The Alfalfa Club is the most insidery bastion of inside Washington, an exclusive club of establishment elites who meet once a year to dine, drink and tell self-deprecating jokes. Its members include billionaires, business and military leaders, senior politicians – influential power brokers who can be useful to a new administration with an ambitious agenda.
And the guest of honor, at least in his first year in office, is usually the president of the United States.
This year, however, President Donald Trump has decided not to attend the black-tie dinner on Saturday, becoming the first president to skip the annual celebration in the first year of his term since 1993. His absence underscores the message that Trump, at least for now, is declining the opportunity to interact informally with Washington’s most influential players.
Instead, as Politico first reported Friday, Vice President Mike Pence, Ivanka Trump and White House senior officials Jared Kushner, Reince Priebus, and Kellyanne Conway will represent the president at the event.
“We’re disappointed, but we’re still hopeful he may attend,” said one member of the dinner committee who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly for the club.
Trump is also skipping an arguably even more exclusive event: Vernon Jordan’s private Alfalfa lunch Saturday. Last year President Barack Obama did not attend the Alfalfa dinner, but showed up at Jordan’s home for the annual luncheon. This year, Trump is taking a pass.
“POTUS is not coming to my lunch,” Jordan told The Washington Post. “He was invited and declined.”
Guests expected at this year’s dinner include some of the most famous names in the world: billionaires Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, David Rubenstein, Steve Case and Jeffrey P. Bezos (who owns The Washington Post, although we’re still not allowed to cover the party), former Vice President Dick Cheney, former secretaries of state Colin Powell, John Kerry and Madeleine Albright, Chief Justice John Roberts, former GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush, and a number of members of Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and .House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Every president since Ronald Reagan has headlined an Alfalfa dinner, most just days after their first inauguration. Barack Obama was there in 2009 to deliver the traditional comic remarks and returned again in 2012. George W. Bush, a member before he became president, loved the night so much that he came in 2001 and every other year he was in office. Bill Clinton skipped the dinner in 1993 but showed up in 1994 (the first time Alfalfa finally admitted female members) and then for the next three years. George H.W. Bush attended in 1989, 1990 and 1992. And Reagan went in 1981 and attended five more Alfalfa dinners during his presidency.
However, Jimmy Carter, always disinclined toward formality, never attended the gathering during his four years in office.
Membership is highly select and much coveted; tickets to the dinner are always in high demand. Seems like the kind of crowd that Trump would want to hang with. But he’s not a member, and based on club records going back to 1982, he has never attended the event.
The private club, which tries to maintain a low profile, is different from the better-known Gridiron and White House Correspondents’ Association dinners, both hosted by the media. Alfalfans gather every January at the Capital Hilton, and because the dinner is closed to reporters, the jokes are sharper, the drinks stronger, and the mood more expansive.
Club members have been doing a version of this since 1913, when a small group of friends decided to celebrate the birthday of Gen. Robert E. Lee with lobster and many, many toasts. The men-only club grew and thrived, attracting Washington’s political and business elite. It’s officially bipartisan but skews Republican; the club has 244 members, with openings only when someone dies or resigns. (You can identify them walking into the dinner by the gold medallions hung around their necks by red, white and blue ribbon.)
Members are allowed to bring two dinner guests, and everybody receives a printed seating chart for maximum networking; Saturday will have slightly fewer than 700 people jamming the aisles.
The highlight of the night is the speeches: in addition to the president’s remarks, if he’s there, there’s one by the outgoing club president (this year it’s former Clinton adviser Erskine Bowles), one by the incoming president (Bloomberg) and one by the club’s mock presidential candidate. As a joke, the club selects one VIP to head the “Alfalfa ticket,” and the mystery candidate accepts the honor with a funny speech. When Jeb Bush was the Alfalfa choice in 2012, Obama joked: “It is great to see Jeb Bush, who is accepting a nomination for president tonight. I have to say, though, it’s not fair to tease your friends like that.”
As the new commander in chief, Obama received an automatic invitation in 2009, then returned in 2012 to prove he wasn’t aloof and isolated in the White House. “One of my big goals this year was to get out and be among everyday, ordinary Americans,” he told the room. “Like the men and women of the Alfalfa Club.”
The Bushes love Alfalfa so much that presidents 41 and 43 never missed one during their time in Washington and made the trip back from Texas after their terms whenever possible. In 2011, most of the Bush clan – both former presidents plus Barbara Bush, Doro, Jeb and Marvin – showed up. Then-club president Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., turned to the elder Bushes and asked, “Couldn’t find a sitter?”
Trump, on the other hand, has a checkered history with comedic dinners. He happily sat in the hot seat for a Comedy Central roast in 2011, but became the butt of some scorching jokes at the White House Correspondents’ dinner that year.
And he got decidedly mixed reviews last October for his speech at another clubby banquet, New York’s Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, a traditional stop for presidential candidates; Trump and Hillary Clinton shared a tense handshake and some very pointed one-liners, which were broadcast across the nation.
As president, Trump will have a standing invitation at the Alfalfa Club as long as he’s in office – if he wants it.