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D.C.'s most exclusive club: Obama, Palin and no reporters

WASHINGTON — Everything is new in the nation's capital these days: new president, new people, new politics.

One of its oldest traditions and most exclusive invitations lives on, though. It was hatched nearly 100 years ago in a bar where half a century earlier, Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky, the "Great Compromiser," brought North and South together by introducing Washington to the joys of the mint julep.

The Alfalfa Club, a coterie of bigwigs that has nothing to do with farming, will gather on Saturday night for its only purpose: dinner and drinks, though not necessarily in that order. The club, after all, is named for a plant that's always thirsty.

There will be some laughs, there won't be any reporters — and those two facts may be related.

"We have a majority of the Supreme Court here tonight," former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor told the dinner a few years ago. "What do you say, guys, just for fun, we overturn Bush v. Gore?"

President Barack Obama plans to show up, as most presidents have, armed with good-natured barbs.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will be a guest this year.

Upholding this ancient capital custom will be the club's incoming president, Missouri Republican Sen. Kit Bond. A club member for 16 years, he's something of a political throwback himself during a quarter century on Capitol Hill.

After all, how many people do you know who still wear seersucker suits and white shoes in the summer?

Bond, who's retiring from the Senate next year, need only aim a few well-placed zingers at the audience after taking over from his predecessor, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and his reign will be considered a ringing success.

"A peaceful transfer of meaningless power," Bond said.

Lieberman, a Connecticut independent whose political alliances shift more often than Danica Patrick at the Indy 500, could be symbolic of the Alfalfa, where politics stop at the ballroom's edge.

Six hundred diners in the Capital Hilton ballroom is probably a far cry from what the club's founders — four Southerners by birth — envisioned back in 1913 in the bar at the Willard Hotel. They wanted to start a club that would meet once a year around Jan. 19, the birthday of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

It's become the sort of gathering where you hear, as The Washington Post once reported, things such as, "You look lovely. Your dress matches your medal."

The roster is gilded by Washington standards: past and present members of Congress, the Supreme Court, the Cabinet and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Corporate titans and Wall Street tycoons will be there, too, perhaps some with pockets newly stuffed with bailout bucks — or bonuses.

They'll dine on lobster — by tradition — as well as beef tenderloin and chocolate mousse, and the jokes will be told with relish.

"A year ago my approval ratings were in the low 30s, my Supreme Court nominee withdrew, my vice president just shot someone," former President George W. Bush told the dinner in 2007. "Those were the good old days!"

For decades, the dinner was stag, and the only woman was an opera singer hired as entertainment.

"Five hundred men and only one woman in the room," said club Secretary Richard Pearson, who at 80 has been attending dinners since Dwight D. Eisenhower lived in the White House. "We looked at glossy photos and picked the star that was the most beautiful, and then told her not to sing much opera."

The club finally opened its doors to women in the 1990s. O'Connor and the late Post Publisher Katharine Graham were among the first to join. Spots open only when a member dies.

"People stay forever," Pearson said.

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