The height of spring is a tough time to host a party, because on any given weeknight there are several competing events—meaning the competition for guests is similarly fierce. That was not a problem Tuesday night at the Renwick Gallery, where many of the city’s elite showed up to celebrate Richard Haass and his new book, Foreign Policy Begins at Home. Haass is the head of the also-elite Council on Foreign Relations. Add to that the influence and/or wealth of the party’s hosts: Katherine and David Bradley, Afsaneh and Michael Beschloss, Norma and Russ Ramsey, Alice and David Rubenstein, and Kristin Mannion and H.P. Goldfield.
The historic Renwick, next door to Blair House and across the street from the White House, is one of the city’s most impressive venues—especially the Grand Salon, with its sky-high ceilings and walls hung with 70 of the Smithsonian’s prized works by American artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including George Peter Alexander Healy, Romaine Brooks, Guy Wiggins, and George Inness.
Admiring the art, the gorgeous flowers, and the offerings of Veuve Cliquot Champagne, good Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and the two bountiful buffets, one guest remarked, “So this is what it looks like when billionaires host a book party.” Yes, indeed. There was the requisite book party wine and cheese, but also rare roast beef, lobster rolls, pasta, artichoke tart, mozzarella and tomato salad, salmon tartare, and Peking duck rolls, plus an assortment of passed canapés and a separate table for pastries and coffee.
In welcoming everyone, David Rubenstein, head of the Carlyle Group and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations board, commended Haass’s stewardship of the CFR, a job he began a decade ago after a high position at the State Department advising Colin Powell. “I see dramatic improvements; its influence is much greater than it was,” Rubenstein said. Haass, a Rhodes Scholar from Brooklyn, manages to find time for both Washington and New York (his base), and for engaging with both political parties. He is also a prolific author. “He has written a number of books. This is his 12th,” Rubenstein said. “You will all benefit from reading his insights about what we should do domestically to make sure we have good foreign policy.”
All that lofty stuff aside, Rubenstein said, “Richard’s influence is greater than ever before, and not just because of the books, or because the council is so great, but because of his new career at Morning Joe. He has more influence on foreign policy through that show than all the books, the career he’s had in Washington, and with the council, but I’m not supposed to say that.” Morning Joe is a popular daily breakfast program on MSNBC hosted by Joe Scarborough, Mika Brezinski, and Willie Geist.
Historian Michael Beschloss, one of the three people who took turns to introduce Haass, in addition to Rubenstein and Bradley, drew laughter when he joked, “There are about 20 cohosts, and every single one will be speaking.” Standing at the podium, hands in his pockets, he went on, as a good cohost would, to call the book “brilliant” and “original” and to say “everyone should buy five copies—at least—and read it five times.”
“This is a special night for me for many reasons, and one is to see all of you here,” Haass said when it was his turn to speak. “I’m a very lucky guy, I lead a very advantaged life, and one of the reasons it is an advantaged life is because of the people who are in it.” One of the people he chose to single out was former White House national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, with whom he worked at the White House. Haass said “I am on team Scowcroft.” The retired general, standing off to the side near one of the potted palms, betrayed a shy smile. The book is dedicated to Scowcroft.
Haass called himself “still an optimist at the core” but admitted he worries about the cost to foreign policy of a dysfunctional domestic leadership. “We’ve now got politics that are so polarized, where both parties and times are in such endzones,” he said. His book is about how to go forward, with a point of view. “You can have a serious foreign policy,” he said. “You can and must be engaged in the world in serious ways, but we can’t remake the Middle East in our image.”
Before wrapping up, Haass said he considers the biggest threat to the US to be not only terrorism but also the challenges of American fundamentals, including the economy, growth, K-12 education, and infrastructure. Without being strong in these areas, he said, “we will simply not be competitive to be a great power.” And this is where his book goes—not to promoting an alternative to a serious foreign policy but thoughts on what is required domestically to support any foreign policy.
Listening intently—which says a lot about a Washington party—were a room full of friends and fans, including ambassadors Peter Westmacott of Great Britiain, Michael Collins of Ireland, Kim Beazley of Australia, and Michael Oren of Israel; senator Kay Hagen; just-nominated US trade representative Mike Froman; acting energy secretary Dan Poneman; Liz Sherwood Randall and Puneet Talwar of the National Security Council staff; USAID deputy director Donald Steinberg; former Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend; and former congresswoman Jane Harman of the Woodrow Wilson Center. Also spotted: Linda Webster, Wolf Blitzer, Maureen Orth, Evan Thomas, Terrence Smith, Susie Trees, David Sanger, Martin Indyk, Tim Bartlett, Paula Dobriansky, Margaret Warner, Jim Hoagland, Strobe Talbott, Dan Glickman, Carol and Ken Adelman, Richard Burt, Gerald and Eden Rafshoon, Amanda Downes, Christianne Ricchi, Bob Barnett, Shelby Coffey, Tammy Haddad, Jim Kimsey, Bill Allman, Christopher Ullman, Gloria Borger, Susan Blumenthal, and, of course, Haass’s wife, Susan Mercandetti, an executive with ABC News.