In March 2001, McElveen-Hunter was invited to a White House luncheon for 25 top business leaders. “Hank Greenberg [then chairman of AIG] was there, and Jack Welch [then chairman of General Electric],” recalls McElveen-Hunter, originally the only female guest invited. Before the event, she called the White House social office, this time volunteering to bring along two other women: Muriel Siebert, the first female to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, and Linnet Deily of Charles Schwab & Co.
It was clearly a successful networking lunch: Bush subsequently asked McElveen-Hunter to be his ambassador to Finland before naming her chairman of the Red Cross in 2004, and reappointing her in 2007. He also tapped Deily to serve from 2001 to 2005 as deputy U.S. Trade Representative and U.S. ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Geneva.
But it’s a new team in town now, and McElveen-Hunter is doing her best to boost the Obama administration — or at least its profile in Washington’s cultural communities.
“I have this wonderful gift of this house, and it’s my privilege to share it,” she says, elegantly clad in a Peggy Jennings cream silk suit with hand-painted, grapefruit-size peach flowers. Sitting in her green-sponged dining room, she talks about that special relationship as guests drift home after her party for the Harmon Center for the Arts’ “Welcome to Washington” event and to honor designer Steven Stolman, who started the Ovation Society to raise funds for the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, which started June 5 and runs until Monday. This year’s festival honors New Orleans, where Rogers’ late father served as city councilman.
And while Rogers wasn’t present at that event, clearly McElveen-Hunter is able to work her ways with the new administration: the festival concludes Monday with a concert at the Kennedy Center honoring Ellis Marsalis and New Orleans Jazz, with performances by sons Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason, along with Harry Connick Jr. and Dr. Billy Taylor. That morning, as part of the festival, the President and First Lady are planning to host a private performance at the White House by Cuban Grammy winner Paquito D’Rivera.
It wasn’t the first time McElveen-Hunter worked her magic either. The reception in her home took place only a week before for the “Welcome to Washington” show, which was organized by Shakespeare Theatre artistic director Michael Kahn and featured performances by 10 local theatrical companies. Rogers liked the idea, and with a few days to go, word arrived that the First Lady would attend.
And not all of McElveen-Hunter’s efforts are so high profile. After the reception for “Welcome to Washington” and the jazz festival, she held a dinner party for eight people to meet with Rogers and hear her views on the Obama administration and the arts. Charlie Fishman, chairman of the jazz festival and the former manager for the late Dizzy Gillespie, describes the dinner as “the start of something new. The beautiful thing of what Bonnie did at Desirée’s request was to have a reception at her house, where Desirée addressed the arts community. That was the first time in my memory, and I’ve lived in D.C. since 1976, that an administration reached out to the arts community. That was a very uplifting signal.”
Rebecca Medrano, co-founder with her husband of the 33-year-old GALA Hispanic Theatre, agrees. Medrano received her invitation to the dinner via McElveen-Hunter’s North Carolina office, where her assistants pitch in to help with her D.C. political efforts. “Michael Kaiser [president of the Kennedy Center] was there and so was Septime Webre [creative director of the Washington Ballet],” recalls Medrano. “Desirée was very eloquent. She’s trying to do new things — understanding that Washington is a very tradition-bound city.”