At dinners, first hostess puts all parties at ease

September 22, 1993|By Susan Watters | Susan Watters,Contributing Writer Fairchild Publications

The Clinton administration may be lurching from one political issue to another, but on an especially treacherous bit of turf -- the White House dinner party -- the Clintons are smooth operators.

Using a down-home, informal but very canny approach, Hillary Rodham Clinton is recouping political capital with a clever mix of guests and a style that takes some of the starch out of stuffed-shirt Washington entertaining.

White House invitations now arrive just a few days in advance, the guest lists are as varied as the party settings, the president loves to show off his study to whoever is around, and rarely is there a guest of honor.

Fussy diplomats and socialites accustomed to rigorously scheduled state dinners don't get it. Sharp Washingtonians do.

Casual never means purposeless in this younger, more spontaneous White House, according to guests who have admired not only the seamless organization but the smart and sensitive selection of who should meet whom.

"So the recession isn't solved, and Bosnia is still a battlefield," observes one corporate heavyweight who has dined with the Clintons. "But the way they are bringing people together is really savvy. You find Alan Simpson next to David Geffen. Yo-Yo Ma next to Dan Burke. It gives me a little bit of hope that they can eventually straighten themselves out."

A roomful of "people we know and people we want to get to know, people who are doing something interesting or noteworthy

in our country or in business" is her priority, says the first lady, sitting in the Red Room one recent evening just half an hour before greeting guests at the foot of the Grand Staircase.

And although the Clintons have yet to give a formal state dinner -- a lapse that would have appalled the Reagans and mystified the Bushes -- they have made up for it in other ways.

According to the White House, Bill and Hillary had 37,000 guests at 137 events -- not including things such as the Easter Egg Hunt -- from January to June. "Someone told me we already have entertained more people than some presidents did in their whole term," Hillary Clinton says.

Wearing a black, mid-calf St. John knit dress with rhinestone buttons, she is about to give a private dinner for 48, one of a series that have set the tone for the new informality at the White House.

These smaller dinners, where guests can get to know one another on a more intimate scale and even leave before the first couple if they feel like it, didn't happen by default.

"Mrs. Clinton decided on them in January before coming to the White House, and she started planning them in February," says Lisa Caputo, the first lady's press secretary.

"It's smart. It's sharing the aura of the White House. The biggest thing missing from politics in the last 20 years is off-the-record face time, getting to know people," says NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert. "This is a win-win situation, although it must be exhausting for them."

Converting foes into fans

Why no formal state dinners, which used to be the ultimate Washington invitation?

"The State Department thought it was better for the president to get to know the world leaders he didn't know in more businesslike working sessions," Mrs. Clinton says.

"State dinners are so big you never get to talk to anyone," says Charlie Peters, the acerbic editor of the Washington Monthly, who went to a smaller White House dinner convinced that he did not like Hillary Clinton very much at all. Now he's a fan.

"She conned me totally," he says. "She's totally charming, she seemed very spontaneous, with a fun glint in her eye."

Rewarding loyalty is clearly not what Clinton partying is all about, either. While some longtime Clinton supporters are still patiently waiting for White House invitations, the first couple is out at Duke Zeibert's with political adversary Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, or busy at home with George Bush's loyal GOP pal, Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming.

"Simpson kept telling Clinton how much better his office looked than when Bush had it filled with all those damn TVs," one Democratic insider says.

Others wonder about the wisdom of the Clintons' approach.

"It's fine to have Republican Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum over. That's a vote you can change," grouses one Democrat who has been invited to the White House. "But it's a waste to spend any time with real enemies like Simpson and Dole."

"We have a wonderful opportunity to bring people together across a lot of lines that they would not cross otherwise," Mrs. Clinton says. "We've had huge events that have brought lots of people from different backgrounds together, as well as much smaller private events.

"A good party anywhere -- not just in the White House -- can help people get to know one another a little better, so we can learn from each other and enjoy each other's company as human beings and not as functionaries in some other capacity in life," she explains.

Guests from everywhere

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