WASHINGTON, D.C. — Dining with the President is losing its cachet.
Six current and former White House social secretaries sat around Tuesday night at the Decatur House overlooking Lafayette Square here swapping stories of mayhem and mirth behind the scenes at the White House. One conclusion? People just don’t want to go to state dinners as much as they used to.
"You’d be surprised how people do not respond to White House invitations anymore,’’ confided Lea Berman, Laura Bush’s former social secretary. "Everyone has become so partisan. If you get invited to the White House even if you hate the person, this is the President of the United States and you should just go.’’
Bess Abel, social secretary to Lyndon Johnson, a president known for evoking strong reactions and presiding over the nation during a very fractious time, disagreed. "Or don’t go,’’ she called out. "And make room for someone else to be invited and make a miracle.’’
Part of the problem could be the way those invitations are extended these days. While the Obamas have for now agreed to keep sending out formal invitations penned by social office calligraphers on stiff ecru stationery for state dinners, they've substituted Evites for most other White House events.
"People love to receive elegant White House invitations. The White House calligraphers do a wonderful job. This is a fine art. Evites are ok but they are not the same,’’ said Capricia Penavic Marshall.
Jeremy Bernard got the message, and it’s one he would rather avoid. "We do send out Evites to big events and then we try to hand out invitations to people when they arrive,’’ he said. But when the panel ended, he was asked about the future of handwritten invitations, he made a dash for the door. "I’m sorry, I have to go.’’
The panel took place right after the Obamas’ much-publicized, warm and fuzzy East Room reception to unveil the portraits of George and Laura Bush. Both events are part of the celebration of the White House Historical Association’s 50th year, which sponsored the panel along with the Smithsonian Assocation.
White House courtiers on opposing teams did find something to agree on: Guests to the White House can be surprisingly light fingered. The first round of storytelling went to Lea Berman, Laura Bush’s social secretary and a diehard Mitt Romney supporter. During the Bush years, she explained, state dinner guests often pocketed White House place card holders used to display the name cards arranged around tables to let people know where to sit. "And those place cardholders are very expensive,’’ she declared.
"They still do,’’ piped up Obama aide Bernard, prompting Berman to offer a tip to the Obama social team on how to avoid the wastage. "You need to have the butlers collect the holders after everyone is seated and leave the place cards on the table for guests to take home as souvenirs,’’ she explained.
Bernard went on to tell guests about one item on his resume that has helped in his new job replacing two former White House social secretaries Desiree Rogers (his high profile predecessor whosename never came up) and Julianna Smoot , deputy manager of the Obama 2012 campaign, whose name did. "I was a caterer waiter in college and I worked at all different functions. At one of my first events, Princess Diana was a guest. I watched the luxury of the service and that plays a role in how I deal with things day to day,’’ he said.
Reagan Social Secretary Mabel "Muffie’’ Hobart Wentworth Brandon Cabot, who flew in from Boston for the event (remembered famously for her proclamation of a White House table cloth crisis) bridled over the introduction served up by panel moderator Mike McCurry to introduce her collegue Capricia Penavic Marshall.
McCurry and Marshall worked together in the Clinton White House, where he served as press secretary and she served as social secretary. Introducing her to the crowd, as the current White House chief of protocol he said, "You now have a bigger job.’’ The comment hit a nerve, inadvertently revealing how the president’s staff can patronize the social side of the White House, known as the First Lady’s team or the East Wing staff.
"Now wait just a minute,’’ sniffed Cabot.
Maria Downs, social secretary to Betty Ford, picked up on the point, remembering that when Betty Ford’s White House state dinners started to win rave reviews, "the boys in the West Wing wanted to take over the guest list,’’ she said adding, "The guest list belongs to the First Lady.’’