Thursday, October 19, 2017

White House Etiquette and Tone

Hamilton Jordan, President Carter’s “right hand man.” – “The White House yesterday issued a 33-page white paper contradicting a published account of a Jan. 27 barroom occurrence in which presidential aide Hamilton Jordan was slapped by a young woman. The account in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine asserted that Jordan was struck after spitting his drink down the woman's blouse. "I did not say or do anything that night to any woman that was improper, and I categorically deny that I spat my drink on anyone. I did have an unpleasant encounter with a woman at the bar, but it was not precipitated by me of anything that I had done," Jordan said in a statement released by the White House...” – Portion of a Washington Post article, February 21,1978

A Timely Historical Etiquette Post:

“Didn’t You Know, My Dears?” 

WASHINGTON - “You won't find it listed in the U.S. Constitution or in the transition team’s notebook, but one of the highest duties of a new President apparently is to uphold, enhance and adorn the social life of Washington. I am quite sure Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and all the President’s men scarcely gave that a thought before moving into the White House. Now they are having to give it more time and attention than they would like. Believe me, it is a no-win proposition. I say that because of the latest federal flap over the tavern tribulations of Hamilton Jordan, the President's prominent non-chief of staff and man about town. But Jordan is only a recurring cross the Carters have to bear. 

There have been others and there will be more. For reasons rooted in local tradition, members of the First Family and the White House staff are supposed to be models of decorum and Emily Post etiquette. They are expected to be versed in the social graces and protocol; to remember what to do with a fork and what not to do with a finger bowl; to know when it is all right to go tieless and shoeless; that it is never alright to get pickled in public. This city is as stuffy as any other in America. It has its own ‘standards’ of acceptable conduct, born of a peculiar mixture of politicians, bureaucrats, diplomats, lobbyists and the press, all of whom coexist in a useful but fragile social relationship that is subject to shattering every four years. It does not react warmly to those who buck the system or offend its practitioners. 

Politically speaking, the Carter crowd already has discovered that Washington does not adjust easily to those who come in as ‘outsiders’ and want to stay that way. As even Jordan admits, the Carter administration wasted a lot of valuable momentum its first year because it thought it was unnecessary to first learn how the rest of political Washington works. Socially speaking, the same is true. In its own way, Washington is as provincial as Plains, Ga., although I doubt any of its social lions or lionesses would admit it. Lusting in one’s heart or in private is fine, even for a ranking White House official, but heavens, not in a public place like Sarsfield’s singles’ bar or at a posh Barbara Walters dinner party. The trouble is that Washington expects, even wants, those who live and work in the White House to be like the preacher’s family in a small town: above reproach. The White House is the sun of the local solar system. Everything here revolves around it, socially as well as governmentally. It sets the climate in which Washington lives. But expecting local folk to be always happy with the social tone set by the White House, is as futile as expecting people to be happy about the weather. 

During the Eisenhower years, when I first came here, nobody accused administration officials of risqué behavior. But, my, how they grumbled about the stodginess of the White House social scene. Dullsville was replaced by Camelot when the Kennedys came in. Washington was entranced, intrigued and enlivened by the social style of the young President and his Jacqueline. The Johnsons set a more down-home and boisterous pace, but it was still judged to be within the Washington tradition. The Nixons tried hard but it came off as too much pretension, while the Fords’ social example was rated as sort of a Grand Rapids version of the LBJ era. The social tone being set by the Carters is more permissive, more do-your-own-thing, than Washington society would like. And that goes equally for Amy reading a book at a State Dinner or boozy bar-hopping by Jordan, Jody Powell and top presidential assistants. 

Mr. Carter came to town determined to govern more openly than any president before him. His Cabinet members and high appointees were to have no conflicts of interest, no hidden motives, no cozy deals out of public view. His style of governing was going to be like living in Macy’s window. But Washington, and perhaps a good part of the country, would prefer it if the Carter people would behave in public as though they were living in Macy’s window. Perhaps Mr. Carter is of a mind to insist on that, if only to protect himself from the political embarrassment of social misbehavior. It is not terribly uplifting for the country when the President’s White House legal counsel has to be sent out, on government time, to take a sworn statement from a bartender that the President’s highest assistant did ‘no spitting, no touching’ during an altercation with a young woman at the bar.” – Editorial in The Desert Sun, 1978

Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber, is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia

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