Monday, January 29, 2001

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison strode into the Capital Hilton Saturday night for the 88th anniversary dinner of the Alfalfa Club full of hope.

“It’s going to be a wonderful evening. It always is,” said the Texas Republican, one of the first female members of the social club.

“With John McCain as the presidential candidate with the real president in the room, I think it’s going to be a perfect night.”

Power oozed through the Hilton ballroom like a Texas oil slick. On the dais were President Bush and his wife, Laura; Chief Justice William Rehnquist, between the president and Secretary of State Colin Powell; the president’s father, former President Bush, and former first lady Barbara Bush; Vice President Dick Cheney; the president’s brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; District Mayor Anthony Williams; outgoing Alfalfa President, Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska; and the club’s incoming president, Democratic Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan.

“It’s a lot less work than being at 1600,” Mr. Dingell says, holding his spanking new gavel. “We don’t do much serious business here.”

Indeed. Since 1913, the Alfalfa Club has existed solely for drinking, cigar smoking and roasting the latest chief executive. (Alfalfa is a legume that lives to drink; it’s also the name of the squeaky-voiced member of the Little Rascals movie shorts, which perhaps fits with the juvenile nature of the evening.)

Mr. McCain, Mr. Dingell and the president gave speeches, and the reviews that followed seemed to give them a thumbs up. “You’re always a little nervous before you start, but it seemed to be well-received so that’s what counts,” Mr. McCain, the Republican Arizona senator, said laughing. “Bush was very funny. He said, ‘I hadn’t had a drink in 15 years, but if I don’t get this dinner over with …’”

Mr. Williams noted that Mr. Bush specifically pointed out how much he enjoyed being in Washington. “He said, ‘I want to tell the mayor of this fine city that I’m proud to be living here.’ I was personally moved by that.”

Former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala seemed to be enjoying her return to private life. “It’s fun,” she said. “It gives me a freedom I’ve never had. I can say what I want.” What she said was, “The president was funny. He made it.”

Not surprisingly, GOP bigwigs felt the same way about Mr. Bush’s appearance. “He was brief. He was self-deprecating,” former Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker said.

“All I can say is ‘Bravo’ to McCain and the president,” Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia gushed after the dinner.

The best line was vintage McCain: “When I negotiated with Bush, after being in a prison camp for five years, I said, ‘You bet, I support you after 20 minutes.’”

Mrs. Hutchison’s favorite McCain campaign line was: “We’ve had too much of instability in Washington. It’s time to have an ill-tempered maniac for president.”

He also alluded to being in a dark, dank holding room where torture was applied, and it’s called the cloakroom.

Also on the minds of those present was Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s recent support of a tax cut. “Everything really came together at the right time,” Mrs. Hutchison said. “With the economy in a very neutral to bad position, I think he then came over on the other side on tax cuts. He wanted to have the balance of the tax cuts and the paying down the debt, so I think it all came together and I feel very confident that we are going to pass a tax cut this year and we will have a president this year who will sign it.”

Oklahoma Republican Sen. Don Nickles agreed. “I think he’s right. I think we need a tax cut,” he said. “Marginal rates for somebody that’s self-employed are way too high. Even someone making $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 a year those rates are too high.”

As for the Fed chairman, he declined to comment “unless my wife gives me permission to speak, which she never does.”

“He’s sworn to secrecy,” said Mr. Greenspan’s wife, NBC Chief Foreign Correspondent Andrea Mitchell. “You’re on your own buddy.”

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