in the room as Mr Obama set about making him look as ridiculous a conspiracy theorist as possible, even showing his "birth video" featuring a newly born Simba from Disney's The Lion King. The roasting of Trump – Seth Meyers, the guest stand-up comedian was equally primed to savage the property baron and reality TV producer – won repeated rounds of laughs and applause from the mostly Democrat crowd. Only Trump seethed. Revenge can be funny as well a sweet.
But how well did the President's roughing up of Trump play across the rest of the country? Obama-haters are filling the blogosphere with claims that it his conduct was unbecoming for a President and that it was the White House that stirred up the controversy from the start, not Trump, to distract us from petrol prices and the war in Libya. So Obama had his fun but my guess is he will have achieved the opposite of what he claims to want – to get the country (and the cable news commentators) to focus on things that matter rather than on daft things that don't.
Americans get some comedy better than Brits
Tony Sheldon, the Australian actor who has played Bernadette in the stage version of Priscilla Queen of the Desert since it first opened in Sydney five years ago, is having a better time on Broadway than he did in the West End in 2009. Britain itself wasn't the problem, he told me last week, but rather his singing, dancing and boa-preening colleagues. The US cast working with him now understands the more serious sub-plot of the otherwise flamboyant tale of three cross-dressing men traversing Australia by bus, which of course is about tolerance and acceptance of the unfamiliar. Indeed the New York production recently took the lead in a campaign to combat the bullying of gay teens in America. In London, the instinct was to go for the laughs with a kind of "broad comedy" that verged on Benny Hill, he told me gravely. Or as gravely as any man could who has given up removing the bright pink polish from his nails every night.
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