Tuesday, February 6, 2007
I emerged from my taxi a full two blocks away from the hotel because police and secret service had barred all traffic within a quarter mile radius of the Capital Hilton. I felt ridiculous in an ill-fitting tuxedo. It was only eight hours before that I proudly wore my Campus Progress t-shirt and carted around bright yellow signs boldly exclaiming “No Surge!” at the anti-escalation protest. Now, I was about to enter the temple of the enemy.
One could reasonably argue that the Alfalfa Club is the epitome of what is wrong with Washington today, and, by extension, America. It is, ostensibly, an annual celebration of the birthday of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, but by now that pretext is a faint shadow of an excuse for Washington’s elite to fraternize with Wall Street’s elite. Every year the President attends, along with his cabinet, the Supreme Court justices, and at least 100 current or former members of Congress. Add to that 100 more CEOs, chairs of corporate boards, high-powered attorneys and consultants, numerous former cabinet members, chiefs of staff, ambassadors, and many more.
I had heard the Club tends to be a forum for a lot of phony speechmaking and politically incorrect jokes. The idea terrified me– America’s elite, slurping on lobster stew and praising their tax cuts as they listened to jokes from self-satisfied megalomaniacs. And there would be George W. Bush presiding over all of them, the greatest child of privilege there ever was, abandoning his common man shtick and retaking his seat in the lap of luxury from whence he came. I recalled that eerie scene in Fahrenheit 9/11 where Bush tells a black-tie audience: “This is an impressive crowd: the haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.”
Indeed, there were some unfortunate utterings. A leading general of the Marine Corps told me that on average, a black guy in South Philadelphia is more likely to get shot than any of our troops in Iraq, “and that’s a good thing.” One guest beamed that he had just met his personal hero, Antonin Scalia. The most appalling joke had to be the one about the interviewer who asks a soldier what he feels after he has shot and killed someone in battle (answer: “Recoil”). And one Republican speaker bemoaned that in the new Congress he wouldn’t be able to leave on Wednesday night for the weekend. I kept my cool by conveniently having a roll of bread or a glass of wine in my hand every time everyone stood up to clap for George Bush.
But I slowly became more comfortable when I realized the applause for W was a bit disingenuous. Of the jokes told, an overwhelming majority of them were not leveled at Nancy Pelosi or Hillary Clinton, but rather at Bush–and truly savage ones at that. I can’t count how many times speakers cracked about how he bought the 2000 Election (and these people would know, too). Military commanders complained that he didn’t listen to them, and one speaker noted that the only politician who benefited from an association with George Bush last year was Hugo Chavez. One by one, politicians lobbed rhetorical WMD’s at him.
It then dawned on me that my picture of the elite was too simple; there was a distinct fracture within the group. I looked around and realized that many present were luminaries of the Cold War era–people who cut their teeth engaged in a global struggle that required strategy and rationalism. I thought back to the lunch that day (which traditionally precedes the night’s events): Former Congressman Sam Nunn and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had given a panel discussion on nuclear non-proliferation, explaining it was a huge issue that no one was paying attention to. Later, at the Capital Hilton ballroom, the subtext became clear: President Bush isn’t paying attention to proliferation. Bush listens to ideologues, not pragmatists. Many of the statesmen in the room spent their careers assessing foreign policy with the utmost attention to realistic solutions. And now, this little imp of a president had jettisoned the still pressing issues of their day (like, you know, nuclear apocalypse) in favor of going to war for…what?
The final speaker was Sandra Day O’Connor, who was known for her pragmatic, difference splitting approach on the Supreme Court. One of her jokes summed up the mood in the room perfectly. “Whaddaya say, guys?” she asked her former colleagues on the Supreme Court. “Why don’t we overturn Gore v. Bush right now–just for fun?” The applause, at that point, did not sound so disingenuous.
It seemed that Bush, scion of a moneyed political dynasty, has been abandoned by the wealthy business and political class. I didn’t believe it during the 2000 campaign, but these days, George W. Bush really is a Washington outsider.