Laughter in the Dark

At Washington's Alfalfa Club dinner for the D.C. and corporate elite on Saturday night, there was nothing more bonding than fear.

Washington’s Alfalfa Club dinner is a populist’s nightmare. The most exalted members of the political and corporate establishment don their tuxedos, shut the doors against the hoi polloi, and get together for an evening of hard liquor, soft jokes, and smug chuckles.

Maybe it’s the gargantuan economic disaster or the Obama revolution or both, but on Saturday night in the ballroom at the Capital Hilton, the vibe was more purposeful solidarity than self-satisfied smugness. It felt a little like the days after 9/11, when togetherness briefly replaced one-upmanship. I guess there is nothing more bonding than fear.

“I see Chief Justice Roberts is here to administer my daily oath of office,” Obama teased.

The Alfalfa—a 200-member club whose only activity is this yearly off-the-record dinner—was founded in 1913 by a bunch of white male Southern pols to pay tribute to the Confederacy’s biggest hero. Blacks were kept out till the 1970s, women till the 1990s. President Obama wryly noted the irony. “This dinner began almost one hundred years ago as a way to celebrate the birthday of General Robert E. Lee,” the new president said in remarks released by the White House. “If he were here with us tonight, the general would be 202 years old. And very confused.”

This was a room whose head table of 45 guests groaned with power. Not just one president, but two: Bush 41 was up there, with the indomitable Bar down at the other end, seated beside Sarah Palin, who is surprisingly slight and dainty in real life, with star-struck glistening eyes. Chief Justice John Roberts was next to the president (“I see Chief Justice Roberts is here to administer my daily oath of office,” Obama teased him in his remarks). Further down was the new treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, who looks about 15 years old. He gave a deep schoolboy blush when Obama made a tax joke. Michelle Obama, sitting next to Madeleine Albright, was amazingly glamorous. She wore a tight scarlet satin gown and huge dangly earrings that brought a touch of Hollywood sheen to her serious expression when the Marine band struck up.

The 9/11 moment came when the flags unfurled and the national anthem played. The power networking and the black-tie bonhomie didn't just pause; they yielded to something akin to solemn fervor. Some in that room had fought and bled under those flags—Bush senior and Senator John McCain for a start, as well as the many retired generals and admirals who are longstanding Alfalfa members. But I also saw hip-hopper Russell Simmons with his hand over his heart, along with CEOs whose names, for all we know, are the next to become cuss words in the media.

Public life has become so gladiatorial. Every day another reputation bites the dust. In our shock at the way things have turned out, we wonder if there is anyone left in charge who's not a charlatan or a fool. But on this night in Washington, these same people in charge—from both sides of the aisle—were not pretending to know any more than the rest of us. Their body armor was removed. Their game faces were retired. Senator McCain was urbane. He presented the Alfalfa Club’s next candidate for mock president of the United States: Vernon E. Jordan, “the Washington insider,” as McCain put it, “who has advised every president since Lyndon Johnson. Gee, I wish he could have advised me.” And Jordan, after a comic tour de force in a Lincolnesque stovepipe hat that made him look even droller than usual, ended his speech with a moving vignette of his tears on election night as he watched a fellow African-American win the real presidency of the United States.

In the Bush years, the American flag was spattered in mud. We endured being hated so long by the rest of the world that until the economy collapsed there was an expectation that, come January 2009, the clouds would lift and the sun would shine. Instead, a deep, impenetrable fog has rolled in and the only pilot light is the slim, graceful young man sitting in the guest of honor’s seat on the Alfalfa Club’s dais who only 30 years ago would not even have been allowed in.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown. She has written for numerous publications, including The Times of London, The Spectator, and The Washington Post.