Clintons heading for New Year retreat At 'house party,' sober talk is king

December 27, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Staff Writer

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- It may be the only time all year that U.S Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun wears a name tag the size of a large index card that says in big, bold letters: HARRY.

Likewise, it will probably be the only time this year that the president-elect will pin to his jacket an ID informing people that, Hello, he's BILL.

The casual name tags, required for justices, senators, governors, chief executive officers and presidents-elect alike, are one of the traditions of "Renaissance Weekend," the annual holiday retreat for the nation's best and brightest -- and their children -- that the Clintons will attend this week in Hilton Head, S.C., as they have done every New Year weekend for the past eight years.

Mr. Clinton and his family arrive tomorrow, several days before the retreat of 1,500 people begins.

Renaissance founder and host Philip Lader calls his gathering a "house party." But the four-day retreat is short on partying -- at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, everyone joins hands, sings "Auld Lang Syne" and "God Bless America" and hugs -- and long on talk.

Social policy talk. Economics talk. Legal talk. Self-examination talk. This year, more than 200 organized talks.

Clearly, it is Bill Clinton's kind of house party.

Although nonpartisan, the gold-plated Renaissance group -- started in 1981 by the South Carolina businessman and his wife, Linda, who invited 60 families for the New Year weekend to share ideas instead of noisemakers and party hats -- has become one of the most important of Mr. Clinton's many networks.

A virtual "Who's Who" come to life, the exclusive society includes many of Mr. Clinton's Oxford chums, fellow governors past and present, numerous members of Congress and the intelligentsia from the worlds of business, government, academia, science, religion, the news media, the arts.

Many members of Mr. Clinton's administration in the making -- Secretary of Education-designate Richard W. Riley, policy adviser Bruce Reed, transition board member and former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin, for instance -- are Renaissance regulars.

Others in the eclectic group include Ted Sorenson, a former adviser to John F. Kennedy; biophysicist Estelle Ramey; Peggy xTC Noonan, a speech writer for former President Ronald Reagan and President Bush; tennis star Stan Smith; former Miss America Phyllis George; humor columnist Art Buchwald, Education Secretary Lamar Alexander; Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund; Fortune editor Marshall Loeb; and former Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh.

"There are normal people there, too," claims Jane Condon, a New York comedian who, with her husband, Ken Bartels, a real estate investment banker, has been an invited guest since 1986.

But not many.

Mr. Lader, a principal developer of Hilton Head who once ran for governor of South Carolina and is now president of Bond University in Australia, defines his vision for the group this way:

"An extended family of gifted individuals who share commitment to the transforming power of ideas and relationships and . . . gather informally with the objective of personal and national renewal."

This is an old boy network for the Clinton generation: The old boys are with their families, and networking is done during early-morning jogs rather than late-night scotch-fests.

The Laders, who started the tradition after deciding New Year's should be a time for reflection rather than frivolous merriment, determine the guest list, receiving recommendations for new participants each year.

More than 100 families are on the waiting list, and this year, not surprisingly, the Laders been receiving 50 inquiries a day from people who want to get themselves invited.

Although all ages attend, paying their way plus a registration fee of roughly $800 per couple, there is a baby-boom emphasis on introspection, self-improvement and family.

Along with panels on such subjects as "Global Economic Wars" and "Recent Breakthroughs in Science and Medicine" are numerous discussion groups in the "Big Chill" mode, such as "Building an Inner Life," "You'd Never Guess: What Only My Friends Know About Me," "How Grade-A Professionals Can Avoid F's as Parents" and "Mid-life Passages."

Somehow, being cloistered in conference rooms at the Hyatt hotel -- with their hair down and the ironclad agreement that everything is off-the-record -- brings out the true confessions of CEOs and senators.

"People tend to open up at this in a personal way," says Cynthia Schneider, an art history professor at Georgetown University who has been attending for 10 years. "Somehow, all these people manage to forget who they are in real life."

She remembers attending a panel five years ago on "What I Learned From My Parents" when the then-governor of Arkansas talked about his family life.

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