Call it a charm offensive or a high-level “Listening Tour,” but Barack Obama is already signaling that he intends to break with the current president in one obvious way: hearing from his critics.
Obama Tuesday night trekked to the Chevy Chase, Md., home of conservative columnist George F. Will to talk politics and get to know some of his fiercest intellectual adversaries: Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, Larry Kudlow, David Brooks, Rich Lowry, Peggy Noonan, Michael Barone, and Paul Gigot.
The two-and-half-hour dinner, which came at Will’s request, is only the first get-together between the president-elect and Washington’s opinion-makers. Wednesday morning he met with prominent columnists and liberal commentators, including the New York Times’ Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd and the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne.
The right-leaning attendees were largely mum over what was discussed over the lamb chops at Will’s table, pledging fealty to off-the-record ground rules and hoping that the Democrat may again extend an olive branch if he knows his company can keep confidence. They were Obama’s ground rules, but Will swore his guests to secrecy.
“You can’t have these kinds of meetings if everybody reports on them,” said one attendee, who suggested that President Bush may have received more sympathy had he held similar session with liberal writers.
Will didn’t return a call seeking comment and Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor also declined to discuss the get-together.
Asked for a general impression of Obama, an attendee would only allow: “He’s an articulate, smart guy.”
The dinner apparently amounted to the equivalent of an editorial board meeting – just a bit longer. There were was considerably wonkery and in-depth discussions of taxes, but, it being the Will household, a bit of jocular sports talk did arise.
Obama is not the first new president to dine at Will’s table nor the first to campaign against the ways of Washington only to pay homage to the capital’s social scene soon after being elected. Such events have typically been infused with a fresh start sense of comity and good will natural to the moment – but also sometimes give way to the inevitable partisan and power struggles of Washington.
Ronald Reagan had dinner at the conservative columnist’s home with a small group that included Katharine Graham, the Washington Post publisher and the capital’s preeminent social arbiter. Graham, whose paper had played a pivotal role in taking down Richard Nixon, soon had the new president over to dinner at her Georgetown home and struck up a friendship with Nancy Reagan.
Even though he has mostly shunned Washington’s party circuit, President Bush also began his White House years with a party at Graham’s R Street Mansion.
In an off-the-record dinner held in February of 2001, Bush was feted by an A-list crowd including such figures as Henry Kissinger, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Alan Greenspan, Vernon Jordan, Ken Duberstein, Ethel Kennedy and members of the new administration and capital’s journalistic elite.
Graham, who passed away in 2001, said at the time: "I tried to make it a cross section of my friends and a few friends from other newspapers and television.”
Both the hostess and guest of honor toasted their glasses to bipartisan friendship – of which there was as little in Bush’s tenure as there were subsequent social outings by the early-to-bed teetotaling president.
In the months after being elected in 1992, Bill Clinton supped at the home of both Graham and Democratic doyenne Pamela Harriman
"I hope to bring more of the country to the capital and more of the capital to the country," the former Arkansas governor told a Democrat-heavy crowd at Graham’s home that included Jordan, Ted Kennedy, Sam Nunn, Douglas Wilder and others.
Also present was former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who Clinton noted had sent him a letter urging him to bring the country together.
Eight years and an impeachment later the country was bitterly divided between red and blue.
Soon after being elected, Clinton also famously strolled down Georgia Avenue with the city’s then-mayor and other local officials – a symbolic act meant to state that he wouldn’t forget about Washington’s black majority.
Similarly, Obama isn’t only planning on spending his time out and about in Northwest Washington or in Chevy Chase, one of the city’s toniest suburbs.
The president-elect had a very public half-smoke lunch Saturday with Mayor Adrian Fenty at Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street, a traditional pillar of Washington’s African-American community that has now become a hot spot among both blacks and whites in the rapidly gentrifying corridor.
“One of the things that I don’t like historically about Washington is the way that you’ve got one part of Washington, which is a company town, all about government, and is generally pretty prosperous,” Obama said Sunday in an interview on ABC’s “This Week.” “And then, you’ve got another half of D.C. that is going through enormous challenges. I want to see if we can bring those two Washington D.C.s together.”
Mike Allen contributed to this story.