The Alfalfa Club’s annual dinner is a dazzling collection of the very rich and very famous who get together late in January to mix and mingle over jokes and drinks and bask in each others’ glory. Last night was no exception. The high-wattage assemblage—250 members, 400 guests (many winging in on their private jets, with Barbara Walters hooking a ride with Donald Marron, head of Lightyear Capital, and David Rockefeller flying in with his longtime assistant)—dined on the usual fare: lobster in puff pastry (the lobster keeps shrinking each year), and surf and turf accompanied by red and white Mondavi Family wine.
Between courses people jammed the aisles, cruising the crowded ballroom to schmooze with a cornucopia of well-known names and faces. Spotted in the throng: Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas, Warren Buffett, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Senator John McCain.
An air of camaraderie was palpable among the predominantly male elite—women were only admitted in 1994—who have played golf and wheeled and dealed together for years. For some, it was a coffee klatch of sorts, a mini reunion for members of the Bush White House. Since President Obama declined to attend, the stars of the evening were Bush kin (Jeb, Marvin, and Doro Bush also joined the party). George Herbert Walker Bush and Barbara are faithful attendees. He was presented with a special Alfalfa medallion for a lifetime of civility, good cheer, and good fellowship. (Two years ago, Sarah Palin was seated next to Barbara on the dais, and though they chatted amiably at first, things seemed to grow a bit frosty as the evening wore on.) George W. Bush made his first appearance at a Washington soiree since his departure in 2009.
This was his crowd—the grand pooh-bahs of big money, big business—titans of industry, heads of banks and financial institutions, the who’s who of corporate America—and he relished every moment of the festivities. ( In an interview on C-SPAN this weekend he said he was finished with politics and found his post-presidential life “very comfortable” and “somewhat liberating.”)
Rounding out the Bush contingent: James Baker, Donald Rumsfeld, who was talking up his new book, Hank Paulson, Colin Powell, and a much slimmer Dick Cheney, who is finishing a memoir and was surrounded by a gaggle of well-wishers.
Along with the frivolity, the main topic was the violent protests engulfing Egypt. Henry Kissinger said he was “very, very concerned” and feared a “radical takeover.” “The best possible scenario is a secular takeover, but I think that’s in doubt,” he said. Maine Senator Susan Collins agreed: “Egypt is our ally and was the source of relative stability, if they topple Mubarak we don’t know what the consequences will be. It could be the Muslim Brotherhood. I am very worried, but I think the administration has set the right tone.”
Sandra Day O’Connor gaveled the dinner to order and came up with a surprising reference about the club being led “by a couple of boobs.” “Did I say that?” she queried.
And Scott Brown, rookie senator from Massachusetts, told me he just had spoken with a friend in Cairo whose pizza parlors had been totally destroyed. “He was asking for help,” said Brown, who also voiced concern over the worsening situation. (An amusing moment involving Brown occurred when he spotted Phil Donahue in the hallway. Brown went up to Donahue to remind the legendary talk show host he had been on his show when he had appeared as a Cosmo centerfold. “I knew right away he was a U.S. senator, but I had completely forgotten about that show,” said Donahue.
When everyone finally took their seats, there was a formula to the dinner, which was founded in 1913 by four southern gentlemen. Over copious amounts of bourbon and branch water at D.C.’s Willard Hotel they decided, for no particular reason, to celebrate the birthday of Robert E. Lee on January 19, and establish a club without a clubhouse. They called it the Alfalfa, because little of the plant is visible above ground, yet its roots are continually searching for liquid refreshment. “People come to knock back good wine and have a good time,” explained Landon Parvin, a much sought-after speechwriter. “They also know they are not dealing with underlings and they have the chance to talk to each other unfiltered. I don’t think they have a clue they are celebrating the birthday of the Confederate General.”
The four-hour marathon ritual always includes the Marine band, presentation of the colors, the Star Spangled Banner, and a speech by the outgoing president. This year, that was Senator Mark Warner, who presented the new Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, a tearful type, with a box of Kleenex, and introduced the organization’s first female member and president, Sandra Day O’Connor. The former Supreme Court Justice gaveled the dinner to order, tossed off several one-liners (“Now the old boys' club has become an old girls' club”) and came up with a surprising reference about the club being led “by a couple of boobs.” “Did I say that?” she queried as the audience groaned. Finally, she quoted her late husband, John. “You don’t have to have a drink to have a good time, but why take the chance?”
Then she turned things over to crop reporter James Symington, who presented the group of “pitiful new sprouts,” which included bestselling author P.J. O’Rourke, baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., Chairman of Pepsico Indra Nooyi, and Jamie Dimon, CEO and chair of JP Morgan Chase.
Following this enthusiastic induction was the first startling break in the history of the venerable institution. The Alfalfa’s candidate for president of the U.S. did not rise, as usual, to give an acceptance scripted by a high-priced wordsmith. Instead, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander defied precedence by singing and playing the piano. He brought down the house by spoofing a variety of politicians, including Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Joe Biden, and Mike Huckabee, and creating new lyrics to the tunes of “These Are a Few of my Favorite Things,” “It Was a Very Good Year” and “My Kind of Town.”
Finally, new White House Chief of Staff William Daley substituted for President Obama and closed out the evening by lauding public service. (Those miffed by the absence of the commander in chief for two years straight seemed somewhat mollified.)
As I left the dinner, a member of the Alfalfa was at the door offering an explanation for the club’s existence.
“Look,” he said to an inquiring female guest. “We have no cause, we have no purpose. We just get together on a grim winter evening and have fun. We’re not feeding the poor, we’re feeding the rich.”
Sandra McElwaine is a Washington Correspondent for The Daily Beast. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People, and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. She has also written for The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.