- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

“Everybody else has the week off, and I get to work,” said bemused maestro Leonard Slatkin, one among a familiar mix of politicos, lobbyists, diplomats, journalists and all-around social beings squeezing into Cafe Milano Monday night for General Motors’ inaugural kickoff party.

If there was no “Americana” music, a la Sousa marches, on the National Symphony’s schedule this week, as Mr. Slatkin reported, there were a few choice barbs from Mark Russell. “Isn’t this a party that just screams for Michael Moore to come in?” the comedian said, warming up over a tall glass of water at the bar before describing the week’s events as “Mardi Gras with air cover.”

Jewelry designer Ann Hand, who was hosting — along with her lawyer husband, Lloyd Hand (who has GM for a client); Debbie Dingell (who heads the GM Foundation); Abigail Blunt (wife of House Majority Whip Ray Blunt); and Elaine and Ken Cole (he being GM vice president for government relations) — was busy handing out battery-charged sparkling star pins in silver to all 600 of her “closest and dearest” pals while touting the event’s bipartisan “unity” theme.

Political heavyweights, including Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson, Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, former Clinton administration national security adviser Sandy Berger, departing Democratic National Committee chief Terry McAuliffe, Sen. Joe Lieberman and (of course) Rep. John Dingell conformed to the code throughout the night, chatting amiably with those from “the other side” in between visits to the jumbo-shrimp bowl and not-so-baby-lamb-chop station. “There are actually a few Democrats here I like, confessed rock-ribbed Republican Richard W. Carlson, director of the Voice of America during Bush I days.

For the most part, Democrats were stoic about losing the big one yet again.

“There is always the next time,” sighed an upbeat Capricia Marshall, who served as social secretary for the Clintons.

“I lit a candle in front of the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mother when the snow started coming down, and my prayers were answered,” said Buffy Cafritz, sighing in relief that most of her guests had turned out for the inaugural bash she and fellow hostesses-with-the-most-clout Phyllis George, Ann Jordan and Kathy Day organized at the Mandarin Oriental hotel Wednesday night.

Cold and snowy weather binds partygoers like nothing else, which helps explain why Wednesday evening’s VIP-jammed event was so “hot.” The quadrennial fete draws a bipartisan “in-crowd” of sorts that includes lots of out-of-town celebs, and this year was no exception with Barbara Walters, Robert Mosbacher, Bill O’Reilly, Deborah Norville, Paige Rense and Buzz Aldrin joining inside-the-Beltway biggies on the list.

Even New York billionaire Stephen Schwarzman, head of the Blackstone Group and chairman of the Kennedy Center, had been stuck in gridlock traffic, causing him to miss an “intimate” candlelight dinner with the president, although he had made — briefly — the Texas Society’s Black Tie & Boots unofficial ball, held for countless thousands across town.

The art of conversation at these affairs is small talk writ large. Even so, who wouldn’t have wanted to know what Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft were chatting about for such a long time or get a translation of that little conversation Justice Stephen Breyer, Polly Kraft and British Ambassador Sir David and Lady Manning were sharing in flawless French?

Lady Manning delighted in recounting the list of outdoor gear she had assembled to brave the cold at the couple’s first inaugural ceremony, while Jordanian Ambassador Karim Kawar, also tackling his first U.S. presidential celebration, strode in wearing a full-size black ten-gallon hat.

“He looks more Mexican than Texan,” teased Colombian Ambassador Luis Alberto Moreno to general laughter that soon prompted former Secretary of State James A. Baker III to settle the matter.

Even better, “he’s Tex-Mex,” Mr. Baker said with a diplomatic smile.

So all-embracing is the exclusive soiree of this type that even deposed Fannie Mae chief Franklin Raines and currently controversial banker Joe Allbritton were on the scene to mix and mingle over cocktails and sit down to a supper featuring crab cakes and chicken hash that didn’t end until the wee hours.

“The connecting link is friendship, and it crosses party lines,” Carol Laxalt pointed out as she surveyed the crowd at evening’s end. The equally adept Thomas “Mack” McLarty, former Clinton head of staff and Latin American envoy, ventured even further. “If the Congress could do this,” he observed, “we’d all be redeemed.”

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