- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2000

Friday night was party-perfect: The sky was clear enough to show off a full moon, and the air was so warm that guests could mingle comfortably outdoors beneath a canopy of graceful Spanish lindens aglow with tiny white candles in their branches.

The beautiful weather at this year's Meridian Ball provided an appropriate finishing touch to an event that is always at the top of diplomats' social calendars, in part because the black-tie affair at stately Meridian House is preceded by elegant dinners at numerous embassies around town.

Because most guests were focused on the recent crisis in the Middle East, Meridian International Center's 40-year mission to promote democracy and cross-cultural understanding seemed especially worthy of support at this year's ball.

"It's pretty bad. That's it in a nutshell," French Ambassador Francois Bujon de l'Estang said, looking clearly discouraged.

Irish Ambassador Sean O'Huiginn said he felt "just a little bit sick inside" when considering the recent breakdown of the seven-year peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He pointed to the fragility of such negotiations, a fragility that's also evident in Belfast's contentious new power-sharing government. "You want more than an absence of conflict," he said with a sigh. "You want people working together."

Other guests reported that Ambassador Abdulwahab Al-Hajjri of Yemen, who hosted one of the pre-ball dinners, had led his guests in a moment of silence to honor the American sailors killed in the bomb attack last week when their ship was refueling at a Yemeni port.

Happily enough, the charm and beauty of the evening did much to distract substantially from the distressing news from abroad.

Real estate broker Allison LaLand was aglow. "Social life in Washington is the oil that makes the wheel go 'round," she gushed before proceeding to describe the incredible six-course dinner she just had eaten at the Japanese Embassy (prepared by the ambassador's French chef).

Many of the 700 guests who arrived for dessert, drinks and dancing at Meridian House around 10 p.m. exchanged greetings that sounded as if they had just alighted from an international flight: "Where were you for dinner?" "Luxembourg."

The Young Benefactors group showed up after dinner next door at the White-Meyer House, once the childhood home of Katharine Graham and now part of the center's international outreach activities. The junior participants, who paid $150 apiece for tickets (instead of $350), were a welcome and energetic addition on the dance floor and certainly brightened the scene despite several individuals' preference for cell-phone conversations over those of the live variety.

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and her husband, John O'Connor, were among the first guests on the dance floor, as was Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, who said that though it can be hard to get away from work at such an unstable time, "The Middle East was a little quieter today."

In a sense, it was business as usual.

"No dinners were canceled, reported a pleased Evelyn DiBona, co-chairwoman of the ball with Joyce Bennett, the wife of Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah. Mrs. DiBona saw the lack of disruptions as evidence that the cooperative spirit at Meridian House was above and beyond temporary political imbroglios.

Center President Walter Cutler saw the level of participation as evidence of the necessity of Meridian's mission to promote international understanding. "They all know we need it now more than ever," he said.

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