The Petraeus Scandal and Politics Were the Buzz at an A-List Washington Dinner Party

Atlantic Media’s Katherine and David Bradley hosted the opening night for the Ideas Forum Tuesday.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

A lot of good one-liners were dropped at Katherine and David Bradley’s dinner party Tuesday night, but the most searing wasn’t uttered onstage. It was whispered by a former Washington Post editor to another guest: “I liked Marcus, but. . . .” He was referring, of course, to Marcus Brauchli, who, it was announced earlier in the day, would be replaced as the Post’s editor, a turnover that had been rumored for months. What made it poignant was that it underscored how tenuous loyalty is among the powerful in this town. The right job can make you a lot of friends, but if the job goes, so do the friends, or at least those kinds of friends. Which is why the other topic of the evening was the Petraeus scandal.

Comedian and erstwhile talk-show host Dick Cavett was one of the featured guests for the evening, a swanky opening-night party to bring together the A-listers who would be attending the Bradleys’ annual 2012 Washington Ideas Forum at the Newseum, a two-day intellectual talkfest they cohost with Walter Isaacson and the Aspen Institute. Cavett’s one-liner, mentioned while musing on his love of Groucho Marx, was, “I have a trove of letters from Groucho, but not thousands of e-mails.” That distinction belongs to Petraeus scandal costars Jill Kelley and General John Allen, the American commander of international troops in Afghanistan, who reportedly exchanged e-mails that total 20,000 to 30,000 pages (though some may be duplicates).

Given the week’s heightened atmosphere of scandal, it was impossible to have a Washington party where all the latest news bombshells didn’t become morsels for discussion, with Benghazi and the “fiscal cliff” as “also rans.” While servers from Susan Gage Caterers passed cocktails, fried oysters, mini barbecue sandwiches, and mushrooms on toast, one guest after another could be heard expressing incredulity about the bizarre events surrounding now-former CIA director David Petraeus and his merry band. “It’s just the damnedest thing.” “Where will it end?” “Have you ever heard of this Kelley woman?” “A lot of reporters know Paula Broadwell.” A number of journalists attended the party, but none I talked to outed themselves as a Broadwell intimate.

The evening’s organizer, Elizabeth Baker Keffer of Atlantic Media, welcomed guests and noted that activist rock star Bono was in Washington this week, though not at this particular dinner. She had met him the night before, however, and reported that he is “much shorter than you would expect, and does a great impression of Bill Clinton.” She then directed everyone’s attention across the room to a stage where journalist Margaret Carlson was set to interview Lizz Winstead, co-creator and head writer for The Daily Show.

Carlson took a moment to identify herself as the first woman columnist for Time magazine and then, calling out Isaacson, her former editor, she added, “and also the last woman columnist at Time magazine.” When she turned her attention to Winstead, she asked the comedian, “How many people think The Daily Show is a news show?” Winstead replied, “Does it matter?” Clips were shown from the program, which had the audience laughing or groaning. When the screen filled with Clint Eastwood at the GOP convention, onstage talking to an empty chair, Republican lobbyist Juleanna Glover sighed and muttered, “You can’t make it up,” which essentially summed up how she felt about her candidate’s presidential campaign.

Carlson asked Winstead, “What makes politics funny?” Winstead looked surprised. “Is that really the question?” she asked. A good point. People in Washington, especially those in media and politics, laugh at the jokes, but they don’t often understand how the city they take so seriously becomes the joke. Winstead explained that in creating The Daily Show, “we decided, ‘Let’s have comedians who act and look like correspondents,’” an ironic ruse they have turned into enduring success. “Now the media tries to look more like The Daily Show, which makes The Daily Show more like The Daily Show.”