After a career spent bringing together ideologically mixed crowds on behalf of high-profile corporate clients, the Republican staffer turned PR pro worries that Washington is too eager to get back to bipartisan socializing as usual — and, in its excitement at emerging from social lockdown, is ignoring what she sees as the lingering rot at the heart of democracy. “It’s not still broken,” she says. “It’s more broken.”
“This is the first time this has happened in the post-Trump era, where it really is a moral question before the country,” Glover says of the dinner and the attendant corporate-sponsored parties, where for years reporters and advertisers have mingled with bigwigs from across the political spectrum. “The question is, can Washington normalize? In my brain and body it’s, ‘I hope not,’ because if so, then we’re morally benumbed. On a weekend dedicated to freedom of the press, is it okay to raise a glass and toast with a seditionist?”
Among Washingtonians whose business involves working across party lines, Glover is unusual in her willingness to attach her name to the feelings. But I heard similar sentiments from a number of people this week as I went about the rituals of checking party schedules and hunting down errant cuff links, chores that were interrupted for two years of pandemic cancellations, and that had previously been diminished by three years of relatively restrained party planning as media companies eschewed Trump’s D.C.
Now, all of a sudden, the status quo ante is back. And though it’s the embrace of a pre-Covid normal that gets the attention — witness how the revived Gridiron dinner turned into a superspreader event, and the hubbub about whether President Joe Biden’s scheduled appearance puts him at risk — it’s the return of the pre-2016 version of Washington, the party-hopping town of media-elite chumminess, that is stirring up complicated emotions: Given what’s happened since, is it okay to return to the old partisanship-stops-when-the-drinking-starts, everyone-can-come model?
Judging from the social calendar of the weekend, a much more sizable population of people thinks the answer is: Hell, yes!
This year’s festivities look to be the most elaborate since the Obama years. Familiar stations of the cross, like the insider-heavy annual garden brunch at the former Katharine Graham home in Georgetown, will pick up where they left off in 2019. Other classics from the pre-Trump era are coming back to life after a longer break. After Trump’s election, Vanity Fair and Bloomberg pulled out of the exclusive after-party they traditionally threw at the French ambassador’s residence. This year, the embassy soiree is back, now under the aegis of Paramount.
And there are also new events on the calendar: A get-together for the Semafor news organization being launched by former Bloomberg News chief Justin Smith and former New York Times media columnist Ben Smith, a gathering in the glitzy 16th Street headquarters of the Motion Picture Association, a space that opened up shortly before the pandemic.
Ironically, the tighter caps on attendance in the name of pandemic safety have increased the amount of jockeying for access to events like the one at MPA, which is known for drawing Hollywood celebs to D.C. “We’ve gotten so many unsolicited RSVPs from people who weren’t invited,” says Emily Lenzner, the association’s public affairs chief. “I imagine the same is happening at the other parties. And I’m thinking, ‘How can you physically hit all these parties?’”
Of course, pretending to hate the WHCA falderal is as much a Beltway tradition as pretending to hate Washington itself. But what’s notable about the scrambled state of the capital in 2022 is the way the long-standing outsider critique — that there’s something unseemly about powerful people and journalistic watchdogs all cavorting in a morally neutral environment, with corporate sponsors footing the bill — dovetails with the worries of a consummate insider like Glover.
Displays of insiderism will also be catnip for the right-wing media, where the working assumption is the media elite pulls punches on behalf of their Democratic pals, not merely on behalf of business-as-usual.