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Political Parties Feed on Electoral Collage

Etiquette arbiter Letitia Baldridge is quite clear in her book “The New Manners for the ‘90s” about what to to avoid at social affairs: “Politics is a subject about which people begin to feel personally antagonistic.” In other words, a real party-killer.

But don’t tell that to Janice Johnson of Laguna Beach or any of several other social types who are flocking to Orange County’s wave of “political parties.”

For them, the best kinds of bashes are those that promote antagonism.

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“The most boring party I ever had was one where everybody sat and agreed with everyone about everything,” says Johnson, an organizer of the upcoming Women for Hillary Clinton fund-raising luncheon at the Westin South Coast Plaza hotel in Costa Mesa.

“I have close friends who are totally at the other end of the spectrum. The sparks fly at these political affairs, but they are civilized sparks,” adds Johnson, wife of Western Digital Chairman Roger Johnson (a Republican for Clinton who is making media waves around the country). “I believe everybody should be treated equally and with respect.”

Ditto for Tom Tucker, who recently staged an intimate, $500 per-person fund-raising lunch for Sen. John Seymour (R-Calif.) at the Center Club in Costa Mesa. “I’ve stopped going to most social functions,” says Tucker, who has staged a fund-raiser in his Irvine Cove home for Gov. Pete Wilson. “I mean, you can’t talk at those things.

“But at a political party, at least you have a common bond with everyone. . .you get the chance to air your concerns with people who are similarly concerned.”

And when there’s a public servant in your midst, so much the better, Tucker says. “You get to tell them what’s on your mind. They tell you what’s on theirs. If you don’t agree, that’s OK, too.”

For Jolene Engel, a co-organizer with Johnson of the Clinton luncheon, the political party is the outing that “means something.”

“When I attend one, I feel like I’m putting something toward my future--it’s a lot more than just another night on the town,” she says.

Mention “political social gathering” to Mary Roosevelt--widow of the late James Roosevelt (eldest son of F.D.R.)--and the Corona del Mar resident smiles in remembrance. Let’s see, there was the luncheon with the five living U.S. Presidents and their wives at the opening of the Reagan library in Simi Valley. And there was the time she cooked dinner in her home for the Nixons when she and Jim lived in Newport Beach. Not to mention those Reagan White House celebrations commemorating the 100th birthdays of James and Eleanor Roosevelt. And so many more.

“I guess I’ve been terribly spoiled,” says Roosevelt, a teacher at UC Irvine. She has seen it all. “I have such respect for people in public life. It has to be the most challenging thing.”

Attending a political party may be a heady experience, but helping to organize one can be a headache.

Take last week’s luncheon for Barbara Bush at the Hyatt Regency Irvine. Just before the curtain was raised on the $250 per-person affair, event coordinator Nancy Dooley of Lake Forest was rushing around the ballroom, putting finishing touches on the salmon-clothed tables and wishing for more time.

“The White House gave us such short notice,” she says. Less than a week.

There were tickets to sell (150 attended), menus to plan (poached salmon was served) and a photo opportunity to organize. (For $1,000--in a peach-toned room accented with elephants carved of butter--you could pose with the First Lady.)

And there was Bush’s security to ensure. A private, fully draped entrance had to be arranged. A “sweep” was organized; about an hour before the event, Secret Service agents entered the ballroom with a pack of German shepherds that sniffed the facility for explosives.

But, unlike the times President Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle visited the hotel, there were no magnetometers, or metal detectors as they’re better known. The Secret Service deemed them unnecessary. “No ‘magging’ today,” noted Katharyn Sherman, the hotel’s catering director, in a tone that said she’s been there .

Johnson found out only last week that Hillary Clinton would come to Orange County to speak at a $125 per-ticket luncheon on Sept. 17. On Friday, Johnson met in her home with co-organizers Audrey Redfearn (administrative assistant to former California Democratic Chairman Richard O’Neill) and Jolene Engel. Their goal: attract 500 women to the gathering, no simple task in “Republicansville.”

There will be photo opportunities for donors of $1,000 and up. A photo op with a First Lady wanna-be? “We think working women will enjoy that,” Johnson says.

Tonight, the Johnsons will welcome 40 couples to their home for a $250 per-person dinner for Seymour. Among guests: GOP dissident Kathryn Thompson and her husband, Lincoln Club President Gus Owen.

Dinner will be simple (it always is at political bashes--puts more money into candidates’ coffers): black bean lamb chili and peach brulee .

“I hope the party is thought-provoking,” says Janice Johnson. “These get-togethers are all about people wanting to learn and exchange ideas.”


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