WASHINGTON, D.C. — Tammy Haddad has a mission — to save the Washington social scene by making it safe for people who don’t want to get along.
“To do a dinner party in this day and age, you have to chose between Democrats and Republicans,” says the 20-year veteran television producer who pioneered participation journalism before the term social media changed the world. Haddad’s solution: “I don’t do dinner parties. I try to help friends. Everyone needs Washington, and everyone does business in here.”
In a time of stock market yo-yos, credit downgrades, high unemployment and inter-party vitriol that some observers have compared to the days of the Civil War, one who throws parties in the nation’s capital might seem rather irrelevant. But the party circuit has long been a key to breaking out of partisan gridlock. And Haddad, who learned her way around town lining up sparring partners for CNN talk show host Larry King, is not afraid of a good dust up.
“I do a party like a TV shoot,” she says. “And then I take it live to the Internet.”
In addition to advising clients including Google, HBO and Bloomberg via her own consultancy firm Haddad Media, the 6-foot-tall, barrel-voiced Haddad turns book parties for pals like President Reagan’s son Ron into political debates. She nudges self-absorbed guests to stop eating, drinking and gossiping and instead to start tweeting out their ideas. If people aren’t paying attention to her causes, she’ll pick up a microphone, call out the names of the richest people in the room and in a booming voice, challenge them to “man up,” open their checkbooks and volunteer. Behind the scenes, she’s even tutored antisocial Obama activists in the fine art of note writing.
What hostesses need to understand, she explains, is that the new world of social media renders exclusive Washington dinner parties superfluous and obsolete.
“In the old days you went to a dinner party to hear what someone important had to say before anyone else went to their press conference,” she says. “Now everyone has already tweeted everything out before they sit down to eat.”
Haddad is willing to take risks in a world where, common wisdom to the contrary, what her guests want most is a way to confront their opponents without actually having to share a meal with them.
“Tammy’s parties are like a subway stop for people who work 24-7,’’ says Fox News host Greta Van Susteren, whose network spends much of that news cycle slamming the White House. “I like to coast in to Tammy’s parties at the tail end. It’s not a snooty Georgetown salon with everyone sitting around. It’s much more unscripted.”
Van Susteren remembers bumping into Anita Dunn back when Dunn served as head of the Obama White House communications office. “Someone from Fox had been fighting with her all day,” says Van Susteren, referring to Neil Cavuto’s rant after Dunn, interviewed on CNN, called Fox “a wing of the Republican Party” and “not a news network at this point.”
“We ended up having a great conversation,” Van Susteren recalls of her supposed adversary. “Tammy enables all of us to do a better job.’’
Among Haddad’s qualities is her obsession to connect people, boost their causes, and tap into the Washington social scene. No easy task with the insular Obama crowd.
“The Obama group all worked together in Chicago. So when they moved from Chicago to Washington, they acted as a sustaining organism,” she concedes.
Susan Axelrod, wife of David Axelrod, President Obama’s closest adviser, admits that before she met Haddad, attending or hosting a Washington social event was the last thing she wanted to do. That was before Haddad saw Axelrod honored on the “Today” show as Mother of the Year and, determined to help her, picked up the telephone.
“Tammy totally respects that the Washington social world is not my world,” says Axelrod, whose daughter has battled epilepsy from infancy. “She gets that I’m not impressed with these people. But then she’ll say, ‘This is someone to help you, and so you need to come to this dinner, then write them a note, and this is what you should say.’”
As chairman of Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy, Axelrod presented Haddad with the 2010 Friend of CURE Award at a party co-hosted by Haddad’s good friend Connie Milstein, Countess de La Haye Saint Hilaire, who owns the Jefferson Hotel, and is a CURE board member. The day after the party, the titled hotelier pledged a $500,000, two-year challenge grant to support epilepsy research.
Haddad launched her social career in 1993 when she gave her first White House Correspondents predinner brunch. The garden party made news when Barbra Streisand, miffed at a question from a New York Times reporter, stormed out of Haddad’s backyard. That same year, Haddad left CNN to join “Today” in New York, where she met her husband Ted Greenberg, a federal prosecutor.
“He read about me in the newspaper and called,” she says. “That was three months before I moved to Los Angeles to work for David Letterman’s production company producing ‘The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder.’” Greenberg now works advising the World Bank and Interpol tracing illegal money transfers. The couple has two children — Rachel, 12, and David, 10.
This year, the family decided to move their Correspondents predinner brunch to the former home of late Washington Post publisher and social doyenne Katharine Graham, where Haddad and her co-host David Adler feted 650 guests, including Sarah Palin, the Axelrods and Rupert and Wendi Murdoch. In addition to hosting the party, Haddad covered it on her blog.
Her decision to leave television and launch Haddad Media came in 2007 when she parted company with MSNBC after four years producing Chris Matthews’ show “Hardball.” In the midst of a national presidential campaign, she signed up clients including Newsweek and National Journal (both are no longer clients). Then she invested in a handheld video camera and began taking every job that came her way. In addition to advising on political campaign coverage, she hit the party circuit churning out “TamCam” reports and airing them on the Daily Beast and Newsweek’s Web pages.
For the upcoming presidential election, Haddad is helping to advise Google in its new partnership with old media stalwart the Des Moines Register to host the Jan. 12 Republican presidential candidate debates in Des Moines.
As for her own work, she says, “I will be reporting for someone for 2012, reporting or hosting a radio show. This election is going to offer lots of real hybrid reporting opportunities.”
For Washington regulars, Haddad’s formula for success may offer a glimmer of hope for those nostalgic for the heydays of social Washington, when Graham, Evangeline Bruce or Pamela Harriman used their money and glamour to attract the best and brightest from across the political spectrum for parties that mixed fine food and wine with plenty of political dealmaking and gossip.
Many have bemoaned the current state of social affairs in the nation’s capital. In August, George W. Bush’s former White house social secretary Lea Berman, wife of top Republican fund-raiser Wayne Berman, recalled the halcyon days of the last century. Back then, Berman lamented in an opinion piece in The Washington Post, all anyone had to do to have a party in Washington was to follow Harry Truman hostess Perle Meste’s advice and hang a “lamb chop in the window.” Only Berman accidentally called it a pork chop, and also neglected to mention her own hostessing forays.
“I’d like to see what Perle would have to hang in her window now to get a government official to one of her storied dinners — a minor rock star? A major PAC check?” she wrote, never letting on that in June, she hosted a private, unreported luncheon for Jeremy Bernard, President Obama’s third White House social secretary and the first man to claim the title. Luncheon guests included Vice Presidential aide Cathy Russell; Buffy Cafritz; Gail Huff, wife of Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown, and Amy Rule, married to Obama’s former Congressional enforcer, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
And while social observers fret that the halcyon days of Washington society may never return, they are grateful to anyone who tries to break the city’s Big Chill and see Haddad as the town’s best bet.
“She’s not going to be Evangeline Bruce, that’s for sure,’’ says Robert Higdon, executive director of the Prince of Wales Foundation. “Tammy is a new media social connector, like Swifty Lazar. He started Hollywood’s Oscar party before Vanity Fair took it over, just like Tammy gives the brunch before the White House Correspondents dinner. She knows how to bring people together.”
“Tammy is breaking new ground as a modern-day socialite by not adhering to any of the old rules,” says comedian Ali Wentworth, wife of “Good Morning America” host George Stephanopoulos and the daughter of the Reagan White House social secretary Mabel “Muffie” Brandon, who made headlines in the recessionary Eighties by lamenting a White House tablecloth crisis.
“She doesn’t wear sequin gowns, or clap her hands to have all the plates cleared away at the same time. She’s a facilitator bringing people together, but you won’t see her writing any books on how to entertain,” says Wentworth. “In this day and age, particularly in Washington, she could be the new social paradigm.”
Among the hottest party guests for the upcoming fall season, Haddad lists Obama friends Valerie Jarrett and her cousin Ann Jordan, Bill and Bernie Daley and lesser-known Obama pollster Joel Benensen. On the Republican side, her top picks are House Speaker John Boehner and Congressmen Eric Cantor, and Kevin McCarthy as “very sophisticated warriors on the front line of politics.” In the Senate, she lists two interesting freshmen Republicans — Marco Rubio of Florida and Brown. “He and his wife [Huff] have charmed the town,” she says.
Weighing the presidential chances of Texas Congressman Ron Paul after his second-place finish in the Iowa straw poll, she says, “It remains to be seen if a movement can win by saying ‘no’ to everything.”
Turning to Palin’s ever-shrinking presidential window of opportunity, Haddad wonders if midsummer comments slamming Palin made by Ed Rollins, Rep. Michele Bachmann’s campaign director, could ever be enough to push the former Republican vice presidential candidate into the race. “There’s not a lot of room for a new play for the Tea Party voters,” says Haddad. “Still, people were a little startled when Rollins went after Palin. Up until that point, Palin had been one of Bachmann’s biggest supporters. And people underestimate the fact that she does have something to say.”
As for reports that Fox News president Roger Ailes called Palin “an idiot,” Haddad says, “He’s denied he said that.” She cites Ailes as “one of the best bosses I ever had. And he wrote one of best books about the media. He believes in full engagement with a purpose.”
Back in the prime of Larry King’s late night call-in show, Haddad also had her favorite guests — Republican Newt Gingrich and Democrat Al Gore.
“I could always call them at the last minute even in early days,” she says. “They were always willing to come and fill in. Newt was the first person to talk at night to an empty chamber in Congress because he knew people were listening….Some of the criticism of Newt on his last go round [running for president] is that he’s still living in that C-Span scene talking into the empty room. That format made him famous. But when he rolled it out on CBS, it did not go as he expected. That’s because today, no one person is driving the agenda anymore.’’
The same can be said of the capital’s social scene today. And while Haddad’s entertaining style may lack the grandeur and reserve of her predecessors, the end goals remain exactly the same.
“We exploit the timeless tradition of bringing people together to talk issues in a casual setting,” she says. “For better or for worse, that is how relationships are built.”