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.

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