Dispatch November 2008

Vanity School Fair

Washington's elite private schools are scrambling for the Obamas' daughters
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Nothing sets the nation’s capital aflame quite like the imminent arrival of a president elect, especially one who directly appeals to the ruthless strivers who populate the wealthy liberal precincts of upper northwest D.C. For a few weeks, elite Washington abandons all decorum in a ritual display of lust. The unbridled jockeying for status, influence, or a lofty cabinet perch in the new administration is intense, over the top, and therefore hilarious to behold: watch as the city’s great egos try and fail to maintain a shred of the gravitas they have spent careers accumulating. It’s a Tom Wolfe set piece waiting to be written. But even this doesn’t match the mad scramble for social status going on behind the scenes—all the more primal and fierce this time because the dashing young Obamas are the hottest thing to hit Washington society since the Kennedys.

The Obama era may be less than a week old, but denizens of the city’s toniest neighborhoods have already fixated on the objects of greatest cachet: for status-conscious parents and elite private-school headmasters, nothing is more coveted than the Obamas’ young daughters. Amid weighty questions about the economy and Iran at Obama’s first post-election press conference Friday, Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times leapt up to ask Obama the question Washington’s ruling class most wanted answered: Where he would be sending his kids to school. (The president-elect, no cheap date, dodged the question.) 

Indeed, the race to land Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, is already well underway and is one of the most closely watched contests in Washington. Several weeks ago, prominent Democratic donors, and one-time Clinton loyalists, Beth and Ronald Dozoretz (she was the Clinton bundler who intervened with the president to help secure a pardon for the fugitive financier Marc Rich) attended a dinner for Barack Obama at a private home in Virginia, where Michelle Obama was among the guests. With Michelle’s husband ahead in the polls, victory and transition were on the minds of those in attendance. The Dozoretzes—who named their daughter after Melanne Verveer, Hillary’s former White House chief of staff, and then asked Bill Clinton to be her godfather—had a personal request for the soon-to-be first lady. Beth Dozoretz delivered a handwritten note from Melanne, a fourth-grader at the prestigious, Quaker-run Sidwell Friends School, who is the same age as Malia Obama. Melanne had written to say how much she hoped the Obamas would enroll their daughters at Sidwell Friends.

“Sidwell is a very special place, both educationally and culturally,” Ronald Dozoretz explained to me, recounting the conversation with Michelle Obama. “She should look very closely at it. We said to Michelle that if she wanted to talk more about the school, we would be happy to do that.”

Among the Washington power elite—the law-firm partners, high government officials, and big-name journalists—the process of applying to private school is not only ulcer-inducing (and wallet-busting—tuitions run as high as $28,000 this year) but is a particularly brutal spectator sport, a playing field littered with broken egos and thwarted ambition. With everyone looking for an edge, what could be better for a couple than letting slip to social rivals at a cocktail party that their child is a classmate of a presidential daughter?

The private-school frenzy has a long and storied tradition, particularly at Sidwell. During the 1992 Renaissance Weekend, just after Bill Clinton was elected president, Newsweek’s Howard Fineman lobbied the soon-to-be first family to send their daughter to Sidwell, to join his own children. Several years ago, parents say, when Clinton’s pollster Mark Penn learned that his child had been rejected from Sidwell, he enlisted the former president himself to lobby—successfully—for reconsideration. (Penn: “No comment.”)

This time, in-the-know Washington parents tell me, speculation over the Obamas’ choice of school has reached new levels of intensity. A front-page piece in the November 6 New York Times mentioning Sidwell Friends and Georgetown Day School only fueled the hysteria, adding to the angst of a certain class of Washingtonian. “There’s a frenzy going on in terms of speculation,” one displeased parent of a Maret School student observes. “It makes me want to vomit.” But nauseating as it may be to some, the social significance of the decision has already led to speculation that well-placed parents in the Obama universe are quietly (or, like Dozoretz, not so quietly) lobbying to steer the future first children to their preferred school. Handicappers consider Sidwell, Georgetown Day and Maret the likeliest bets, and each possesses particular strengths—and influence—in the Obama camp.

Sidwell, of course, already boasts a presidential pedigree. Chelsea Clinton and Tricia Nixon are alumni—a major asset, according to parents. “My gut is they go with Sidwell,” one Georgetown Day parent sighed. “[Sidwell’s] politics are very similar to the Obamas’,” Ronald Dozoretz points out. “They certainly wouldn't go wrong being there.” The school also counts prominent Obama supporters among its parental ranks, including Barack Obama’s Harvard Law School classmate Steve Weisbrod, and Hunter Biden, the vice president-elect’s youngest son. Still, the school’s image is extremely, well, Clinton-heavy (parents include Hillaryland veterans Mark Penn, Mandy Grunwald and Lissa Muscatine) … and isn’t this new guy all about “change”? (And imagine the Penn-Obama tension on back-to-school night.)

So the Obamas might look elsewhere, if only to establish their independence. On this touchy subject, the powers at Sidwell have gone to ground. A spokesperson declined comment. “We have a policy of not providing information on prospective applicants,” he said. Pause. “But we would be delighted to have the Obama children.”

Georgetown Day is ardently pro-Obama. The student mock election? A landslide: Obama took more than 90 percent of the vote. The school, founded in 1945 specifically as Washington’s first racially integrated school, boasts a progressive legacy: it is every bit as much the liberal Eden as Hyde Park’s Lab School, which the Obama children currently attend. Forget the buttoned-down formality of the Bushes. Students at Georgetown Day call their teachers by their first names, and “community service” is built into the curriculum. The G.D.S. parent body includes many Obamans: possible attorney general Eric Holder, who oversaw the vice presidential search; Larry Summers, the once, and perhaps future, treasury secretary; campaign media adviser Jim Margolis; transition official Todd Stern, who was Summers’ counsel at Treasury; debate-prep chief and possible Biden chief of staff Ron Klain; and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett’s cousin, Tony Bush. According to one Georgetown Day parent, Bush reached out to Valerie Jarrett months ago to make the pitch. “Early on, there was some talk of lobbying and making a campaign of it,” this parent told me. “But word came back from the campaign that the Obamas did not want to be lobbied.”

The Maret School, too, has ties to Team Obama and many other prominent Democratic figures (Marjo Talbott, Strobe’s sister, is the head of school). Obama’s senior foreign policy adviser Susan Rice is a Maret parent and, says one source, has mentioned this to the first family. Other Obama-affiliated parents include former Harvard Law Review colleague Julius Genachowski (read his Obamablog here). A Maret spokesperson, while declining comment, still managed to slip in a pitch: “Certainly we’re an open and diverse school community, and I think it would be a wonderful environment for the Obama family.”

One long-shot scenario has the Obamas following Jimmy Carter’s lead and sending their daughters to a D.C. public school. The president elect has openly praised both current School Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Mayor Adrian Fenty. (In fact, Obama described Rhee as “a wonderful new superintendent” during the third presidential debate.)

But the strong consensus among those who care most deeply—that is to say, among the striving notables whose offspring populate these expensive institutions of learning—is that the Obamas will opt to keep their kids in private school. On with the lobbying campaign! And good luck! “The decision will be made by Michelle,” says one Maret parent with knowledge of the Obamas’ thinking. “No amount of sway will matter.”

Gabriel Sherman is a contributing editor at New York and a special correspondent to The New Republic.
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