Steeped in Tradition

First Lady’s Luncheon Is Annual Rite for Spouses at Congressional Club

Posted May 4, 2007 at 4:30pm

Vivian Bishop, wife of Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) and president of the Congressional Club, is very popular at the moment — maybe a little too popular. On a recent Tuesday morning her phone started ringing at “7:10, to be exact.”

The reason? On Thursday, the club for Members’ spouses will host its invitation-only 95th First Lady’s Luncheon, an annual event just about everyone seems to want to attend.

“I’ve had hundreds of calls about this luncheon,” Bishop sighed, noting that though the cutoff date this year to join and ensure an invitation to the event was Feb. 15, plenty were still seeking late memberships.

The specifics of the luncheon — which is expected to draw about 1,600 attendees, including first lady Laura Bush, to the Washington Hilton — are guarded with the secrecy one might associate with the nuclear football. Event chairwoman Linda Bachus, wife of Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), declined to discuss any details.

“All of that is kept a secret,” Bachus said. “It adds to the ambience of the entire event to have an element of surprise for our guests. That is the tradition.”

But Bishop did disclose that this year’s theme is the “Soul of the South” and that a former “American Idol” winner, whom she declined to name, has been invited to perform. While most of the proceeds from the luncheon — tickets are $75, with sponsorships going for as much as $25,000 — pay for the event, the club also makes a donation to a charity associated with the first lady, said Bishop. “We’d like to donate to the Laura Bush Library,” she said. [IMGCAP(1)]

With new ethics rules in effect, organizers of this year’s luncheon worked hard to make sure everything was kosher with the House ethics committee. Not only was the gift bag brought to the panel for approval (the donated items were given by companies without registered lobbyists and were valued at less than the gift limit of $50), but spouses of current Members are no longer raising money for the event. Instead, spouses of former Members and club staff have taken over that role, Bishop said.

“We’ve been back and forth [with the ethics committee] at least 20 times to make sure we were in compliance,” Bishop said of an event whose corporate sponsors this year include the National Realtors Association, Chevron and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Aside from the luncheon, the club itself, founded in 1908 by a few “homesick” Congressional wives over the objection of then-House Minority Leader John Williams (D-Miss.) and located in an unmarked brick building at the corner of New Hampshire Avenue and U Street Northwest, has a storied history. It’s the only club “in the world” chartered by Congress, said its longtime administrative assistant, Lydia de La Vina de Foley. None other than President Woodrow Wilson attended the clubhouse’s dedication in 1914.

Step inside the elegant rooms — many of which have been taken over temporarily by stacked brown packing boxes filled with items for the luncheon — and it’s possible to imagine the genteel ladies’ teas and social hours of yesteryear.

One of the most striking features of the club is a sitting room just off the foyer lined with nearly two-dozen white Louis XVI-style cabinets, inside of which stand 4-foot-tall ceramic dolls wearing replicas of the gowns that the first ladies — most since Mary Todd Lincoln are included — wore to their husbands’ inaugural balls. An empty cabinet is awaiting the addition of the Laura Bush doll, which will sport a smaller version of her Oscar de la Renta-designed inaugural gown — made by the designer himself. (Assuming their schedules are amenable, Bishop said the club hopes to formally present the doll sometime this fall at a ceremony with both Bush and de la Renta.)

And these are hardly the only dolls in the club. There’s also an international dolls room filled with smaller, country-specific dolls that have been donated over the years by diplomats’ wives. For those with more tropical tastes, the club has a Hawaiian room adorned with historical Aloha State lithographs and a small statue of a Hawaiian god.

Programs are held twice a month on Thursdays, usually in an airy, white second-floor room — a grand space with Corinthian pilasters, a fireplace and a 19th-century Steinway piano that was once used by Richard Nixon to serenade a Senator on his birthday. In April, Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic presidential candidate and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), read and signed her book “Saving Graces” at a meeting, and later this month former Defense Secretary William Cohen (who also served as a Republican Representative and Senator from Maine) and his wife, Janet, will discuss their book “Love in Black and White: A Memoir of Race, Religion, and Romance.”

Aside from the luncheon — the focal point of its social calendar — the club also hosts a a diplomatic reception for the spouses of foreign ambassadors, a chili cook-off and a Christmas party for underprivileged children. A cookbook, published periodically and featuring recipes from club members, helps raise funds for its operation.

Despite being open to the spouses of current Members (who can maintain their membership after their spouse leaves office), Supreme Court justices and Cabinet members, the club is still mainly an all-girls preserve. All former first ladies receive honorary membership, and its 650-some members (each of whom pay $125 per year in dues) include only six men — ex-President Bill Clinton, husband of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), is among them — and most of these rarely show for meetings, though Bishop is quick to point out that Rep. Marilyn Musgrave’s (R-Colo.) husband, Steven, did attend the Edwards event. (And some men, such as Paul Pelosi, husband of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), have come to the spouses’ orientations that the club hosts every Congress, Bishop said.)

The 55-year-old Bishop, who became the club’s first black president when she was elected to the post in January, said she hopes to expand its relatively meager black membership. Bishop said she’s heard indirectly that some of the black spouses “didn’t feel welcome” given the dominance of white members — something she said she’s never experienced, having been elected an officer of the club the first year she joined in 2001.

“I’m going to reach out to African-Americans and ask them to become more active in this club,” Bishop said. “I know they want to be part of history.”