The Alfalfa Club Dinner Gets a Side Dish of Glam
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 25, 2004; Page D01
Has it really come to this -- another ingrown, rock-ribbed Washington tradition being wooed and seduced by the glamour and glitz of the Left Coast fantasy capital, that place where they make movies? Surely the annual Alfalfa Club dinner -- with its senatorial self-confidence, its ambassadorial discretion, its presidential prerogatives, its oligarchic omnipotence -- surely it would remain a mossy bastion, unassailable and unimpressed.
Ah, but there was Catherine Zeta-Jones gliding into the Capital Hilton last night in a long, shimmery black dress cut low and slit high, under a black velvety wrap, her hair piled high above a smile that could launch a thousand hunts for weapons of mass destruction. If that's not assailing, we don't know what is.
The star of "Chicago" was escorted by husband Michael Douglas, cool and crisp. And right after them strode Spartacus himself -- that would be daddy Kirk, a man who with age seems to have been burnished and purified to his essence, a smartly worn tuxedo surmounted by a face that looked as though it had been chiseled on Mount Rushmore. He escorted his wife, Anne.
Then came Warren Beatty, smiling and waving but saying nothing, like a once and future candidate for something?
Zeta-Jones said she was looking forward to "some great bipartisan discussion," and she got it, with the Democratic contenders for president -- none of whom was present -- taking the most fire.
President Bush had a quip ready for each of his rivals, according to a leaked account of his remarks at the no-press-allowed banquet.
"Boy, that speech in Iowa was something else," Bush said, referring to Howard Dean's field holler after placing third in the caucuses Monday. "Talk about shock and awe. Saddam Hussein felt so bad for Governor Dean that he offered him his hole."
"Then we have Senator Kerry. I think Kerry's position on the war in Iraq is politically brilliant. In New Hampshire yesterday, he stated he had voted for the war, adding that he was strongly opposed to it."
Vernon Jordan, friend of Bill Clinton, offered a kind of "prebuttal" in his speech as outgoing president of the club.
"Mr. President, I feel like I'm at one of your Cabinet meetings -- a blind man in a room full of deaf people. . . . Before I hand over my presidency to my successor, let me take a moment, regardless of whether we are Christian, Jew or Muslim, and thank the Almighty, the one who controls our destiny as a nation -- Karl Rove."
And so it went, another night of yuks, with just the slightest edge.
Afterward, Democrats and Republicans alike pronounced themselves amused. "Everyone got singed a little, but it was all in good spirit," said Sen. George Allen (R-Va.). Added former secretary of State Madelaine Albright, "I thought the whole thing was a lot of fun."
We would say no more about the movie stars -- after all, the Hilton was also thick with ambassadors, generals, Cabinet secretaries, Supreme Jourt justices, media potentates, the president, the first lady, the president's dad, plus Barbara Bush in a fiery red blouse and that fabulous hair, waving from the lobby balcony before dinner -- except the Hilton is always overrun with those types this time of year. Before this Alfalfa Club dinner, there was a detectable buzz that Hollywood would be in the house.
"As famous and important as these people are, they still like looking at other famous and important people and talking to them," said C. Landon Parvin, an Alfalfa Club member and a writer from Fredericksburg.
Last night did not exactly mark the White House Correspondents Dinnerizing of the Alfalfa Club soiree. At that spring journalists' fling, reporters compete to invite the hottest guest, and Ozzy Osbourne can easily steal the spotlight from the president. Hidebound Alfalfans are not ready for Ozzy yet.
But still, the Douglas party and Beatty were seated right up there at Table 6, close as possible to where President Bush sat at the head table.
"This one's fun," said Michael Douglas, who has attended before, as has Beatty, though together the small clutch of glitz at Table 6 was a critical mass by Alfalfa standards. "It's nice because, with all due respect, there's no press inside," Douglas continued. "It's one of the few events that's bipartisan. And it's nice to see everyone give everyone else a little needle."
Sad but true, the jackals of the press are left to beg for scraps in the lobby with the tourists and their disposable cameras. Through the techniques of modern journalism, portions of the quippy speeches are obtained.
It only added to the whiff of Hollywood on the Potomac when this year's spoof "nominee" for president on the Alfalfa ticket was announced. Usually the honor goes to someone like a senator or a governor, someone who might have a prayer of actually becoming president. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and President Bush were all Alfalfa candidates. (The club also nominates plenty of Democrats, but for some reason Republican Alfalfans are much more successful.)
Accepting the nomination last night was Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America. Valenti, a veteran of the Lyndon Johnson administration, is of course a superb Washington player. But in his acceptance speech -- delivered without notes, the first time anyone can remember such bravura -- he took the Hollywood theme and ran with it.
After telling the guests that he had written four books -- three nonfiction and "one completely fiction, the 1967 budget of President Johnson," Valenti noted that "in the interest of full disclosure, there are, however, a few differences between Washington and Hollywood. . . . In Washington, we have reform. In Hollywood, we have rehab.
"In Hollywood we have special effects to fool the people. In Washington we call it an appropriations bill.
"In Hollywood, the leading spokesman for the Democratic Party is Barbra Streisand. In Washington, well, actually, it's the same."
The 91-year-old club, named after the legume "that will do anything for a drink," portrays itself as single-mindedly standing for nothing. "Ask an Alfalfan what the club does," said Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), and he will say, "Not much."
The whole point is for 550-plus assorted eminences to congregate for toasting and roasting, and a little steak washed down with wine from the Napa vineyards of Alfalfan Robert Mondavi. But of course the club does stand for something -- the quaint but eternal truth that members of the ruling class hold no grudges among themselves. "It's really unique in the world," said Parvin, "that both parties come together, that the whole government comes together and makes fun of each other."
"You see a lot of your friends, and it shows you we are basically a united country," said Henry Kissinger.
"There are friends in here from both parties of long standing," said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Nine new members -- "sprouts" -- were inducted, including philanthropist Catherine Reynolds; William H. Donaldson, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission; Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah); Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii); John Macomber of JDM Investment Group; historian David McCullough; Patrick Noonan, chairman emeritus of the Conservation Fund in Arlington; Education Secretary Roderick Paige; and Joseph Robert Jr., chairman and CEO of the JE Robert Cos. in McLean.
In the chummy Alfalfa atmosphere, Bush could even tease a Republican. "I thought the State of the Union went pretty well," he said, "although Bob Dole did call me about it. Remember that part where I came out against performance-enhancing drugs? Bob thought it was aimed at him."
And then there are Republican former friends, like former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill, who was quoted in a recent book questioning Bush's engagement in his jobO'Neill, who was not on the guest list, turned up in more that one jab. "As usual," said Jordan, "this is a stellar turnout of power, wealth and celebrity -- billionaires, Supreme Court justices, Cabinet secretaries. I understand that . . . O'Neill is not dining with us tonight. At the pleasure of the White House, he is dining at Guantanamo."
Staff Writer Laura Thomas contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company