In D.C., A Girls'-Night-In Becomes the Top-Secret Power Invite
Female journalists like CNN's Dana Bash mix with politicos of both genders, including Senator Cory Booker, at Susanna Quinn's dinners, where power players dish on politicians they love to hate. Says one guest, "If husbands show up, they eat in the kitchen."
What started as a girls’ night in among Washington friends has turned into one of the most coveted invites in D.C. Hosted in the Phillips Park home of Susanna Quinn — Washington influencer (her husband is Democratic former White House Counsel Jack Quinn) and entrepreneur (she founded Veluxe, an exclusive on-demand beauty service) — these gatherings have evolved into off-the-record dinners bringing top female journalists like MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell and CNN’s Dana Bash together with a range of D.C. power players (the night’s guest of honor can be male or female).
In the 20 or so dinners Quinn has hosted, the seat at the head of the table has been filled by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Sen. John Thune (R-SD), and most recently, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA). One guest of honor, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, was even invited back for an encore. "I didn’t mind being cross-examined — it was spirited, all off-the-record, and it stayed that way," he says. "Susanna is very strict about the rules. No men. If husbands show up, they have to eat in the kitchen." In addition to her off-the-record mandate, table talk is restricted to one conversation at all times. "If people get into side conversations," says Quinn, "I clink my glass." Recent conversations have centered on the new administration, refugee vetting, and, inevitably, "politicians you hate so much you’d claw your way out of an elevator to get away from them," says Quinn.
CNN anchor and political correspondent Brianna Keilar calls the dinner "the Georgetown Ladies’ Social Club colliding with the Speaker’s Lobby" — which is the area just off the House chamber where reporters stalk members of Congress. "Susanna is uniquely suited to pulling off an event like this because she’s not only a consummate host, but she also knows the machinations of Washington — from the gossip to the governing."
The menu is carefully designed around each guest of honor. For example, when Quinn found out that Senator Cory Booker was a vegan, she whipped up a meal from scratch, including vegan ice cream sandwiches. For Issa’s dinner, Quinn offered a whiskey cocktail she dubbed the "Real Time With Darrell Issa" — served in mugs that her husband happened to have collected from talk show appearances — because when Issa recently appeared on Real Time With Bill Maher, he was accidentally served a mug of whiskey that was intended for Seth MacFarlane.
For the first two courses, the journalists steer the conversation. "The jumping-off point for the recent dinner with Senator Booker was about finding empathy and common ground," says CNN global affairs correspondent Elise Labott. Then, over dessert, tables are turned and the guest of honor gets a chance to grill the journalists. "The journalists often know more than the guest of honor, particularly when it comes to current events and other politicians," says Quinn. According to Sec Johnson, "This is the way Washington is supposed to work. It gives journalists and newsmakers the chance to get to know each other. We each discover of the other that we are not evil people." Says former guest of honor Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), "It is rare that any party starts with presidential politics, delves into wonky budget policy and ends with me answering pop trivia questions." There’s also always plenty of laughter, as when one presidential candidate serenaded the group. "Can’t tell you who, though," says CNN's Keilar coyly. "It was, after all, off the record."
A version of this story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.