How big is Barack Obama right now?
Even the well-heeled, well-tailored and well-connected members of the Alfalfa Club all but tripped over their patent leather shoes and floor-length gowns to get a moment Saturday night with the man who happens to be both the new president and world’s most buzzed-about living figure.
Now in its 96th year, the 200-member club has one mission: to put on a black tie dinner in Washington on the last Saturday in January where some of the most powerful figures in politics and commerce can mingle and jocularly nominate one of their own to run for President of the United States—all out of the prying eyes of the press, who are forced to rely on second-hand accounts from those in the room.
Three of the faux nominees have actually gone on to win the real thing, which goes a long way toward indicating what sort of club this is. Think ambassadors, Supreme Court justices, media magnates, the Bush family and Henry Kissinger. To put it in Obama—er Lincoln—terms, it’s a soiree of the elite, by the elite and for the elite. Star-struck they’re not.
Yet in a breach of protocol at an event where protocol is everything, a long line of club members and guests formed to shake Obama’s hand before he spoke. Titans of journalism (Donald Graham) politics ( Jane Harman) and business (Henry Kravis and Michael Dell) all paid homage.
Even Fred Malek, a longtime GOP fundraiser and John McCain’s campaign co-chairman, and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin made sure to make their way over to greet the president.
Such a scene is out of character at the Alfafa, but then for a club originally founded to celebrate the birthday of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee the mere presence of a black president made for a different kind of evening.
“If he were here with us tonight, the General would be 202 years old,” Obama mused in his speech, confronting the unlikely moment. “And very confused.”
But Change has come to Washington, and the Alfalfas may not carry the swat they once did—something Obama wasn’t shy about good-naturedly pointing out.
“In just the first few weeks, I’ve had to engage in some of the toughest diplomacy of my life,” he said. “And that was just to keep my Blackberry. I finally agreed to limit the number of people who could email me. It’s a very exclusive list. How exclusive? Everyone look at the person sitting on your left. Now look at the person sitting on your right. None of you have my email address.”
But Obama spread the wealth, so to speak, taking care to gently tweak himself.
Perhaps suggesting that his frequent invocations of Lincoln were justified, the second Illinoisan to become president noted of the first: “He never drew crowds like that.”
To Vernon Jordan, the power lawyer who won this year’s honor as Alfafa's presidential nominee, Obama observed: “Just because a guy can give great speeches doesn’t mean he’s going to be a great president.”
Of course this being a political crowd in a political town after the ultimate political year, Obama got in a few campaign yuks.
Looking to Joe Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-independent-turned McCain supporter, Obama told the Connecticut senator he had no hard feelings.
The door is always open, Obama assured Lieberman, who observes the Sabbath, so feel to drop by—any Saturday afternoon.
To Palin, Obama expressed surprise to see her with such members of the Washington elite she railed against during the campaign. Or, as he termed it in language Palin is familiar with, “palling around with this crew.”
An era of New Politics or not, the Alfalfas are still influential enough to command a visit from the president, his first banquet duty since taking office, and subject him to watching the club’s clubby rituals and Friar’s club-style humor.
Thankfully for Obama, much of it came at the expense of that club that really has fallen on hard times: the Republicans.
Lieberman, the outgoing Alfalfa President, took notice of Palin, his one-time rival to be John McCain’s running mate.
His good friend the Arizona senator called during the veep search, Lieberman explained, to break the bad news: he needed more than a pretty face on the ticket.
Bada-chhhhhhh – thanks, folks.
Sen. Kit Bond, the Missouri Republican who is retiring next year, took the oath of office as the club’s new president and immediately proposed a bailout.
A “Troubled Alfafan Rescue Fund,” he called it.
Bond actually had a possible explanation for the real financial crisis: John McCain.
The former GOP presidential nominee’s eight homes might have been the cause of the housing bubble, Bond quipped.
Still, there was no question of who was at the center of attention at the Capital Hilton, where tourists and locals huddled in the lobby, bar and across 16th St. for a glimpse.
“I think it reflects the sentiment across America,” said John Warner, the just-retired Virginia senator who has seen many presidents come and in his 40th year as an Alfalfa member. “It’s good, it’s good.”
Another long-time observer of the Washington scene said he hadn’t seen anything like it in the capital.
“It’s not only just in D.C., it’s throughout the country and quite possibly the world,” said John Riggins, late of the Washington Redskins backfield. “Not only is he wanting change, it’s the embodiment of change.”
Even Riggo is on message.