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A longtime home to power, prestige

Times Staff Writer

President-elect Kennedy strode out to the front of his house on N Street after winning the 1960 election and announced that Robert S. McNamara had agreed to be his secretary of Defense. Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, welcomed guests in the 1980s and ‘90s to her home on R Street, giving new meaning to the term power dinner. And in the 1930s, lobbyist Thomas G. Corcoran cooked up massive overhauls of social policy with other New Dealers in what critics dubbed their “little red house” on R Street

Georgetown, an enclave of Washington, D.C., that was named not for George Washington but for King George II, is rich in political and social history. Home to the powerful and the wealthy -- Pamela Harriman almost single-handedly resuscitated the Democratic Party through strategy sessions in her home on N Street -- it is a warren of Federal-style buildings, tree-lined streets and cobblestone walkways in a city more often covered in marble, steel and, lately, concrete barriers.

Now, Georgetown is salivating over the prospect that two of its own could ascend to the highest levels of power in this power-conscious town.

For the first time in American history, both members of the Democratic Party’s presidential ticket live in Georgetown -- Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in the 3300 block of O Street in a $4.7-million home owned in the 19th century by the minister to the Russian czar; North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in the 3300 block of P Street in a $3.8-mansion with a 20th century pedigree for the society entertaining that characterized the Kennedy era.

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“This promises to be 1960 all over again,” cooed the Georgetowner, a must-read throwaway for area residents, in an editorial after presidential hopeful Kerry named Edwards as his running mate. “And if the dynamic duo should happen to win, well, if you were waiting for real-estate prices to come down in Georgetown, forgeddaboutit.”

Georgetown originated as a port, home to wealthy tobacco merchants who designed lavish homes and quaint shops. In the period after the Civil War, it became a black neighborhood, and several historic black churches still peal their bells amid its current luxury. Dotted with churches, Georgetown also includes an Orthodox synagogue, where Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), another Georgetown resident, walks to services on Saturdays.

The area began to gentrify in the 1930s, when many members of President Roosevelt’s young Brain Trust took up residence. The Kennedys, who lived in several homes there before Jack won the presidency, cemented Georgetown’s reputation with the promise of youth and the cachet of Camelot. Jacqueline Kennedy had a special affection for the community and cultivated a social network there.

In those days, Georgetown held the allure of power over partisanship, attracting any number of media heavyweights -- conservative columnist Joseph Alsop welcomed Kennedy to his home on Dumbarton Street just before 2 a.m. on the night of his inauguration; later, Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee opened the library at his N Street home to reporters and lawyers vetting the Pentagon Papers.

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Along with Alsop, Republicans were a frequent sight in Georgetown in those years. John Sherman Cooper, a Republican senator from Kentucky, and his wife, Lorraine Rowan Cooper, were frequent guests of the Kennedys and avid entertainers, giving an annual spring party for the Senate and opening their home to the annual Georgetown House Tour for many years.

Lately, Georgetown has tilted to the left, a magnet for Kennedy wannabes seeking to bask in the glow of history and hoping its social standing will confer greatness. Although notable exceptions still abound -- Fox News’ Britt Hume makes Georgetown his home, for instance -- for the most part, the money is Democratic and the socializing tends to be more about promoting causes, careers and books than in bridging the city’s partisan divide. Republicans who once joined the Georgetown crowd now tend toward the suburbs, particularly those in Virginia.

“If the country is evenly divided between red states [Republican] and blue states [Democratic], then Georgetown is teal,” said Grover Norquist, the conservative lightning rod who runs the advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform. “It’s symbolic. The fact that both Kerry and Edwards are from Georgetown tells you everything you need to know.”

Edwards, who has been in the Senate for six years, did not move to Georgetown until December 2002, settling into a home with a storied past as the social center of Polly and Clayton Fritchey -- she a well-known hostess and widow of Frank Wisner, one of the founders of the CIA; he a journalist. Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, told the Charlotte Observer that they decided to move because their old house, near Massachusetts Avenue, had no yard for their two young children to play.

“It’s a symbolic house for Edwards to have bought,” said Sally Bedell Smith, author of “Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House.” “The house has a significant pedigree in Georgetown. A lot of entertaining went on there.”

Smith, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair who has also written biographies of Princess Diana and fund-raiser Harriman, said she doubted a victory for the Kerry-Edwards ticket would revive the Georgetown party scene of the Kennedy years.

“My sense is there isn’t the same kind of bipartisan nature to social life in Washington as once was,” she said. “There’s a more adversarial relationship between the press and a president that Watergate created.” Once reporters looked the other way. They certainly did not report accounts of Kennedy and other politicians having extramarital affairs. But now there are few secrets.

“A president would be crazy to mingle with journalists to the extent Kennedy did,” Smith said. “No politician can afford that kind of candor today.”

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Then too, like the Kennedys, Kerry and his billionaire wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, have private homes elsewhere. Kerry and his wife, heir to the ketchup fortune left by her first husband, the late Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania, have homes in Pittsburgh; Boston; Sun Valley, Idaho; and Nantucket, Mass.

Neighbors near their Georgetown home -- dubbed the Bodisco house after early owner Alexander de Bodisco -- report that they rarely see the Kerrys, who tend to entertain within political, not social, circles.

With all the competing addresses for the potential first couple -- not to mention the presidential compound at Camp David in Maryland -- the gravitational pull away from Washington may be greater, the affection for Georgetown somewhat muted.

Still, David Roffman, editor-at-large of the Georgetowner and a 30-year veteran of the town’s social goings-on, said local residents have “absolutely a sense of pride” in the Democratic ticket and its prospects for reigniting interest and conferring new cachet on Georgetown.

Yes, but can the town take a frenzied media clogging its historic streets with trucks and cable? “Oh, sure,” he said, “we have movies filmed here all the time.”


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