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Want to fix Washington? Go to dinner

Posted Aug. 07, 2011, at 1:10 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 08, 2011, at 5:04 a.m.

Back in the golden days of Washington entertaining, hostess-with-the-mostest Perle Mesta was said to have remarked on the ease with which she was able to draw guests to her parties: “Just hang a pork chop in the window and they’ll come.” I’d like to see what Perle would have to hang in her window now to get a government official to one of her storied dinners — a minor rock star? A major PAC check? Washington doesn’t go to dinner much anymore, and it’s bad for the country.

When I worked in the White House Social Office, I was often surprised at how many officials — some serving in the same agency or in the same house of Congress — had never met. Members of Congress and administration officials may be photographed together, but many barely know each other if they’re in different parties. How useful those dinner-party connections seemed, with guests exchanging e-mail addresses and making plans to get together. Once, this cross-pollination happened at dinners all over the city.

Today, however, political purists from both sides openly sneer at the idea of going to a dinner party. Who wants to risk hearing a viewpoint different from his own or be forced to defend her beliefs without the benefit of talking points? Politicians say they’re too busy to socialize, citing the demands of travel to their districts, the increasing unpredictability of the congressional cal endar and the absence of their spouses. The last is a particular blow: That fewer government spouses live in Washington means another source of political friend-making is lost, and it’s a loss as w ell for the city charities that traditionally relied on congressional spouses for fundraising leadership (in return for providing venues for gracious bipartisan mingling).

With each new administration and new Congress comes coarser social behavior. During my tenure as social secretary, it was routine to call people two or three times to get a response to a White House invitation. We’ve come a long way from the days when an invitation from one’s president and first lady could be regretted only for a death in the family or travel abroad. And if dinner at the White House isn’t a draw anymore, what is?

There have always been successful “mixed marriages” in politics: Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen, and Alfonse D’Amato and Daniel Patrick Moynihan built political consensus based on personal friendship. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri (R) and Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland (D) are longtime friends. Nowadays, though, this requires a politician to be able to resist the derision that less-evolved colleagues might heap on for trafficking with “the enemy.”

Too many government types seem to fear political contamination — as if they could not withstand exposure to the contagion of another way of looking at things. Or maybe they think Washington is a place of such irresistible corruption that they cannot attend a dinner party without tumbling into the great maw of the Washington Establishment.

Without dinners, the polite exchange of conversation that may lead to the discovery of similar interests and even the beginnings of camaraderie is lost, and with it the mutual trust essential to governance by two parties. It’s much more difficult to vilify colleagues after you’ve spent an evening together and discovered that they aren’t the living embodiment of evil.

It must be noted that the city’s social scene takes its cues from the White House, and this president does not seem to understand the value of making friends with the other side. Bipartisan presidential friendships such as those of Ronald Reagan with Tip O’Neill and of George H.W. Bush with Edward Kennedy prove the value of knowing and respecting one’s ideological opponent and looking hard for places where agreement can be found. Recent events have shown that one round of presidential golf with House Speaker John Boehner cannot produce the basis of trust needed for the two leaders to address mutual political challenges. (Of course, it wouldn’t kill Boehner to attend a state dinner once in a while.)

Politicians have an obligation to know their opponents and understand their views as communicated by them directly so that they might seek common political ground. Washington is a local community with global impact; to come here in government service is to require prolonged and intense interaction with others who have the same responsibilities. A dinner out can become a political opportunity for the individual open-minded enough to employ it. And by skipping parties where journalists may be found, politicians are forgoing opportunities to informally shape the debate; for their part, journalists, too, may find it more difficult to savage a politician if they’ve broken bread with him.

So I urge Washington’s politicos to dust off their manners and instruct their schedulers to accept an occasional (non-fundraising) dinner invitation. They might even make a friend.

Lea Berman was White House social secretary from 2005 to 2007.

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