By Bernard Ohanian
Lichtman is late for lunch.
As it turns out, she has good reason. The Palm restaurant is boisterous, full of high-energy women and men in suits pulling documents out of attaché cases, leaning over their lobster bisque or veal marsala to study them, and suddenly pulling out cellular phones to make a call. Full, in other words, of lawyers.
This is Washington, the town with more briefs than a Calvin Klein warehouse. (Washington, D.C., has 42,400 lawyers out of a population of 600,000, probably the highest percentage of lawyers per capita of anyplace in the world.)
Finally, a waiter sidles up to whisper, "Ms. Lichtman just called to say she's terribly sorry to be running so late. She's on her way now." His voice drops. "She just got out of an important meeting." He drops his voice even lower. "With the vice president."
And quicker than you can say Albert Gore Jr., Judith Lichtman arrives and begins holding court over the Palm's trademark spinach and potatoes. "I love this place," she says, the rasp in her voice making it sound as if it has been 35 minutes rather than 35 years since she left her native New York. "The food's great, it's light and airy, and the tables are far enough apart that you can have a private conversation. And I always run into people I know."
That doesn't make the Palm special, for Lichtman can hardly go anywhere in Washington without running into someone she knows. Since she first arrived in town in 1966, fresh out of the University of Wisconsin Law School, to join the general counsel's office of the Health, Education, and Welfare Department as a civil rights attorney, she's served on dozens of boards and advisory committees, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Washington Council of Lawyers to the American Jewish Congress to Georgetown Day School. Her civic presence prompted Washingtonian magazine to name her Washingtonian of the Year in 1986 and one of the 100 Most Important Women in Washington in 1989; Ladies Home Journal named her one of America's 100 Most Important Women in 1988. She has led the Women's Legal Defense Fund, one of the capital's most successful lobbying groups for women, for more than 20 years and, since 1988, has served as its president. Over the last two decades, she has pursued civil rights legislation, including the Family and Medical Leave Act, and, most recently, health care reform.
Many people inside the Beltway consider living in the capital as a necessary evil at best and a life sentence without possibility of parole at worst; these are the kind of people who never tire of quoting President Kennedy's observation that "Washington is a city of southern efficiency and northern charm." But that line won't work on Lichtman. "I love this place," she says again. She could be talking about the Palm. She could be talking about Washington.
"This is a small town, really," she says, waving at a friend across the room. "It's a wonderful place for a family to put down roots. It's livable, full of grass and trees, and yet it's exciting and vibrant. If you care about social justice and social change, this is where it's happening."
Young attorneys and lobbyists from out of town frequently ask her where the "happening" restaurants and clubs are-to knock back a beer, trade political gossip, see and be seen. Club cruising doesn't interest her, so she asks her younger staffers for advice. "They tell me about Hibiscus on K Street and Coco Loco on Seventh Street NW. I guess the hottest place right now is Chief Ike's Mambo Room on Columbia Road NW"-a club in the city's vibrant, multi-ethnic, restaurant-filled Adams-Morgan neighborhood that gained fame after the 1992 election as a hangout for young Clinton administration aides.
After three decades of wining and dining the high and the mighty, the woman knows where to eat. She rattles off her favorites with the certainty of a missionary spreading the gospel. "City Lights on Connecticut Avenue has the best Chinese food in town; it's been consistently superb over many years." The restaurant recently won plaudits from Mick Jagger, who stopped in this summer when the Rolling Stones were playing at D.C.'s RFK Stadium. "Mick Jagger," she laughs. "In my restaurant!" On nearby 21st Street is Galileo, "the best Italian restaurant in Washington. Lawyers love to go there. The food is authentic and terrific, and there's nothing precious about it." Lichtman stumbled into Galileo the day it opened in 1984, and soon afterward she took her friend Phyllis Richman, the Washington Post's influential food critic. Richman wrote a glowing review, and restaurant owner Roberto Donna has shown his gratitude by occasionally finding Lichtman a table, no matter how busy the night. When then-Vice President George Bush couldn't get a reservation one night in the mid-1980s, Donna's partner laughingly told Lichtman, "I should have had him call you."
Bush is gone, but the power restaurants haven't changed. "A place is either in or it's out," Lichtman says, "and it usually keeps its status regardless of which party is in power." That's good news for many of Lichtman's other favorites: Italian restaurants I Matti, i Ricchi, and the less expensive and less formal Il Radicchio; La Colline, a French restaurant on Capitol Hill favored by lobbyists and lawyers; Red Sage, a Southwestern-style brainchild of wunderkind Mark Miller; the Occidental Grill, just down the street from the White House and a power lunch spot for generations; and Toojay's, a coffee shop on Wisconsin Avenue near the Maryland line that's "the closest thing we have to an authentic New York deli."
She recommends a visit to the buffet at the Russell Senate Dining Room, where senators and senior staff savor the renowned navy bean soup with ham. The dining room, which is open to the public, is "great for casual conversation" with lawmakers and their aides, says Lichtman, "but you have to be judicious about approaching them." There are times when senators want to talk about Bosnia, and there are times when they want to be left alone; the successful lobbyist has a sixth sense about which is which.
"I always take out-of-town visitors to the Kennedy graves," she says. "They never forgot about individual and human rights, and I like to remind
people of that legacy. And I love the Sewall-Belmont house on Second and Constitution," a museum that commemorates the history of the women's movement from the time of the suffragists to the present. (The house, which has been remodeled several times in a variety of architectural styles, is also available for private parties. Lichtman herself rented it out for both her daughters' bas mitzvahs.) "I also take people to the Einstein Memorial in the gardens of the National Academy of Sciences. The statue is lovely, and he has such a kindly look on his face."
The Bethune Museum and Archives, an official National Historical Site and a showcase of African American women's history, is another Lichtman favorite, as is Union Station, the soaring 1908 rail terminus modeled after Rome's Baths of Diocletian and the Arch of Constantine. The restored station, where commuter, intercity, and subway trains pour in every minute, now doubles as one of Washington's smartest shopping malls. "Because of interstate commerce regulations," she says, "the restaurant at Union Station was the only place in town where blacks and whites were served together at the same tables" until the nation's capital was desegregated in 1952. "We need to remember that period in our history."
Lichtman sometimes stops for afternoon tea at the elegant and stately Willard Hotel where the word lobbyist is said to have originated. The story goes that President Ulysses S. Grant often escaped the White House to stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue a few blocks to the Willard, where he would sit in the lobby and smoke cigars. Savvy members of Congress and representatives of what today would be called interest groups knew to look for him in the hotel lobby, where they could press their case in a more informal atmosphere than the White House.
A century later, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in a room at the Willard.
Lichtman wraps up her tour of Washington with what many Washingtonians swear is the highlight of their city: a nighttime visit to the city's most storied monuments, bathed in floodlights, glowing like directional stars in the night sky. "I guess I like the Lincoln Memorial best, because of all that he stood for. But the others are just as beautiful, and the Vietnam War Memorial takes on an awesome, eerie quality at night. When you see the monuments at night, or fly into National Airport from the north, it makes you feel patriotic," she says, her voice quiet and forceful. "You see the Capitol Dome and the Supreme Court building, and you feel the power of these two democratic institutions."
Righting herself from her reverie, Judith Lichtman gathers up her belongings, waves to another friend across the room, and heads off to another meeting, another chance to change someone's mind.
Bernard Ohanian, who moved to Washington from California two years ago, is the author of Baseball in America and A Day in the Life of Italy, both published by Collins San Francisco.
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