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Letter From Washington: The Wait Society

As the presidential campaign moves from summer simmer to fall boil, power players are biding their time, plotting their futures and going to dinner.

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A party scene in Washington.

Photo By Mark Peterson/Corbis

While no one is yet saying what parties they might host for the upcoming conventions, one of the key players to watch is former Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman, director, president and chief executive officer of the Wilson Centre. Harman cohosted the Newsweek-Daily Beast party at the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner with Tina Brown last spring. She is the widow of audio-equipment mogul Sidney Harman, who died eight months after buying Newsweek and half ownership of The Daily Beast.

Also in the mix is newly remarried Donald Graham, chairman and ceo of the Washington Post Co. who, while he says he hates going to social events, always listens to his sister, Lally Weymouth. Since being named the paper’s senior associate editor two years ago, Weymouth hasn’t been shy about kicking up some dust when she thinks standards are slipping. And no one is likely to turn her down if she wants to give a party, especially given that she has never had any qualms about making the most of her high social profile.

Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes, with his newest acquisition, The New Republic, may well choose to revive the magazine’s social profile back from the days when former owner Martin Peretz wanted to win support for Harvard pal Al Gore. Then there’s David Bradley, the most up-and-coming media baron in town with his lineup of prestige insider journals including Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal.

While plans for socializing at the conventions may still be up in the air, no one denies the danger of underestimating the power of socializing in Washington this summer.

“There’s no other community I know of where, if you know how to navigate the social circles, you really meet the people who make things happen,” says D.C. consultant Marc Adelman, a former advance man for John Edwards’ first presidential campaign. Adelman, whose father, Barry Edelman, produced this year’s Golden Globes, along with a stable of other television shows, still marvels at the accessibility of powerful policy makers in Washington.

“L.A. is not an accessible town. You are either in the club or you are not. To get near anybody, there’s not a lot of happenstance involved. In Washington, it’s the complete opposite,” he says. “There is no recipe and no formula for why a certain person or issue succeeds and another one doesn’t. It’s like a hit song.”

Take the circuitous route to the top navigated by David Rubenstein, the current paragon of success for ambitious 21-year-olds heading to D.C. in search of their place in history. One of the few tycoons to make billions working his way through the ranks of public policy, Rubenstein’s story demonstrates what every Washington insider knows but never actually admits: Winning really is everything.

“I remember him from when he worked in the Carter White House as an assistant to Stuart Eizenstat,” says one former Carter White House aide. “Back then, he was poor.”

In the mid-Eighties, seven years after the Reagan Revolution sent Rubenstein and the Carter team packing, he cofounded the Carlyle Group, a global private equity firm started with backing from Reagan administration key players, then vice president George H. W. Bush and his good friend James Baker. Since then, Rubenstein has become Washington’s leading, homegrown Cosimo de’ Medici.

Last year, when the Kennedy Center celebrated the 80th anniversary of the National Symphony, Kennedy Center chairman Rubenstein brought down the house with the announcement of his $2 million gift to restore the old Concert Hall organ with a new 5,000-pipe instrument built by Casavant Frères of St-Hyacinthe, Quebec. A month later, his $10 million gift to mark the 50th anniversary of the White House Historical Association was revealed at a private reception hosted in the White House by First Lady Michelle Obama. This year, when five White House social secretaries welcomed Smithsonian Institution fans to swap stories about their days in the White House, it was in the Decatur House auditorium designed with help from Rubenstein’s endowment.

His all-star cachet is not lost on Washington’s most successful hostesses. “He’s an interesting man when you consider all he’s accomplished for the Carlyle Group. He’s not pretentious, and he has a real humility that I find very attractive,” says longtime Washington hostess Buffy Cafritz.

While racking up invitations to fancy dinner parties is not what makes Rubenstein successful, he embodies a dream resilient enough to nurture all the tamped-down egos of political aides, advance men, personal assistants and gofers who serve presidents, senators and congressmen after they win their elections.

 

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