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Former Time Magazine Washington bureau chief Jay Carney, now assistant to Vice President Joe Biden (never one to miss a chance to greet a new friend), admits he got his share of desperate phone calls from anxious guests begging for their coveted moment of presidential face time. “Grip-and-grin photographers for hundreds of people,” he shrugs. “It’s well known the President doesn’t like that. But the White House musical events, they are something new the President and First Lady have started. The party for Sir Paul McCartney was the best party I’ve ever been to. And the Obamas have given more state dinners than Bush, who only gave one in his first year.” (Where there’s no red velvet rope.)
Besides, while socialites might be sitting out this administration, there are still dozens of savvy insiders vying to adjust to the Obama White House’s new entertaining protocols. One Embassy Row hostess, who gave dozens of black-tie parties before the Obamas came to town, was horrified to be asked if an upcoming dinner was black tie.
“No, no, no,” she gasps. “It’s cocktail attire. This administration does not like black tie. You are more likely to get them if you do cocktail dress.”
Interior designer Victor Shargai, who has been to several Obama White House parties, has no problems with rope lines. “It helps to keep order more than anything else,” he says, pointing to the Obamas’ Halloween party, where the red velvet rope worked just fine. As chairman of the Helen Hayes Awards, Shargai worked with local actors invited to dress up in costume to entertain the kids. “When you see these kids’ faces and the parents, you see people who are not jaded, who aren’t coming to the White House with certain expectations,” he says.
Then there are those D.C. veterans who are fed up with the whole notion of any kind of Washington high society. To them, the rope line is just the ticket to combat the city’s ever-expanding sense of entitlement.
Edwin Chen, former president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, recalls, “The club always hosts a private party for 100 special, invited guests just before the big dinner. When the President and First Lady arrive, they fill the room with a crush of people. For the duration of the reception, you have people who stay in their face and do not give others a chance.”
Chen, who served as White House senior correspondent for Bloomberg News in May when he ran the dinner, was happy to make some changes. “The rope line created a sense of order and allowed enough people in the room to have their picture taken with the President and First Lady. Everything moved quickly, and the dinner ended early, which was how I planned it. The White House liked it very much.”
But how about all the White House bureau chiefs, correspondents and visiting New York publishers?
“I didn’t really care,’’ says Chen — who now promotes Hollywood’s favorite environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council — and no longer works for Bloomberg.