WASHINGTON — Everything in Washington these days seems to be about China. Espionage by China, the bombing of China's embassy and now White House china. As in presidential porcelain.
An exhibit of china used by presidents dating back to George Washington opened the other day at the Woodrow Wilson House, a small museum tucked behind Embassy Row. The pretty plates and cups and the controversies they spawned instruct as much about Washington's fecund social life--where for decades realpolitik took place over good china--as they do about American decorative arts.
First Lady Edith Wilson was the first White House occupant to insist that the dishes--in fact, all goods used in the president's house--be American-made. Rather than turn to Haviland or Wedgewood, in 1918 she bought 120 cobalt blue and gold settings from the Lenox Co. of New Jersey, where her husband had been governor.
Nancy Reagan got a lot of heat for doing the same thing 64 years later. She commissioned Lenox to make a scarlet and gold service for 220. The good stuff in the cupboards was chipped, and Mrs. Reagan had the $210,399 cost privately covered. But still she was lambasted for spending big when her husband was advocating fiscal conservatism.
You want to talk china scandal? Almost every president--or his wife--has had one.
The significance of these perennial tempests goes far beyond the quality of White House plates and teapots. For one thing, it reveals how the same Americans who want their president to live with the dignity of royalty are loath to spend too many taxpayer dollars on regal splendor.
And, not to be ignored, the china flaps demonstrate official Washington's grand capacity to obsess over the smallest trivia. (And you thought Washington overdid the stained blue dress.)
Even the revered Eleanor Roosevelt was criticized for incorporating feathers and roses, symbols on the Roosevelt family crest, into her choice for White House dinnerware. And Rutherford B. Hayes was chewed out for introducing china decorated with lobsters, fish and birds because it forced diners to stare back at pictures of animals they had just eaten. Mary Todd Lincoln's choice of a bright purple dinner service was considered too regal for American tastes, and "Honest Abe" was accused of padding a government bill to cover the cost of a matching set Mrs. Lincoln bought for personal use. In truth, her husband had written a personal check for the dishes.
Even Hollywood understands the role china plays in the grand Washington drama. In the movie "The American President," Annette Bening plays a lobbyist who comes under the sway of the president, played by Michael Douglas, after they tour the White House.
"This is the dish room," Douglas says, leading Bening into the room established by Mrs. Wilson to display the historic collection. "It's not the dish room," she retorts. "It's the china room." It's also where they first kiss.
Which brings us back to the Washington social scene and how it has changed.
These days, the most important dish over which political insights get swapped these days is a satellite dish. The city's culture of bipartisan socializing has been replaced by partisan cross-fire. Republicans and Democrats and the journalists who dog them have replaced civil talk over sirloin and Wedgewood with watching each other or themselves over the airwaves in the wee hours of the night. Real business gets done on the Internet, on television and, if you're lucky, over paper plates in Senate back-rooms.
Still, the Washington elite remains consumed with who gets to eat off the president's china. The morning after a White House state dinner, the city's wannabes turn to the Washington Post to study the agate-type guest list.
When Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji came here last month, for example, just as interesting as the mounting political tensions between the countries was who had been invited to the dinner: which lobbyists and CEOs eager to do business with China were there, which Clinton friends or movie stars were invited as a sign of who's up and who's down.
But those dinners are rare. You don't see a lot of red and white plates, gold flatware and finger bowls like they used at the state dinner for Zhu outside the White House anymore. Today, even in Georgetown's swankiest homes, the party dishes are rented.
A lot of people would like to blame the Reagans. While she focused on china--even trying out different shades of red by comparing samples on the State Dining Room table by candlelight--he only wanted to eat off trays on his lap in front of the television set. But the fact is Washington suffers from cocooning like the rest of America, and people here do not dine out together much--except for money. (Read: China fund-raising scandal.)
An invitation to an intimate dinner is so rare that Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, explained his presence amid the mob at this year's White House correspondents' dinner by saying that he just doesn't get out much anymore.