In Manhattan, there are two distinct breeds of election night parties: the insular sweatpants group and the more active, sweaty, social climbing posse. In the former, friends with like-minded politics get together in a casual way to watch the returns and overeat lasagna and garlic bread. In the latter, people posture and pose and, in the middle of a conversation, look over their shoulders just long enough to catch whether their candidate is up in Indiana and whether the latest arrival might be procured as a professionally or socially advantageous contact.
I can swing in both kinds of soirees. I like to be comfortable enough with my guests that I can wear leggings and my hair in a rumpled, sloppy nest on the top of my head. But I also like the intense sport of social maneuvering that goes on in this city. I like getting people together who would never have met otherwise, I often set up friends like I would two potential lovers on a blind date, and I relish those moments when a snooty Park Avenue, petrified wood, stuck-in-her-fancy-orbit dame is suddenly mesmerized by something smart someone said whom she wouldn’t be caught dead with if she’d acted on her base instincts.
“Darren,” I said. “You deliver Sandra, and I’ll deliver for you.” In the most mercurial way, I was assuring him that I would match his fire with fire. Social fire, that is. Except no one remotely important wanted to come to my party.
Cut to the 2008 election night. I wanted to have family and friends over while I spent the historic night hammering the memories into my three young children’s minds. I was thinking lasagna, plastic glasses, jeans, and a hasty ponytail. But when my friend Darren Walker from the Rockefeller Foundation called to tell me that he was squiring around Sandra Day O’Connor for the night, my social juices started churning. I realized I could have an event that melded the two breeds. A Supreme Court justice would be eating my lasagna. In my home. Exciting, yet very stress-inducing.
“Darren,” I said. “You deliver Sandra, and I’ll deliver for you.” In the most mercurial way, I was assuring him that I would match his fire with fire. Social fire, that is. In Park Avenue parlance, that means important, prominent people whom she would recognize. I would need to procure a bonfire. You can’t have a Supreme Court justice walk in the room and not feel they know a few people and see some familiar faces. Darren knew that and he knew that I knew that. And I thought with Justice O’Connor as a draw, I could honestly deliver some heavy weights.
So I sent out an email last week inviting some normal people and some more prominent types that included Diane Sawyer, George Stephanopoulos, Barbara Walters, my boss Newsweek’s Jon Meacham, Peggy Noonan, Donald Marron, Mort Zuckerman, Lisa Caputo, and The Daily Beast’s own Tina Brown. My parents, Pete Peterson and Joan Cooney, would anchor the room. The federal marshals would be checking out the security on my building. I was lining up the chess pieces. My adrenaline pumped so intensely I could have leapt from rooftop to rooftop down Park Avenue.
But then some undesirable developments started occurring. Namely, no one remotely important wanted to come to my party. Barbara was having six people over, Liz Smith was enjoying her first night at home in two weeks, and every other person on the high end of my social ladder list was on television either hosting a show or doing their self-aggrandizing punditry on someone else’s show. I thought, well, at least my parents will come to save me. They had already accepted an invite for dinner with the kids.
“Dad,” I instructed, “I’ve got a Supreme Court justice coming to my house for my party. I’m nervous. Can you be there early, like 6 p.m.? Please shine your shoes and, when she walks in the room, stand up and make a beeline to her. I want her to feel comfortable the second she arrives.”
“Sorry, dear. Would really love to help, but we’re going to Barbara’s.” Fuck.
I looked over my guest list. Forty schmoes, six surfers, and a Supreme Court justice. What’s a schmo? The Webster’s dictionary defines a schmo as someone whom someone important wouldn’t recognize or be excited to talk to when they walk in the room. Nothing against schmoes. All of my friends are schmoes. They are editors, producers, writers, artists; all highly productive, competent people. I’m a card-carrying schmo. Schmoes will take a bullet for you. Schmoes can be wildly entertaining if given the chance. Big shots just don’t talk to schmoes unless they are forced to with a bad seat.
And why, pray tell, six surfers? My family has taken up the sport. I’ve gotten loopy obsessed with it. The surfer instructors have become part of our family. Sure, they have long, ratty hair, but their perspective on life rivals the Dalai Lama’s.
And then, a ray of light. A certified big shot finally accepted the invite: director Joel Schumacher. “Joel. I beg you. You’re my only hope. When she walks in the room, do your thing. Be charming. Talk about people you know in common. Talk about cool Hollywood stuff. Famous actor stories. Make her laugh. Make her cry with your passion for politics.”
“Say what?” He answered.
“Joel. I need you. This isn’t a joke.”
“Honey, I love you. But that woman swung the election in 2000 to George Bush. I am not kissing her ass. I’ll be in the corner talking trash with the surfers.”
At 7:30 p.m., the doorman announced that some federal marshals were downstairs and Justice O’Connor was on her way up. I was really nervous. Everyone’s kids were running in and out of the rooms in a frenzy. People were stuffing their faces and totally preoccupied with history being made. In the right corner of the room, the surfers were in an especially immature, raucous moment and I suddenly noticed they were all wearing hideous trucker hats.
But in the end, all my schmoes took one for the team. Peter Melhado wins first prize for coming first out of the gate and laying on the charm like I’ve never seen it laid on before. Jeffrey Leeds came in second with a plate of chicken potpie and a good save since he’d clerked for Brennan a hundred years ago. Ashley McDermott (who has asked to be grouped as a surfer, and not a schmo) gave it her best as relief pitcher since she’d spent a weekend with the justice in Idaho five years back.
One of the surfers even made her chuckle. Everyone asked her if Hillary had made a deal to get a Supreme Court appointment in exchange for campaigning for Obama. Justice O’Connor said that was ridiculous and that Hillary Clinton had far more power in the Senate, and far more control over what she worked on, and that the Supreme Court was, in its way, limiting because you couldn’t ever choose the cases that came your way.
Justice O’Connor stayed for two and a half hours, sipped her scotch, and smiled a lot. She didn’t seem to mind that neither Tom Brokaw nor Vernon Jordan was hovering over her every conversational need. She was bright, completely present, and open, mostly about her husband’s Alzheimer’s and the pain that caused her after 57 years of marriage.
Of course the political moment really took over the tableau. All these divergent people were riveted by the screens we’d set up everywhere, knowing that their lives were forever changed. There were tears, hugs, a lot of laughter, and of course stoned silence during the acceptance speech. I lost it when Obama said his girls finally earned that puppy they’re taking to the White House. But I think the room was most moved by the sight of Obama's and Biden’s extended families on the stage afterward, the easy mixture of black and white that will now occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. My guests kept saying, “Look at that. Just look at that.” I kept shaking my head. “Just amazing,” I said aloud.
One of the surfers strolled over to Justice O’Connor. “This is so ill.” (That's surfer parlance for very cool waves.) She laughed and placed her arm around his shoulders. History made.