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Status Woe

Climbing the social ladder in Obama's Washington.

What does it take to get tagged as a shameless status-seeker in a town fueled by the eternal quest for access to power? Ask Beth Dozoretz, the former Democratic National Committee finance chair with a legendary affinity for snuggling up to the rich and powerful. (She asked pal Bill Clinton to be godfather to her now-ten-year-old daughter, Melanne.) It seems that, in the waning days of the presidential race, Dozoretz found herself at a dinner party with Michelle Obama. Not one to miss an opportunity, Dozoretz slipped Mrs. Obama a note from Melanne, in which the precocious fourth grader urged the Obamas to enroll their two girls, Malia and Sasha, at D.C.'s prestigious Sidwell Friends School. Shortly after Election Day, she and her husband, health care mogul Ron Dozoretz, popped up in the press talking about the note-passing and elaborating on their pro-Sidwell lobbying. All across Northwest D.C., tongues set to clucking: Tacky! Shameless! How could they be so out there? It wasn't so much that the Dozoretzes had attempted to cement a connection with the new First Family via their daughter's school. After all, veterans of establishment Washington understand that ingratiating oneself with a new commander-in-chief can require aggressive p.r. as well as exceedingly pointy elbows. Said veterans, however, prefer that the scramble be conducted without the vulgar details spilling out into public view. The sense that the Dozoretzes were publicly boasting of their sucking up was deemed downright embarrassing, prompting some observers to express disappointment that such a naked status grab didn't prompt the Obamas to send their girls elsewhere. "I thought it might have been a turnoff," says the disgusted father of a child at another elite school.

The Beltway scramble for a piece of presidential prestige has begun, with all of the plotting, jockeying, and backbiting of a small-town beauty pageant. To some degree, the ritual is both unavoidable and understandable. Establishment Washington is an insecure culture, peopled by frantic overachievers whose professional and social standing depends heavily and uneasily on the ballot box: Which party holds power impacts the fortunes of a broad swath of the Beltway, from lobbyists and their clients to think-tank nerds, from charity fundraisers to restaurateurs. Then, every four or eight years, the social structure is upended as a new family moves into the White House. Titles are reapportioned. Seating charts are redrawn. A-listers can find themselves slipping with an alarming lack of friction down the sociopolitical totem pole they fought so hard to climb. Washington's gravitational tug toward a constantly shifting power center keeps the players in a state of perpetual flux.

That said, there is a new intensity to this season's shuffle, driven in part by the outsized expectations attending the incoming president, and in part by the pent-up demand generated by eight years with the departing president, who made it clear from day one that he hated Washington. With change now heavy in the air, across the Beltway hangs a sense of promise--along with a fierce determination not to miss out on the action. Local ministers are issuing invitations for the First Family to join their flocks, while veteran hostesses sidle up to Obama advisers with visions of get-togethers with a commander-in- chief who doesn't go to bed around nine p.m. each night. Even some of the opposition is reaching out: In her chat with an Obama adviser, Republican lobbyist and superhostess Juleanna Glover, known for her studiously bipartisan soirees, was given encouragement that key players in the new administration (perhaps even the First Couple) would be open to her social advances. (From Glover's perspective, it's about damn time: "These formal seated state dinners are very much an anachronism," she insists. "They are not a real means of building communication among powerful individuals in this city.") Charity organizers looking for some presidential juice for their causes are advised to make nice with longtime Obama consigliere and soon-to-be White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. ("She's not going to be a soft sell," cautions one organizer, knowingly.) And, of course, every well-connected parent with young children is fantasizing about birthday parties on the White House lawn. (Never has childlessness been considered such an impediment to advancement around these parts.)

Unsurprisingly, the loudest whoops of joy are coming from the liberal pockets of town, where exiled Dems will soon feel the warmth of the political sun once more. Don't look for the Obama troops to buy into the tony Republican enclaves of McLean and Great Falls, Virginia; Maryland's Montgomery County and Northwest D.C. neighborhoods like Spring Valley and Cleveland Park are back in vogue. Junior Obama staffers are flocking (or, in some cases, returning) to Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle. "As people figure out where they're going to live, we're recognizing that we're ending up in same general area," enthuses one young Obama staffer. "It's like one big spread-out dorm!" And one Obama insider reports that some of the more senior folks have taken a shine to the traditional Democratic power center of Georgetown. ("I'm told that people have got real-estate agents all over Georgetown, crawling around looking for houses, " confirms journalist Sally Quinn, one of the neighborhood's most socially prominent inhabitants.) That said, expect the spotlight to shift away from the Georgetown watering holes frequented by young Republicans (including Bush-twin favorite Smith Point). The new energy will be several blocks farther east, in the funkier environs of Adams Morgan and along the still-gentrifying U Street corridor, where the Busboys and Poets flagship dishes up comfort food to young progressives.

Democrats' giddy anticipation has its downside, of course, as they fall victim to what one prominent journalist dubbed "status trauma"--the fear that someone you know is going to wind up more a part of the new in-crowd than you. Ironically, this phenomenon tends to be more vivid when supposedly high-minded progressives assume control--in part because there's a much higher concentration of Dems than Republicans in the city proper, and in part because the establishment is padded with a sizeable number of media elites (who, let's face it, trend more left than right). Sally Quinn, arguably the grande dame of establishment society, is more emphatic in her views: "You've got Democrats as the reigning inhabitants, and so it's when the Democrats come in that the hysteria and tension and craziness and climbing and scratching and clawing take over," she says. "That's when you start climbing over friends' backs to get close to power. Then things get really ugly and really hostile because best friends are turning on each other." The recent private-school scramble certainly provoked much sniping and sneering among local parents (even discounting the Dozoretzes). It was remarkable how naked the status anxiety became at all the schools under consideration, recalls one dad from Georgetown Day School (a runner-up in the First filles sweepstakes). Parents would just chatter away, he recalls, about "'Oh my God, wouldn't it be just amazing if'--their daughter, fill in the blank, Zoe or Chloe or whatever--'wouldn't it be amazing if they had a sleepover at the White House!' Then they'd envision themselves having to pick up their child and telling people, 'Oh, I've got to go over to the White House!'" He harrumphs, "People would actually say this stuff out loud. It was just embarrassing."

Complicating matters, much of the town's political class hasn't yet figured out how to get onto the new First Family's radar. "I don't know anyone who knows them really well," says Quinn. "Remember, even when Barack was in the Senate, he wasn't really a part of that culture," notes one Obama friend. Those close to the Obamas stress that they will rely less on traditional D.C. social arbiters and more on people they know well and feel comfortable with--close friends, family, and the family of close friends--to help them adjust. Among the most obvious locals to serve as potential guides are Obama's beloved Harvard buddies Cassandra Butts (until recently a V.P. at the Center for American Progress) and Julius Genachowski (former FCC staffer turned IT venture capitalist). Another prime suspect is family friend Michael Strautmanis, chief counsel in Obama's Senate office and now the transition's Director of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs. Other names mentioned include Democratic strategist Donna Brazile; D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and his wife, Michelle; Ann Jordan, wife of power broker Vernon Jordan and a cousin of Valerie Jarrett; and former Clinton official turned p.r. maven Ann Walker Marchant, another Jarrett cousin. (Jarrett arrives with an extensive network of cousins, aunts, and uncles in place.) And there's always Eric Holder, Obama's pick for attorney general. In addition to being an old Washington hand himself, Holder's wife, Sharon Malone, is a popular local doctor.

Obama intimates have only exacerbated the anxiety and confusion by stressing that the incoming First Couple, like the city they hail from, isn't single- mindedly political--a foreign concept for many Washingtonians. Many of the Obamas' friends are in other lines of work, and the conversation at weekend barbecues and potlucks tends to revolve around other subjects, such as kids or sports. The president-elect is a "SportsCenter" junkie who delights in talking--or, more precisely, arguing--about basketball in particular. (Warning: Like any good debater, he comes armed with stats to support his positions.) Obama and bosom buddies Marty Nesbitt, a Chicago entrepreneur, and Eric Whitaker, a physician and associate dean at the University of Chicago Medical Center, can "sit there and talk about the latest basketball game ad nauseum," laughs Valerie Jarrett. "That's fine with me. If I get really bored, I'll leave." Movies are another conversational go-to. "Barack's a big movie buff," one friend says. "The next time you talk to him, ask him to analyze the Senate in terms of The Godfather. He will go on and on about it." Notes the friend, "The Obamas and their people aren't that into the world of politics as the only world that you live in, so that all the people you go to cocktail parties with and have dinner with are reporters and people in the administration. Sitting around talking about politics when socializing with [the Obamas'] crowd is frowned upon."

Some residents cheer this as a long-needed change. "Washington isn't just a government town," insists Ann Walker Marchant, a proud D.C. native who introduced the president-elect to Eric Holder at a small dinner party at her house in 2004. It would be a boon to the capital's civic health, says Marchant, if Obama would look beyond political Washington to the D.C. of "lawyers, doctors, engineers, architects, a different side of Washington than a lot of people ever see," and help create "a city that's totally integrated with the administration."

This, of course, is the enduring dream of D.C. locals. For decades, the approach of a new president--particularly a Democratic one--has sparked optimism that the First Family will make an effort to become a part of the community. Members of Democratic administrations are considered more likely to settle, socialize, and patronize businesses and institutions within Washington rather than in the suburbs. And hope springs eternal that someday, some president will take an interest in the crime-ridden neighborhoods that make up the grittier half of the oft-discussed "two Washingtons." In its recent "Welcome to Town" editorial, The Washington Post cheered the Obamas' "pledge to become true Washingtonians," plaintively noting that "[s]ome presidents have feinted in this direction and then quickly lost interest; others have made no secret of the fact that they'd rather be living in, say, Texas."

In this area (as in so many), Obama is being talked about as an especially promising unifier. As Attorney General-to-be Holder notes, "You have a president who brings with him a whole group of people who understand the urban environment. These are folks who live in, prosper in, and love cities."

But simply by being themselves--young, charismatic, cosmopolitan--the Obamas are expected to give the capital a jolt. Washington old-timers and Obama insiders alike are predicting an urban renaissance of sorts. "There's a glamour about Barack and Michelle that I think will infuse the capital in a way that we have not seen for some time," says Holder. "They are both tall, good-looking, striking people with adorable little girls. I can't help but think that's going to have an impact."

Of course, in a town where some 56 percent of the population is black, it doesn't hurt that the soon-to-be First Family shares that racial designation. "I think the African American culture of D.C. is going to explode," says an Obama insider, who adds with a laugh, "I have already had conversations with three single women who don't live here but are thinking about moving to Washington because they think the place is going to be overrun with eligible professional single black men." Says Holder, "My guess is that this White House will be a magnet for all things African American. Whether it's politics or the arts, this is going to be the place to be. If you don't believe it," he chuckles, "wait until you see the inaugural."

Better start working on your tickets to the festivities, Establishment Washington. Wouldn't want the Dozoretzes to have all the fun.

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic

This article originally ran in the December 24, 2008, issue of the magazine.