Whiff of change electrifies Washington as city sniffs out new power sources


WASHINGTON -- As the torch is passed from the Cold Wa crowd to the Big Chill set, Washington is about to go through a massive make-over with a new administration of baby boomers -- Fleetwood Mac CDs and Democratic Rolodexes in hand -- coming to town.

Never one to miss a beat, the city is already laying the groundwork for the new power lines.

Some law firms have stripped their walls of their glamorous parade of photos of President Bush and high-level Republicans. Lobbying outfits are advertising the addition of new partners -- Democrats, of course -- to their firms.

Real estate agents, noting that Democrats favor the city while Republicans gravitate toward the suburbs, are scurrying to find rental properties close to the White House for the first wave of low-level staffers who'll be moving in.

Gift shops are loading up on cat stuff in honor of first feline Socks. Bookstores are stocking their shelves with detective novels (Bill Clinton's favorites). And D.C. caterers are trying to figure out what the heck Arkansas haute cuisine is, while Little TC Rock haunts like "Doe's Eat Place" and "Your Mama's Good Food" are thinking about setting up shop here.

But more than anything, Washingtonians -- or more precisely, Democrats -- say there's a change in mood, an air of anticipation, that is almost palpable.

"It's like buying a new car and smelling the marvelous aroma of new leather," says Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, who came to Washington in 1963 to work for Lyndon B. Johnson and stayed. "The biggest thing for this city is N-E-W. New means fresh. New means energy. New means that exalted feeling. That will stir this town more than anything else."

So, too, will the shift in generations. The switch in power to a younger crowd -- where the patter of little feet in the White House will be from a daughter instead of granddaughters -- will be a "radical transition" for the city, says demographer Neil Howe.

He notes that for the past 32 years, from President John F. Kennedy to President Bush, the nation has been led by the "G.I. generation," those who were between the ages of 17 and 34 on Pearl Harbor Sunday in 1941. The men about to take power weren't even born yet.

Undoubtedly, the influx of boomers will translate into a denim-clad informality around town, a focus on children, schools and two-career families; a shift from Charlton Heston to Barbra Streisand at the White House; less protocol, more rock 'n' roll.

"When you see that a George Stephanopoulos, at 31, is the person out front, that's a total generational change," says D.C. public relations executive Victor Kamber, referring to Mr. Clinton's youthful director of communications.

But age aside, administrations always set a certain tone for Washington life -- even if it's just in details such as whether to put jelly beans or peanuts in the candy dish -- and already the city's social arbiters are watching President-elect Clinton and his wife, Hillary, closely for clues.

One thing is certain. Talk will be in, chit-chat out. "Both of them talk so much and like listening so much that I bet you'll see the White House used for salons," says longtime Washington social observer and columnist Diana McLellan. "And Hillary will probably hold women's dinners."

Clinton parties with their "wonky intellectuals," Ms. McLellan notes, are much "talkier" than the usual Washington affair.

Others suggest that social functions around town could become more racially and ethnically diverse, since Mr. Clinton has pledged that a more representative crowd will be walking in and out of the White House gates.

"It's been Madame Tussaud's wax museum for the last 12 years," says Paul Costello, an aide to several Democratic politicians and candidates, including Michael S. Dukakis. "It's been white men. Those days are gone."

Much of the Beltway set noted the symbolism in Mr. Clinton's selection of a McDonald's near the White House as his post-jog hangout. In its previous life, the fast-food joint was Sans Souci, the ultra-exclusive power lunch spot for administrations past.

Style, in fact, may be of little concern in the Clinton Washington -- if the cluttered private quarters of the Arkansas governor's mansion are any indication. ("No wonder Hillary Clinton wants to move," quipped Metropolitan Home upon receiving a tour.)

"It will be very chic to live student-style, as though you have bigger catfish to fry," says Ms. McLellan.

She also predicts that a younger, hipper administration will translate into a much sexier Washington -- a major feat for a town generally noted for its disinterest in sex (except of the scandalous variety).

"I don't mean people will actually be doing anything," she says to clarify. "But it will be part of everybody's awareness. There will be a lot more hormones in the air."

And, of course, there will be a lot more Southern accents in the air -- many of them newly acquired. But any parallels to the invasion of Jimmy Carter's "Georgia mafia" -- with their peanut soup and Billy beer and Southern-fried edges -- end there.

Noting the president-elect's Georgetown-Oxford-Yale education, writer Calvin Trillin calls him a "Euro-Jesuitical-Ivy League yahoo."

Even Washington's top caterers say they are simply shifting quietly from a Southwestern to a Southern flavor in their menus, rather than breaking out the fried catfish and greens. "You take out the jalapenos and put in the red peppers, and there you go," says Bill Homan of Design Cuisine.

The more substantive changes in Washington life will be felt by hostesses and other keepers of the A-list, now watching to see who'll rise to prominence and tearing up the useless guest lists of yesteryear.

"If young Stephanopoulos looks like he's in power, he'll get 200 invitations a week," says Mr. Valenti. "If he's doing his job, he won't accept any of them."

Indeed, the Democrats are already dusting off their dancing shoes. "For people like me who've been disenfranchised -- we've felt like the spotted owl for the last 12 years -- there's a lot of enthusiasm," says Mr. Costello.

And Republicans, used to being the ones to see, are learning to adapt to a new world order in which they're the banished species and are seeking refuge in places far from the Washington Beltway.

At National Airport recently, former Reagan aide Michael K. Deaver bumped into a prominent Republican lobbyist who was off to a trip to Florida.

"Florida?" Mr. Deaver inquired. "I thought you spent all your time in Japan."

"Nobody in Japan wants to talk to me anymore," the lobbyist confided. "They want to talk to Democrats."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad