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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Tammy Haddad has a mission — to save the Washington social scene by making it safe for people who don’t want to get along.
“To do a dinner party in this day and age, you have to chose between Democrats and Republicans,” says the 20-year veteran television producer who pioneered participation journalism before the term social media changed the world. Haddad’s solution: “I don’t do dinner parties. I try to help friends. Everyone needs Washington, and everyone does business in here.”
In a time of stock market yo-yos, credit downgrades, high unemployment and inter-party vitriol that some observers have compared to the days of the Civil War, one who throws parties in the nation’s capital might seem rather irrelevant. But the party circuit has long been a key to breaking out of partisan gridlock. And Haddad, who learned her way around town lining up sparring partners for CNN talk show host Larry King, is not afraid of a good dust up.
“I do a party like a TV shoot,” she says. “And then I take it live to the Internet.”
In addition to advising clients including Google, HBO and Bloomberg via her own consultancy firm Haddad Media, the 6-foot-tall, barrel-voiced Haddad turns book parties for pals like President Reagan’s son Ron into political debates. She nudges self-absorbed guests to stop eating, drinking and gossiping and instead to start tweeting out their ideas. If people aren’t paying attention to her causes, she’ll pick up a microphone, call out the names of the richest people in the room and in a booming voice, challenge them to “man up,” open their checkbooks and volunteer. Behind the scenes, she’s even tutored antisocial Obama activists in the fine art of note writing.
What hostesses need to understand, she explains, is that the new world of social media renders exclusive Washington dinner parties superfluous and obsolete.
“In the old days you went to a dinner party to hear what someone important had to say before anyone else went to their press conference,” she says. “Now everyone has already tweeted everything out before they sit down to eat.”
Haddad is willing to take risks in a world where, common wisdom to the contrary, what her guests want most is a way to confront their opponents without actually having to share a meal with them.
“Tammy’s parties are like a subway stop for people who work 24-7,’’ says Fox News host Greta Van Susteren, whose network spends much of that news cycle slamming the White House. “I like to coast in to Tammy’s parties at the tail end. It’s not a snooty Georgetown salon with everyone sitting around. It’s much more unscripted.”
Van Susteren remembers bumping into Anita Dunn back when Dunn served as head of the Obama White House communications office. “Someone from Fox had been fighting with her all day,” says Van Susteren, referring to Neil Cavuto’s rant after Dunn, interviewed on CNN, called Fox “a wing of the Republican Party” and “not a news network at this point.”
“We ended up having a great conversation,” Van Susteren recalls of her supposed adversary. “Tammy enables all of us to do a better job.’’
Among Haddad’s qualities is her obsession to connect people, boost their causes, and tap into the Washington social scene. No easy task with the insular Obama crowd.
“The Obama group all worked together in Chicago. So when they moved from Chicago to Washington, they acted as a sustaining organism,” she concedes.
Susan Axelrod, wife of David Axelrod, President Obama’s closest adviser, admits that before she met Haddad, attending or hosting a Washington social event was the last thing she wanted to do. That was before Haddad saw Axelrod honored on the “Today” show as Mother of the Year and, determined to help her, picked up the telephone.
“Tammy totally respects that the Washington social world is not my world,” says Axelrod, whose daughter has battled epilepsy from infancy. “She gets that I’m not impressed with these people. But then she’ll say, ‘This is someone to help you, and so you need to come to this dinner, then write them a note, and this is what you should say.’”
As chairman of Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy, Axelrod presented Haddad with the 2010 Friend of CURE Award at a party co-hosted by Haddad’s good friend Connie Milstein, Countess de La Haye Saint Hilaire, who owns the Jefferson Hotel, and is a CURE board member. The day after the party, the titled hotelier pledged a $500,000, two-year challenge grant to support epilepsy research.
Haddad launched her social career in 1993 when she gave her first White House Correspondents predinner brunch. The garden party made news when Barbra Streisand, miffed at a question from a New York Times reporter, stormed out of Haddad’s backyard. That same year, Haddad left CNN to join “Today” in New York, where she met her husband Ted Greenberg, a federal prosecutor.
“He read about me in the newspaper and called,” she says. “That was three months before I moved to Los Angeles to work for David Letterman’s production company producing ‘The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder.’” Greenberg now works advising the World Bank and Interpol tracing illegal money transfers. The couple has two children — Rachel, 12, and David, 10.
This year, the family decided to move their Correspondents predinner brunch to the former home of late Washington Post publisher and social doyenne Katharine Graham, where Haddad and her co-host David Adler feted 650 guests, including Sarah Palin, the Axelrods and Rupert and Wendi Murdoch. In addition to hosting the party, Haddad covered it on her blog.
Her decision to leave television and launch Haddad Media came in 2007 when she parted company with MSNBC after four years producing Chris Matthews’ show “Hardball.” In the midst of a national presidential campaign, she signed up clients including Newsweek and National Journal (both are no longer clients). Then she invested in a handheld video camera and began taking every job that came her way. In addition to advising on political campaign coverage, she hit the party circuit churning out “TamCam” reports and airing them on the Daily Beast and Newsweek’s Web pages.
For the upcoming presidential election, Haddad is helping to advise Google in its new partnership with old media stalwart the Des Moines Register to host the Jan. 12 Republican presidential candidate debates in Des Moines.