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With Bush, the Social Swirl Comes to a Dizzying End

Washington's elite sees the president, who is not much for elegant soirees, as a party pooper.

May 26, 2003|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — At a Christmas party at the governor's mansion in Austin, Texas, then-Gov. George W. Bush was asked when he planned to leave for Washington to begin his presidency. Surveying a crowd munching on Tex-Mex food, in a room decorated with sombreros and cowboy boots, Bush replied, "I'm in no hurry. I hate parties."

Not since Harry S. Truman played poker with cronies instead of attending hostess Perle Mesta's parties has any president had such disdain for official Washington.

Up with the sun and in bed most evenings by 9:30 p.m., President Bush prefers an early dinner with friends and those in his inner political circle at the White House to the elegant soirees of the city's dressy charity balls.

Washingtonians who like to rub shoulders with power are having to content themselves with the occasional invitation to greet the president's helicopter on the White House lawn or attend a Rose Garden ceremony lauding tax cuts.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 28, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Bush ranch -- An article in Section A on Monday incorrectly stated that President Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch is in West Texas. It is in central Texas.

And when Bush does entertain, his two favorite hangouts are beyond the confines of the Beltway -- Camp David, the bucolic Maryland getaway of presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where last week he played host to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and stayed into the holiday weekend.

The Georgetown set has noticed. So unhappy are some that they have given to calling Bush a party pooper. Hurt at being excluded from the glitter and glory of a White House invitation or at not having their invitations accepted, some vented their feelings in a catty piece written last fall in W, a magazine geared to the fashion world.

"Since there's no social life at the White House, and no social life in the city, Washington as we know it is over," said Sally Quinn, wife of former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee and a hostess of note. "Washington's social scene has come to a screeching halt."

Friends and admirers argue that the Bush style of entertaining -- more Crawford ranch barbecue, less black-tie state dinner -- is more suited to the times. In the shadow of terrorism, with the economy less than robust, the idea of a lavish spread seems inappropriate.

Then, too, the passing of Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham, who died in July 2001, has also dimmed Washington's social picture. In Washington and at Martha's Vineyard, Graham was known for parties that brought partisans together over a meal. Now, many lament, the void has left the town with a more acrimonious flavor.

And, at least so far, Bush has not filled it with social entreaties to Democrats the way he did when he was governor of Texas.

Graham "was our last grande dame," said Lynda Webster, the wife of former CIA and FBI Director William Webster and a planner of social events. "She had an incredible ability to bring people together. People are trying to do it now, but they're trying too hard. She didn't have to prove anything."

The Reagans and Kennedys got it right, say those in the Washington social set, who cite their stylish party sense and ability to bring people together.

President Reagan and his wife, Nancy, reached out to social Washington before his inaugural -- holding a posh dinner for 40 of the city's leading power brokers at the now-defunct 1925 F Street Club.

In the Kennedy era, kings and poets mingled in resplendent elegance.

"What Jackie Kennedy did years ago is very different than what happens today," said Ann Stock, vice president at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. "Now, socializing is done around issues. It's message-driven, based on what's going on in the world."

Those who know Bush best say that even absent a war or a recession, he would prefer his own circle of familiar faces in a quiet setting. He no longer drinks alcohol, and he is studious about his exercise regimen and diet (although Anne Johnson, a Bush friend and director of the State Department's Art in Embassies program, said he gained 7 pounds during the Iraq war, comforted by the White House pastry chef's cookies).

And then there's the issue of political incompatibility. A fanatic about rewarding loyalty, Bush may resent a town that he sensed defeated his father.

Noelia Rodriguez, Laura Bush's press secretary, said the Bushes "are close to their friends and enjoy spending time with their family. That's always been their style. It's a model for all of us. They talk about the value of friendship. They walk the talk."

And whenever he can, Bush gets out of Dodge.

So far, in the 2 1/2 years of his presidency, according to Los Angeles Times records, Bush has been to Crawford nearly two dozen times, and he has visited Camp David about 60 times. He already has outpaced President Reagan's record of visits to his beloved Rancho del Cielo in Santa Barbara.

The Reagans are credited with reaching out to Washington in ways that Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter, did not.

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