Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine

Who's in & Who's Out?

Chaffee, Conconi and roberts come out firing about social power and social players

Like the cycle of the seasons, job titles change, invitation lists follow suit, and Washington society turns over a new leaf. No one knows this better than the Washington Times' social editor, Kevin Chaffee; The Washington Post's "Reliable Source" columnist, Roxanne Roberts; and veteran gossip columnist turned public affairs counsellor Chuck Conconi. The trio has been covering the social landscape of Washington for a collective 40-plus years. At a recent Washington Life zeitgeist, they dished about the White House, Georgetown and Embassy Row with a focus on old and new players on the Washington scene.

On Social Power

Roxanne Roberts: In the simplest terms, social power is the ability to draw people as you desire. The primary and most important examples are the President and the First Lady. If they issue an invitation almost anybody would respond if they can.

Kevin Chaffee: It's considered to be a command.
RR : The question is not only who has social power, but what they use social power for. Is it just because they enjoy socializing and enjoy giving parties? Or do they have a motive beyond that? Are they trying to achieve a business objective, a financial objective, or an ego objective?

Chuck Conconi: A lot of it is social gratification, but in Washington in particular, people play it very well for political reasons, fund raising, etc. If you have social power of that kind, you become influential and your influence grows because you are perceived as someone who has power. Juleanna Glover Weiss is a good example of someone, who, because of the vacuum in this republican administration, has developed a social power of her own. KC: Back in the old days it was different to a large extent. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, invited people because it amused her to see sworn enemies sit across from each other. Marjorie Merriweather Post had hundreds of millions of dollars and she entertained herself by letting others have a good time. Nowadays that's very rare. RR : Most people in Washington are very careful because they have to answer to someone else- either a boss or a constituent. The ability to do things just because they may be fun or amusing is not the primary reason people entertain or use there influence here.

Kevin Chaffee Chuck Conconi Roxanne Roberts


On Ambassadors
CC : I don't like talking about ambassadors and embassies because I find them generally boring and their parties not very good. Frankly, they forget to clean their lists and there are a lot of people on there who you don't need to know or see anymore.
KC: Their invitation lists came from their social secretaries and the previous ambassador which go back 25 years.
CC : That's right, and you usually go around saying ‘I thought they died years ago!'

On Money
KC: There are plenty of multi-millionaires and billionaires who have no social power because they don't use their money to have fun or further any cause. Other people maybe don't have all that much money, yet are very prominent hosts and hostesses with clout.
CC : Power in Washington is money of course-money is power everywhere, but it's also the political power. That's what Washington is mostly about. It's the lobbying power; it's the people who have issues here who work through the big lobbying agencies.
RR : If you are a defense contractor and you want to get a government contract, being part of the Washington social scene may not help you. If you have enough money you can go directly into a congressional office and lobby there.
CC : Of course. But who would pay attention to Jim Kimsey if he hadn't put $10 million into the Kennedy Center and got named to the board?
KC: Or Catherine Reynolds, who gave $100 million.

The new Katharine Graham
KC: There are no new Katharine Grahams. They are gone.
RR : Mrs. Graham was unique.
KC: Rima Al-Sabah does a fabulous job. Rima treats every event that she does, and she entertains frequently, as a personal extravaganza. She makes everyone feel like they are the center of the universe. She creates excitement and ends up getting a lot of people there with a combination of charm and persuasion, but it isn't like the old days where you could simply send out an invitation and people would just show up.
RR : The fact is that you can turn down a dinner. But I think that what is missing now is the sort of "salon" that Pamela Harriman used to host.
KC: Anyone who tries to do that, or much less tries to call it a salon, is going to be ridiculed. But Katharine Graham could invite any head of state- nobody else could do that. I think the hallmark of a major happening is when somebody flies in to Washington D.C. from farther than two hours away to come to a certain event. That says a lot. RR : Lily Safra has enough money that if she has an event people will fly in for it.
KC: Catherine Reynolds entertains for her husband's Road Map to Achievement thing. The new Saudi ambassador, Prince Turki al-Faisal may turn into a major social presence because his wife is not wearing a veil and hidden away somewhere. She's in mixed company, which [Prince] Bandar's wife was not. He's known for being a great party guy, a great host. Maybe they will emerge as major social players.

On Social Institutions
WL : What are the power social institutions? RR : The Kennedy Center and the Library of Congress.
CC : The Opera, the Symphony.
KC: In a quieter way, but very high level, the Folger and the Phillips. The Ballet is emerging from its doldrums.
CC : The National Gallery of Art is the one party venue where you see the most incredible mix-from New York, Los Angeles, Europe, and Washington.
RR : In some ways you are safer aligning yourself with an institution than with a political entity because the political power shifts back and forth. You might be on an "A" list one year and five years later no one wants you to come to dinner.

On Journalists
CC :
The journalists/political group is a different crowd. It's best to go to their parties before and after, and avoid the dinner if you possibly can. In many ways those are purely working events.
KC: Like at the White House Correspondents' Dinner-there are just too many younger reporters who are all getting drunk.
CC : It's still an age where people would kill to go to that. And of course there is the Bloomberg party afterwards.
KC: Can we talk about the journalists on the social scene? That's a real phenomenon because in the old days they were never invited. No one wanted them around.
CC : 40 to 50 years ago when journalists were really considered trash-most of them were uneducated drunks. KC: Journalists are so socially accepted now because many of them have something going with the people they cover and they're not going to report on them the hard way.
CC : The turning point on the social value of journalists was around the time of Woodward and Bernstein. They also made journalists acceptable and glamorous. There are a lot of journalists in this town, who when they walk into a room people really get excited. I walked through Martin's in Georgetown one night and people came out of the woodwork to meet Tony Kornheiser.
RR: Tim Russert.
CC: It's hard for me to believe it, but Chris Mathews.
KC: Chris Buckley, George Stephanopoulos, Sam Donaldson-the list goes on and on.

On The Hill
KC: These big Hollywood stars come here- people who have entourages and security armies and only fly in private jets-and this is the one place where they are in awe because they meet Bill Clinton or Donald Rumsfeld. It really impresses them.
RR : The idea that the Speaker of the House would walk into the room and people would basically freeze, doesn't exist anymore because this particular Speaker chooses not to go out very much.
CC : It reflects the White House and [people in the Administration] who don't want to look frivolous. KC: And when they do go out there is no fashion to speak of because they do not want to look frivolous.
RR : I harken back to 1994 when Newt Gingrich basically felt that engaging with Washington was a form of dancing with the enemy.
CC : If you spent most of your time running against Washington, as so many of the political figures do, you don't want to be seen back home as enjoying Washington.

On Established Washington vs. the New Kids
RR : The Washington es tabl i shment completely ignored and looked down on a lot of the high-tech kids, the Northern Virginia crowd-they wouldn't have anything to do with them until they got so rich that they couldn't afford to ignore them anymore because they wanted their money.
KC: Old money is largely considered irrelevant now. Breeding and four generations of wealth used to count for something.
WL : The new money techies are giving to very different organizations. They're involved with the mentor ing programs and local grassroots organizations. For them that's real power, and people like Jack Davies, Joe Roberts, Jim Kimsey and Raul Fernandez have made these less traditional causes and organizations very desirable.
KC: It's tough because no matter how much money the newcomers have there are still people who are ahead on them on the ladder. Remember that story about Cornelia Guest who was asked why she wasn't getting involved in more charities down in Palm Beach? she said, "I can't. The good diseases are all taken."


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