Meatloaf Instead of Beef

According to the New York Times, Beltway parties are becoming less formal (perhaps because pajama-clad bloggers are being invited?):

“There used to be so many black-tie dinners at private homes,” said Buffy Cafritz, an honorary Kennedy Center trustee who also is known in Washington hostess circles. “Now everything is so much more informal, and we serve meatloaf instead of beef Wellington.”

And people — and not just any people, but people like Richard Perle and Sally Quinn — are even shopping at Costco! Heavens! What’s the world coming to if you can’t count on Washington to maintain its air of clueless, stodgy formality? It’s not like either L.A. or New York are going to pick up the slack.

D.C. may not have gone entirely the way of jeans of blazers* yet, but it’s dropped much of its black tie pretense. And the changes aren’t merely in the social realm either. As we witnessed on CNN last week, the entire political process is becoming more informal, more entertainment-focused, more taken with the trends and technologies of the moment. DC isn’t just loosening its collar; it’s putting on jeans and buying an iPod. Hence, the much-maligned YouTube debate.

For some, the downward transformation of politics from formal undertaking to something with a little more pizazz represents a threat, a loss of dignity. But as Ross writes, much of that is probably inevitable, and if the players understand the game from the start, it’s possible to use it to one’s own advantage. Nor, as Mary Katharine Ham notes, should the last debate be seen as a referendum on the technology itself. The gatekeepers may well deserve some derision for their poor judgment, but that’s no reason to turn away from the capabilities that technology affords.

And as far as dignity is concerned, perhaps the nation’s politics would be better off admitting to a little less than it currently pretends to have. For one thing, political coverage has for decades been obsessed with sex, corruption, and various forms of scandal. In part because these things (well, at least corruption and scandal) are important, but in part because politics functions as a narrative, a weird and wonky, absolutely true soap opera. And soap operas, like most sprawling, ongoing narratives, thrive on salaciousness and action. So what’s the harm in allowing a little bit more in now?

And is formality and dignity what America really wants, or needs, right now? There’s a seriousness of purpose that comes along with them, of course. But both also tend to breed self-importance, arrogance, and resistance to change — the sort that lends itself, inexcusably, I think, to major political figures being completely clueless when it comes to technology.

So call it frivolous, or call it staying on the cutting edge, or just call it politics’ dismal tide. Whatever it is, I’m not sure it’s all that bad. Pass the meatloaf?

*Don’t worry. Outside of a few U Street area bars, you’re unlikely to see either skinny ties or vests. Just because we’re going casual doesn’t mean we’re getting cool.