Cover Story

Throw Me Something, Senator!

by Jeremy Alford

Mardi Gras is the most extravagant free party in the world, unless you're in Washington, D.C. The Beltway version costs mega bucks to buy proximity to power.

One after another, they stepped into the oversized costume. The cloak and crown was a perfect match all around, but the glittering pantsuit smothered nearly everyone it touched, no small feat in a room full of Louisiana men raised on étouffée and tasso dishes. Each tried with enough determination to draw Excalibur from its stone, but practically all failed to fill the king's special suit. That is, until New Orleans Congressman F. Edward Hebert slipped on the bulky garment and, by dumb luck and virtual default, became the first official king of the Washington Mardi Gras Ball.

Hebert filled the role nicely in 1944, setting the original benchmark for future rulers of Washington Mardi Gras. Prior to holding congressional office, Hebert made a name for himself as a political editor at The Times-Picayune, and his stories about misuse of state money led to the conviction of former Gov. Richard W. Leche.

The party's 1940s debut came after Louisiana exiles living in Washington wanted their pomp and pageantry, so an invitation promising a "surprise demonstration of the spirit of Mardi Gras" lured guests to a social on the birth date of George Washington. A couple from the Bayou State wore masks and portrayed George and his wife in a meager presentation. No beads or doubloons were thrown, and the evening passed quietly.

It was pretty mild stuff compared to the three-day political-palooza that thrives in the nation's capital today.

The modern-day Washington Mardi Gras now stretches over three jam-packed days of luncheons, conferences, meetings, parties, ceremony and networking. The 2007 fête was held last week and was attended by more than 3,000 people, of which about 90 percent traveled from Louisiana to be there. And why not? All of the attendees get full access to the state's most powerful ' and not-so-powerful ' politicians. Many organizations and companies dedicate portions of their marketing or outreach budgets to the bash.

It's the Zeus of D.C. networking events and, in classic Louisiana fashion, provides a working example of how lawmakers and lobbyists can dodge those crafty gift rules (the event enjoys an exception from the ethics code). And beneath the political veneer is a swinging party, complete with bayou fare produced by the state's most talented chefs. Zydeco and jazz are offered up to the masses, as are miniature floats and original throws. For a few days on the Hill, people from outside of Louisiana get it, while the locals just grin and look for their next introduction. The forefathers of the Washington Mardi Gras wouldn't have it any other way ' especially since last year's celebrations were canceled due to Katrina and Rita.

During the early 1950s, NBC News ran footage of the Beltway festivities, and D.C. nightlife suddenly took on a Southern tone. Over the next decade, legendary CBS anchor Walter Cronkite would serve as emcee, then-Vice President Richard Nixon would present royalty and former Chief Justice Earl Warren would crown a queen. The guest list peaked around 900 during this long growth spurt. The political elite started embracing the Fat Tuesday-related festivities, but they had no idea of what was to come.

It wasn't until late U.S. Sen. Russell Long took over Washington Mardi Gras and formed the Mystick Krewe of Louisianians that the merriment truly began to resemble carnival season in south Louisiana. A few high-brows frowned upon the throws, late-night parties and extra two days of events, but the guest list continued to grow when Long, son of the fabled Kingfish governor, grabbed the reigns back in 1957. A historical record compiled by the krewe's current leadership credits Long's "almost child-like enthusiasm for Mardi Gras" for the increase in popularity.

Time Magazine published "Mardi Gras on the Potomac" following Long's first ball, explaining in great detail how senators threw back scotch ' Long insisted the party be BYOB ' and jitterbugged to loud rock 'n' roll: "At length, in the early hours of the morning, the party and the liquor began to subside. Tired, rumpled and glassy-eyed, the guests found their way to the door. Last to leave: Senator Russ Long, his face glowing. Gazing around the room as waiters scooped up masses of cigarette butts, glasses and bottles, the boss of the Mardi Gras said: 'Wonderful time, wonderful party.'"

Eighteen years later, Time revisited the ball and ended up shedding some comical light on how strict Long actually was when it came to managing his krewe. He had come up with a rule many years before that any member who removed their mask would be fined $50. But during the 1975 ball, he broke his own rule with a good excuse.

"There he was, swaggering along in the mask of captain emeritus of the Louisiana State Society's annual Mardi Gras Ball in Washingtonâ?¦ when Long approached Honored Guest [First Lady] Betty Ford to claim a dance, a Secret Service man barred his way, saying, 'You can't dance with Mrs. Ford until we know who you are.' Russell identified himself, but Mrs. Ford's protector persisted, 'You will have to take off your mask.' So Long dropped his mask and $50 for a dance with Betty."

Bob Mann, Long's official biographer and author of Legacy To Power: Senator Russell Long of Louisiana, says part of Long's legend resides with the three-day festival and is the closest thing the state has to a political convention. "Long was passionate about Mardi Gras. There was nothing frivolous about it to him," Mann says. "He was serious about people having a good time, but he got down to business and would give the krewe long lectures each weekend leading up to the ball. He would teach people how to throw beads and warn them to watch for broken strands, or they might end up with glass in their ass. He approached everything with a good sense of humor, but was deadly serious about how the krewe acted in public. He would always caution everyone about getting too drunk. He was very strict, but he changed the entire structure of the event."

Louisiana's congressional delegation has traditionally had the responsibility of choosing the ball's chairperson, but only recently did the gang restrict the list to themselves. Cajun giants like Sen. John Breaux and Rep. Billy Tauzin ' both now highly-paid lobbyists ' partly built their personas and careers with the help of Washington Mardi Gras. This year, Sen. David Vitter of Metairie is chairing the ball for the first time. Due to the ongoing legislative session, he has had to recruit his wife, staffers and other volunteers to help carry the load. "It's been a fair amount of work," Vitter says. "More than I ever expected."

The first day boasts a king's luncheon and the annual Louisiana Alive party, which serves as an excellent showcase for the state. There are always top-tier zydeco bands blasting on stage and a massive buffet of seafood from the Gulf of Mexico. The queen has her brunch on the second day, followed by an economic development and tourism conference. There's a krewe dinner that evening as well, and the entire three days are cluttered with invitations to suite parties held by various interests.

But it's the final day that all revelers look forward to with anticipation, for that's traditionally the night of the ball ' considered by many to be the premier social event Washington, D.C., has to offer. The king (normally a prominent businessman) and queen are presented to the crowd. Masked men and debutantes lead "call-out" dances, and it's a major society honor if you get tapped.

At one point during the evening, a parade of lavishly decorated floats rolls through the ballroom. A few krewe members ride the wheeled miniatures, while others push. And even though it isn't St. Charles Avenue, people are begging for beads. The booze flows freely ' or at least as freely as you can get at a D.C. function.

Then there are the after-parties. Sen. Mary Landrieu hosts one of the best-known ' and most kitschy ' events. Once a year, Landrieu and her staff break out the karaoke machine for their version of American Idol, Louisiana style. Vitter, a Republican, recalls a recent karaoke party he and his staff attended. They brought along music and puppets that Landrieu had used against him in a campaign attack ad. "That was probably one of my more memorable moments," Vitter says. "It was all in good fun."

The joie de vivre floating around Washington Mardi Gras is enough to bring smiles to partisan enemies for one weekend. But the celebration also has a sober side this year as the state continues to rebuild in the wake of the 2005 storm season. For the first time since Katrina and Rita, some conversations at the D.C. party will inevitably focus on those who aren't there ' or back in Louisiana yet, for that matter.

Washington Mardi Gras, like New Orleans Mardi Gras, was cancelled in 1945 due to America's war efforts. Two years later another ball was called off after one of the major organizers retired. War overseas again put a stop to the show in 1951 and 1952, but it came roaring back with a vengeance under Long.

Since then, nothing stood in the way of the Hill's big shindig, until Katrina and Rita.

But Vitter says you can't keep a good thing down. Once the news was leaked that the party was returning this year ' just in time for its 50th anniversary ' tickets sold out before 2007 even started. The shadow of Katrina and Rita still looms over the three days, and people are still grumbling about the slow pace of recovery, but support for the ball and its message is off the charts. "This is the strongest demand we've seen as a krewe, and it is a solid statement that people are ready for this," Vitter says. "I think it is the surest evidence that the time is right."

Vitter selected "There's No Place Like Home" as the theme and commissioned an artist to depict the cast from The Wizard of Oz in masks and krewe costumes. The image is emblazoned on posters and other paraphernalia and depicts the group huddling on a yellow brick road between Capitol Hill and the State Capitol in Baton Rouge. There is also a charitable arm to Washington Mardi Gras this year. The krewe is pushing for donations to the Louisiana Emergency Mobile Units, a nonprofit organization based in Lafayette that provides medical care to underserved areas during a disaster.

The noble effort represents the needs of people who would never attend Mardi Gras in the nation's capital. Just consider the costs: Individual tickets for the various events and activities range from $175 to $700, and a corporate sponsorship of the Louisiana Alive party can reportedly run upwards of $6,000, according to the Washington Monthly. Mix in flight and hotel and the total can grow by an additional $800 or more. But price isn't an issue for those looking for opportunities to network, get close to power and push an agenda.

There are so-called gift rules that severely limit how much money corporate honchos and lobbyists can spend on lawmakers and their staffs, but Washington Mardi Gras enjoys a special exemption in the ethics code because it is considered a "widely attended" gathering that is rigidly structured.

Mary Boyle, a spokesperson for the accountability watchdog Common Cause, says it's a loophole that does nothing to serve the average taxpayer in Louisiana. "The concern in general is these people are spending a lot of money to come up to D.C. and buy some access and influence and corner members of Congress," she says. "The underlying concern is Joe Q. Public probably cannot do that. The money is buying them access, and I don't think it's a level playing field."

Representation for a neglected issue is what sent Wendell Curole, head of the Louisiana Association of Levee Boards, trekking to Washington Mardi Gras on a number of previous occasions. Curole has long been at the forefront of the move to link together coastal restoration, levee maintenance and hurricane protection under one umbrella. He's pushed the initiative with various Louisiana officials at past events, and he contends the strategy has helped build the credibility of his association and the cause.

To effectively take advantage of the possibilities of Washington Mardi Gras, strategy is essential. After all, why spend time with folks from agriculture at the suite party when the crew from water resources is at the queen's luncheon? "As frivolous as some might think this to be, you can get to representatives, senators and aides and spend as much as 30 minutes with them," Curole says. "You can make all the contacts you need in a couple of nights, and they'll likely remember you when you come calling."

Gerald Breaux, director of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Bureau, is hoping to benefit from the same exposure this year with a hospitality suite touting the Acadiana region to travel writers and journalists interested in French-oriented research. While most of the major metro areas already have suites, this will be a first for Lafayette, after being on a waiting list for several years. Local businesses and entrepreneurs are footing the cost, Breaux says.

Special Mardi Gras beads were ordered to celebrate the 250th birthday of the Marquis de Lafayette, the namesake of the city. An entire year of exhibitions and events are planned in Lafayette to honor the milestone and hopefully that will sound intriguing to a room full of travel writers munching on free shrimp. "We have about 60 VIPs coming, and we're expecting the ambassador from France to the U.S.," says Breaux. "This is a real opportunity for Lafayette to sell itself. It's exciting."

As for Vitter, he's looking to do some networking as well. He's already staked out the party where he can find Donald Powell, the federal Gulf Coast rebuilding coordinator, and his seats are secure for the keynote speech by bipartisan couple Mary Matalin and the Ragin' Cajun James Carville. "It's always a great opportunity to network," Vitter says.

That doesn't stop the party. Just ask 19-year-old Elizabeth Chance of Lafayette. She's the queen this year, alongside King Boysie Bollinger, CEO of Bollinger Shipyards and Republican heavyweight.

During an interview from her cell phone last week, just hours before boarding a private jet with a horde of fellow Louisiana queens from the Strawberry Festival and the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival, Chance says Bollinger had special doubloons made up with their likeness. It's one unique mark she hopes to leave on the event. "I can't wait," she says. "Just everyone partying and being together and taking part in this as one Louisiana is a special event. I'm looking forward to sharing some fun times and making new friends."

Chance, a freshman at Louisiana State University studying secondary education and mathematics, knows the magnitude of the opportunity. She'll come in personal contact with some of the most powerful people in the country, but it doesn't faze her. Chance wants to meet everyone, but she would rather be an actress than a politician. "I'll try not to abuse my power," she says with a laugh. "Not this weekend."