I’m not really sure why Sally Quinn’s little Washington Post essay about the changing dinner party scene in Washington, DC, has been so widely ridiculed. Yes, this conclusion (below) is awfully precious, but it seems to me perfectly legitimate to observe the way power manifests itself in Washington via the changing social rituals.
In the past, we might have attended five-course dinners a couple of nights a week, with a different wine for each course, served in a power-filled room of politicians, diplomats, White House officials and well-known journalists. Those gatherings don’t exist anymore. Now, we host and go to small dinners with close friends, dinners with some meaning to them, dinners that are celebrations of something. These evenings are sacred to me. They are filled with love and respect and caring. People are never looking over their shoulders to see who is more powerful, or, more likely, richer.
I know, I know, this is pretty rich. (I wonder, though, if those gatherings exist, but Mr. and Mrs. Bradlee aren’t invited to them.) I find it impossible to believe that people in Washington aren’t looking over the shoulder of the person they’re talking to at a party to see if somebody higher up the pecking order is moving by. This happened all the time when I was living there in the early 1990s, even among (perhaps especially among) we young and powerless.
Anyway, the dinner party culture Quinn mourns, despite her rather difficult to believe statement that she prefers these “sacred” evenings, is exactly the reason that I would not want to be part of the Washington scene. Or any scene, frankly, that required attendance at these things as the cost of being in the loop. I was having dinner last night with an old friend in New York, and telling him that I’ve become … well, if not exactly anti-social, then asocial. The only social events I ever go to are the small dinners of the type Quinn mentions. Something about having kids changed me on that point. It’s not a moral thing, heaven knows; it’s more a matter of emotional orientation. Big parties, or parties that have any sort of “stakes,” exhaust me. I have become more introverted. When we lived in New York a decade ago, I had the chance to go to a lot of things like this, but really just wanted to go home to Brooklyn to be with my wife and my son, and to have a couple of people over on the weekend. Still do.
Anyway, David Frum acknowledges that the tone of Quinn’s essay is pretty obnoxious and snark-worthy, but that she’s onto something about Washington. Excerpt:
The woman is perceiving something true. Over half a human lifetime, Washington has shifted from a city whose status hierarchy was dominated by official rank to one whose status hierarchy is determined almost entirely by money. A US senator is a smaller deal in the Washington of 2012 than his or her predecessor of 1972; a visiting billionaire a much bigger deal. Not that the senator has sunk to zero; not that the billionaire would not have been important in 1972; but the ratios have changed—and changed really quite dramatically. Sally Quinn may not be the most sympathetic observer of the trend, but she is surely one of the most authoritative. You don’t have to like her piece to hear her message.
A good point to ponder.
Similarly, I wonder who aspiring journalists in college read these days — I mean, in terms of columnists. Back in my day, I had five or six columnists I read with great seriousness, paying attention to their arguments, and allowing them to shape my thinking about the political issues of the day. That doesn’t happen much anymore. People don’t talk about columnists like they used to. Back in the 1980s, for example, George F. Will was a colossus. As far as I can tell, he’s writing as well as he ever did. But the media landscape has changed, and has diminished his stature. Do college journalists these days read columnists (as opposed to bloggers), and if they do, how do they read them? Most of the time I read The New York Times ironically, in a meta way, as the Ruling Class’s Version of the news (“ruling class” in the cultural sense, which is the sense that most interests me; if finance and economics is your deal, you may find the Wall Street Journal to be your meta-paper).