WASHINGTON _ Mere months ago, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was introduced to the world as a hockey mom who hunts and fishes, remains grounded in small-town values, and is married to her blue-collar, snow-machine-loving high school sweetheart.
Saturday night, Palin was whisked into the governors-and-cabinet-members-only section of one of the nation's capital's most exclusive parties: the Alfalfa Club dinner. Wearing an elegant black satin evening gown and a matching wrap, hair loose to her shoulders, Palin was about as far away as anyone can get from field-dressing a moose, let alone Joe the Plumber.
Held in the heart of Washington, D.C., at the Capital Hilton, within sight of the White House, the Alfalfa Club dinner was "a coup" for Palin, said Letitia Baldrige, who served as the White House social secretary and chief of staff to Jacqueline Kennedy.
"It's something that everybody who's anybody in politics wants to be invited to," Baldrige said.
If a roasting by the most powerful people in America is a sign you've made it, then Palin had clearly arrived. Or, at the very least, had been acknowledged as one of the most interesting women in American politics.
The outgoing president of the Alfalfa Club, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, teased Palin in a way allowable only for a fellow veteran of the vice presidential campaign trail.
"I was seriously being considered to be McCain's pick for vice president," said Lieberman, Al Gore's 2000 running mate and a former Democrat who campaigned for Sen. John McCain this year.
"But then John called me," Lieberman said. "As he always does, he got right to the point. He said, 'Joe, I can't do it. I need more than just a pretty face.' "
"I was so close. As close as Alaska is to Russia. You could almost say that from my doorstep I could see the Vice President's mansion," he said.
The club's roots are deep in Washington, although not very serious. And while it has a prestigious guest list these days, it was a drinking club first and foremost when it was founded in 1913, said Donald Ritchie, the associate historian of the U.S. Senate. That's where Alfalfa comes from _ the alfalfa plant "put down deep roots and could always get a drink," Ritchie said. The plant would "persevere to get a drink, and so would they."
In fact, Ritchie said, the Alfalfa Club appears to be modeled after another popular stag club of the era, Philadelphia's Clover Club. The Alfalfa Club was so prestigious that in the 1920s and '30s, Washington newspapers would print the names of the attendees, Ritchie said. Even though Washington is now something of a Tuesday-through-Thursday town for many elected officials, Ritchie said, the Alfalfa Club dinner remains an enduring tradition that few besides insiders are allowed to glimpse.
Because its founders were Southerners _ and in 1913, Washington was a Southern town _ they chose Gen. Robert E. Lee's birthday for the day of their annual celebration. The annual dinner continues to be around Lee's birthday, Jan. 19, although the club's origins appear to have little other connection to the Civil War general.
The dinner's guest list is the embodiment of the old question: If you could have a dinner party and invite anyone, who would be on your guest list? Did we mention that President Barack Obama was there, telling jokes?
"I know that many you are aware that this dinner began almost one hundred years ago as a way to celebrate the birthday of General Robert E. Lee," Obama said. "If he were here with us tonight, the General would be 202 years old. And very confused."
The governor's office wouldn't say who invited Palin to the Alfalfa dinner, but by tradition, each member is allowed two guests.
Her host could be any number of famous, powerful (or once-powerful) members, including Palin's fellow Alaskan, former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, convicted last year on corruption charges in federal court. (Unlike Palin, Stevens entered through the metal detectors with the ordinary guests, such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.) Palin's presidential running mate, Sen. John McCain, also is a member. So is the man whose job she wanted: Vice President Joe Biden.
Typically, the club's members pick an honorary "president" each year _ and do little else. The inductees _ known as "sprouts" _ are few each year. Many people wait a lifetime to be tapped for the club, and that was obvious Saturday night. Palin, although a grandmother herself, appeared to be one of the youngest guests, other than the 47-year-old president.
Another tradition? Although journalists are not allowed inside the dinner, details of the professionally written jokes generally leak out. That was the case again this year, but not to the extent it has been in previous years. Palin's presence drew more cameras than usual, forcing reporters and photographers into a small, penned-off area as guests arrived.
According to accounts of the dinners of the past decade, the event retains the air of a 1950s fraternity banquet. In 2003, the Washington Post's account of the evening reported that Stevens accepted the Alfalfans' presidential nomination wearing a fur hat, sealskin vest, mukluk moccasin boots, and brandishing an oosik, which is a walrus penis bone. Stevens laid out his health-care platform, which according to the Post, was to find a cure for frostbite. "When it comes to frostbite," said Stevens, then 79, "what you have to worry about is nose, toes and something that at my age may as well be froze."
Former First Lady Barbara Bush had this comeback, according to the Post: "Ted, this is the third time you've brought one of those walrus things to this dinner. I hate to think what went on here before women were admitted."
The Alfalfa Club did not allow women as members until 1993, but has made up for that oversight. Saturday night, dozens of powerful women streamed in, some members, some guests: Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell, on the arm of her husband, Alan Greenspan. And Palin.
The governor's weekend itinerary wasn't limited to the Alfalfa Club. It included a Friday night dinner at the home of Fred Malek, who headed up McCain's finance committee. She also was scheduled to meet with her Alaska staff in Washington and attend a luncheon at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Palin's limited travel outside of her home state — and the country — was the subject of much criticism when she was a vice presidential candidate. But now, it's Alaskans who are a little testy about the governor's absence, even as the state's legislative session opens. Their suspicions that Palin has ambitions beyond Alaska were only confirmed this week, when the governor announced the formation of her own political action committee.
The committee, called SarahPAC, is not a 2012 presidential exploratory committee, spokeswoman Pam Pryor insisted last week. It's a way for her to raise money for like-minded candidates as well as pay for travel connected to fundraising or her political activity unconnected to her official duties as the governor of Alaska.
Perhaps because of the scrutiny at home, Palin has kept a low profile on the trip to the nation's capital. She turned down all requests for interviews, including the other invitations that indicate one's arrival in Washington: an appearance on the Sunday morning talk shows.
She also didn't attend any events that could be perceived as partisan, including the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee, also held over the weekend.