News & Politics

Whose Dinner Party Will the Obamas Hit?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s first state visit has reignited a lingering question among Washington hostesses: At whose house will the Obamas choose to dine out first?

So far, the couple has socialized among a small circle of mostly Chicago friends. Since Barack Obama became President, he and his wife have dined out in a private home only at the Georgetown house of adviser and friend Valerie Jarrett. Says Black Entertainment Television’s Debra Lee: “People are speculating where they’ll go first.”

The First Couple’s dinners out have been primarily the two of them—or a few Chicago friends—at a local restaurant, such as Blue Duck Tavern in DC’s West End. There have been few Washington interlopers in their private life—columnist Thomas Friedman became the only journalist and one of the only non–White House staffers to golf with the President in September, despite the First Athlete’s near-weekly off-the-schedule trips to area golf courses and basketball courts.

Just before the inauguration, Obama visited with a group of conservative thinkers at the home of columnist George Will, who was the first to entertain Nancy and Ronald Reagan.

The power of a private presidential visit is Washington lore. The late columnist Joseph Alsop became an overnight sensation when newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy dropped by Alsop’s Georgetown home on a snowy night in January 1961.

Recruiting the current President and his wife for dinner looks to be a long-term project. Democratic consultant Mandy Grunwald points to the Obamas’ summer holiday on Martha’s Vineyard. “They kept to themselves,” says Grunwald, a Vineyard regular.

Anyone who thinks there are limits to how hard an aspiring hostess will push to lure the Obamas out need only consider the determination of the late Pamela Harriman. Tom Bryant, lifelong friend of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, remembers when Harriman invited him to his first Georgetown dinner in the late 1970s.

“She literally abandoned her guests and backed me into a corner in a nearby study,” Bryant recalls. “She handed me the telephone and told me to call the White House right then and there. So I called, and Rosalynn answered. She asked Jimmy if they were free, and he said, ‘What’s Tom doing in such high cotton?’ To which Rosalynn said, ‘I think he was invited only so he could ask you to come to dinner.’ ’’

While the Carters ultimately attended their first dinner party at the Georgetown home of their friend Peter Bourne, Carter’s special assistant for health issues, the Reagans stepped out into a blaze of klieg lights. Their arrival at the home of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham raised the curtain on the 1980s, a period many hostesses still see as the city’s golden age of parties. Harriman, for her part, became the darling of the Clinton White House.

Veterans of the social scene fret that the Obamas might end up being more like the Carters in their reluctance to embrace the social establishment. And with the resignation of White House social secretary Desirée Rogers, courted by so many hostesses—philanthropist Teresa Heinz, actress Alexandra Wentworth, and businesswoman Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, to name a few—there is concern among aspiring hosts about where to go from here.

The new best bet for wooing is also the most unlikely: White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, whose wife, Amy Rule, was recently seated to the right of Kuwaiti ambassador Salem Al-Sabah at his wife Rima’s annual Kuwait-America Foundation awards dinner.

Another top guest who hostesses hope might put in a good word at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is Chicago businesswoman Penny Pritzker, who comes to town about once a month as a member of the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, chaired by Paul Volcker. Soon after Obama won the election, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright invited Pritzker to her Georgetown home for dinner. On the guest list was Sheila Johnson, cofounder of BET, who owns a resort in Middleburg.

“Penny Pritzker was new to Washington,” Albright says. “I thought it would be nice to introduce her to people at a friendly dinner.”

Unlike in previous administrations—when the likes of Harriman and Graham used their wealth and White House access to bring glamour to the capital—entertainment under the Obamas has been more message-driven. Michelle Obama, who has ventured out to luncheons hosted by Heinz and Senator Dianne Feinstein, seems to prefer the role of mom and mentor over social trendsetter.

The Obamas have their own take on what constitutes a family evening at the White House. During the Clinton years, when Chelsea Clinton attended Sidwell Friends, schoolmates and their parents were often invited over for movies. For the Obamas, family nights tend to be reserved for those with official White House passes.

“They’ve had families in the White House for movies—more like me and my son, staff and their families,’’ says White House staff secretary Lisa Brown, who occasionally enjoys a tennis game with the First Lady.

Among those on the local scene, BET’s Debra Lee might be the best candidate for the honor of hosting: The new home she’s building in DC’s Massachusetts Avenue Heights seems handy if and when the Obamas decide to go to someone’s house for dinner.

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