Could Socialites Save Washington from Partisan Gridlock?

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tags: politics, Partisan Gridlock

Joseph Dalton has been a general arts reporter and music critic for the Times Union in Albany, NY since 2002. Hope Ridings Miller is his first cousin twice removed. He is the author of Washington's Golden Age: Hope Ridings Miller, the Society Beat, and the Rise of Women Journalists.

Hope Ridings Miller and Richard Nixon

Accusations, hyperbole, and falsehoods studded the long lead up to our recent midterm elections. Buried in the din was the occasional call for a return to civility. But when a dozen or so mail bombs started arriving in the mail boxes of Democratic officials and operatives and that was followed by a deadly mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, I stopped thinking about civility. Instead, I longed for some sanity.

Still, as a remedy to our current corrosive public discourse, a return to civility would be a fine place to start. The topic of civility came to me regularly as I researched and wrote Washington’s Golden Age, my biography of the society editor Hope Ridings Miller whose career stretched from FDR to LBJ. Dignity, respect and decorum were her calling cards. Her domain was the party scene – and that’s where civility needs to regain its place.

Hope, who was my cousin, carried her polite demeanor and circumspect attitude into her work as a reporter. Practically every secret in town must have passed her way, yet she distinguished between what was news or just idle gossip. “I never wrote one thing in my entire career that would hurt anybody, so far as I know,” she once said.

I can’t imagine what Hope might say about the harsh and gridlocked state of affairs in today’s Washington. But I’m certain that in taking the pulse of the capital, she’d want to know how the social scene is doing. Hope spent her entire career arguing that parties were where the business of Washington got done. During the months after America’s entry into World War II, there were a thousand new residents flooding into town every week. They made connections, advanced their careers and advocated for their programs at cocktail parties, dinners and receptions. “Parties for a purpose” was a phrase Hope put into service to explain and defend the swell of social affairs happening all around the city.

We don’t hear much about Washington parties anymore. They seem to have gone the way of bipartisanship. Perhaps more Chardonnay would help lubricate the legislative wheels. As an update to the cocktail party format, younger members of Congress might consider serving each other microbrews from their districts.

When the 1994 Republican wave came to town, Newt Gingrich, the incoming Speaker of the House, told his freshmen class to avoid the Washington social scene. He apparently believed that it’s better not to get integrated into the established ways of doing things. This was an unfortunate call, just one of many changes, some abrupt, some gradual, that created the chasm of ill will now separating the two parties. Another sad trend is legislators fleeing Washington at every opportunity to campaign and fundraise. Instead, perhaps they need to institute periods when the Capital slows down but doesn’t empty out. Fill that downtime with casual, low-key gatherings, no black-tie galas with trash-talking out-of-town celebrities allowed. A more civil discourse and some thoughtful new alliances could be the outcome.



In researching my book, I interviewed retired Speaker of the House Jim Wright, who was my congressman growing up in Fort Worth in the ‘70s. Reminiscing about old Washington, Wright told me of the family picnics shared by the Texas delegation and how that led to congressmen knowing each others’ wives and children. Back at work, there would still be disagreements. Yet subsequent debates on the House floor were characterized by respectful dialogue rather than harsh recriminations. And, best of all, things got done.

Today, it’s not just in the nation’s capital where Americans are less connected and consequently less civil. The faster pace of everyday life means people have less time to participate in clubs, charities and common pastimes. Reliance on technology has actually reduced our social connections, despite the profusion of apps dubbed as social media. The online universe allows us to dive deep into a silo of like-minded cohorts, post strident comments anonymously, and ignore our neighbors just outside the front door.

In Hope Miller’s day, parties were serious stuff and every decade or so the city had a new top resident hostess leading the way. While the ladies liked to show off their elegant homes and shimmering gowns, they also put great consideration into their guest lists. Landing a senator or cabinet secretary was certainly a coup, but the larger objective was engendering goodwill among their guests.

As one example, Evalyn Walsh McLean was an eccentric heiress who entertained 200 people for dinner most every Sunday evening during the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. And she gave some bigger parties besides. McLean’s over-arching goal in all this extravagance was summed up in the name of her grand Georgetown home: Friendship.

Next up was Perle Mesta who became known as “the hostess with the mostess.” La Mesta took delight in seating Republicans and Democrats beside each other at dinner. Sparks would fly, but new affinities also resulted. Mesta was a supporter of Harry Truman, who honored her with an appointment as minister to Luxembourg. Irving Berlin wrote a musical about her, “Call Me Madame,” which starred Ethel Merman.

Hostess Gwen Cafritz, who succeeded Mesta, made a point of including leaders of the arts and sciences alongside the Washington elite. She once told a newspaperwoman, “Operation hostess in the nation’s capital is a great privilege…. Our grand design is to entertain top experts in various fields, because we are conscious of our common responsibility for the survival of the West.”

Holding up the pillars of society sounds like a rather lofty goal for the seemingly lowly act of throwing parties. But a renewed and vibrant social scene in Washington can go a long way to rebuilding the bonds of civility in our fractured capital.

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