On Saturday night, August 5, in Southampton, behind the tall hedges of a large white house on Gin Lane, about 60 people were dining on red meat at elegantly set tables, draped with peach satin tablecloths, which had been placed around the sprawling lawn. The men wore button-down shirts tucked into pleated pants, the women favored floral sundresses. The flickering light came from several tiki torches. The mood was festive, relaxed, assured. Two nights earlier, the Republican Party had nominated George W. Bush for President, and those assembled on Gin Lane were more than a little happy as they bathed in the afterglow. Before the night was out, many of them would be dancing. For most of the guests were members of that outcast Manhattan tribe-New York Republicans-and sitting at one of the tables was the guest of honor, the birthday boy, Al D’Amato. And the former U.S. Senator, like the other revelers, was feeling no pain.
A dapper 28-year-old fellow, George Dewey, grandson of the late Republican governor Thomas Dewey, summed up the mood: “You don’t have to be ashamed to be a Republican anymore!” he said. “It’s socially acceptable now.”
While the guests included many of New York’s more established worthies, such as John and Susan Gutfreund, oil billionaire David Koch and his expecting wife Julia, plastic surgeon Dr. Daniel Baker and his wife, socialite Nina Griscom, and Charles A. Gargano, the chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, there was a youthful bounce to the evening, from the music-the Village People’s “YMCA”-to the hostess, 26-year-old publicist and polo player Ashley Schiff, a diehard Republican who rents the house with her brother, Drew Schiff, who happens to be married to Karenna Gore-Schiff, daughter and top adviser to Democratic Presidential candidate Al Gore. Drew and Karenna were over in East Hampton, at a fund-raiser for her dad.
Before everyone had sat down to dinner, R. Couri Hay, gossip columnist and publicist, was standing by the bar, wearing all white and drinking a Diet Coke. “Yes, I’m a Republican,” he said. “I’m here to tell you we’re taking back the White House! And it’s about time. And I really feel secure knowing that George W. Bush comes from a solid family with a good house in Kennebunkport, Me., in the summer, and I believe in Barbara Bush and George Bush as a family unit. I like the nephew, too. I mean, the whole family looks good! I think it’s very easy to be a Republican in New York. All the best people are Republicans! Everybody I know is a Republican! I think George W. Bush makes us proud to be Republicans again. He’s leading us out of the closet, out of the dark, into the light, into the White House! He makes us feel it’s a grand old young party. It’s a younger vision and a younger image and younger values. And, you know, maybe he did smoke pot or something, maybe he did date girls-I mean, yeah!”
Mr. Koch, wearing a blue pullover sweater and white pants, was drinking a vodka tonic. “‘Republican’ is not a dirty word; it’s something to be proud of!” he said. He said he had spent an hour with Mr. Bush last summer and found him “very charismatic, the kind of guy that you’d love to have as a good personal friend.
“People say he’s not very smart-Christ, he got into Andover, he got into Yale , he got into Harvard Business School,” said Mr. Koch. “Guess who had the better academic average in college, George W. or Al Gore? George W. had better grades. Neither one was an A student, but Al Gore didn’t do as well academically, he fooled around and didn’t apply himself at Harvard just as George W. was kind of a good-time guy. I think there are many forms of intelligence. I think George W. is brilliant at getting people to like him, getting people to work together, and most importantly, at selecting outstanding talent. I’d rather have a guy who has those skills rather than someone who’s an intellectual genius, straight-A student who can’t judge a good person from a bad person. Look at Dwight Eisenhower, he was a helluva general. I don’t think anyone said he was a rocket scientist but he was the most popular president, he selected good people, and America experienced one of the most prosperous periods in history during the 50′s.”
Mr. Koch said he had visited former President George Bush in Kennebunkport. “He’s got good children,” he said. “Jeb Bush is a helluva talented good guy. Good genes in that family.”
What about Mr. Bush’s membership in the Yale secret society, Skull and Bones?
“That college stuff, that’s good-time stuff,” said Mr. Koch. “I don’t think that has much influence in the way a person conducts himself as a mature adult. I was a member of a fraternity. Do I look like a weirdo?”
Mr. D’Amato came up to the bar. He said that, the night before, he had been served “these incredible drinks that I have never had before!
“We had a great-I mean, I crashed your party, and it was fabulous !” Mr. D’Amato said, turning to a man in his mid-30′s who was standing with him. “What do you call those drinks?”
“A Southside,” the man said.
“Can you make one?”
“It’s my birthday, why not? Come on!”
Earlier that day, Republicans seemed to be scarce at an ovarian cancer research fund-raiser in nearby Water Mill, Sopranos actress Edie Falco? Designer Donna Karan? Nope and nope. Ah, but there was Allure editor in chief Linda Wells, wearing a pink dress and Jack Rogers sandals. Ms. Wells is not only a Republican, she is married to Charles Thompson, the nephew of New Jersey’s Republican governor, Christine Todd Whitman. Of her political affiliation, Ms. Wells said, “I’m not especially comfortable, but I can’t deny the fact. It’s certainly something I always apologize for. Because I’m in the media. And certainly in the minority, so it’s something you have to kind of be in the closet about.”
George W. Bush?
“Well, my gut feeling is that he’s an honest person, who may not be the most brilliant guy around,” she said. “But I think he actually has good values, so I kind of excuse the other missing links.”
” That’s where it’s hard to be a Republican,” she said, “because of the pro-life stance, and everything is so hard-core. Pro-N.R.A. That’s really hard. I’m sort of a Republican by birth and by marriage. My husband’s family is all in politics. So I’m not quiet about it when I’m with them. But I think, for the most part, it’s like a dark secret.”
While she was talking, she was trying to open a plastic hair accessory, a “toy” for her two blond boys.
“I can’t open this!” she said. “I bet a Democrat could.”
At the new Morty’s
The Hamptons aren’t the only place New York’s pink-cheeked Republicans are coming up for air. On the night of George W. Bush’s acceptance speech, inside the convention hall in Philadelphia, Joyce Campbell, a 31-year-old volunteer press secretary for Elizabeth Dole, was wearing a black St. John suit, opaque black stockings, and some seriously high black heels. A New York City resident for the past two years, she said she was a moderate, pro-choice, pro–gun control, anti-tobacco Republican. “I come as what some people would call a country club Republican,” she said, “but I’ve always seen the party as a party that was very exclusive trying make a difference for people now .”
Ms. Campbell was seduced by Republicanism at Dartmouth College. “Sometimes it isn’t so cool to be a Republican in college, especially when it’s like all this Generation X and Generation Y stuff. I found it was so important to be able to help put a good face on the party and say, ‘We are compassionate, we are understanding.’”
Being a Republican in New York wasn’t much easier. “When I went to vote for Al D’Amato in 1998, my husband and I were in the bare minority of the precinct on the Upper West Side, in the middle of this huge Democratic bastion,” she said.
She gave credit to Rudolph Giuliani for the renewed Republican pride. “People say ‘Look at what great things he’s done for this city,’” she said. “I think that’s really energized a lot of the older Republican establishment to become active again, and Governor Pataki has done a lot to bring younger people into the party-and now, with the Senate race going on, it’s energized a lot of people to basically say, ‘We’ve got to unite together.’ I guess I feel very much more at home in New York as a Republican.”
On the Monday night following the convention, four young women sat down for dinner at Orsay, a restaurant on Lexington Avenue and 75th Street. The restaurant had recently opened for business on the site where Mortimer’s, the ultimate Republican feasting ground, used to stand. Each woman brought an orange bellini to the table.
“I’m proud to be a Republican!” said Julie, a black-clad 33-year-old jewelry designer whose long blond hair was tied up in a ponytail, showing off dime-size diamond earrings. She would only give her first name, “because people know who I am.” She said her “friends” Christie Brinkley and “Bobby” DeNiro were disappointed by Al Gore’s rigidness at another “friend’s” fund-raising party in East Hampton last Saturday.
“My family are huge Republicans,” she said. “I can relate to George W. as a family man-he’s very lovable. He’s pretty up-front about his past. He’s a drinker, he’s owned up to his faults. Hopefully, he’s gotten his dirt out on the table. I think the skeletons are out.”
She said her Republican friends used to keep their politics to themselves in New York. “That’s changed now,” she said, batting her heavily mascaraed hazel eyes. She said her only reservation was “the abortion thing.” “It’s not going to make me not vote for him, but it does make me worry,” she said. “He’s a good guy, and of course I love his father. And to know his background-I feel like I know him, he feels safer to me.”
Sitting across from her was Rebecca Hendrix, a blond 32-year-old director of merchandising for Eve.com, a beauty Web site. She was sporting a bright blue, tight-fitting tank top. “I definitely like Bush,” she said. “What you see is what you get, unlike some other political figures. He’s admitted that he’s had a few drinks. He’s made the same mistakes we’ve all made.”
In a phone interview, Robert Alan Hornak, the 35-year-old president of the New York Young Republican Club, said, “George W. is an excellent candidate for young Republicans to identify with. With Republicans getting power with Giuliani and Pataki has made people a little more confident to come out and say, ‘ Yes , I’m a Republican, and I support the Republican Party and believe in what they stand for.’ When you used to say you were a Republican, people looked at you like you had three eyes and were from Venus.”
Another proud young Republican is Philip Danisi, a 31-year-old Wall Street derivatives trader and co-owner of Revel, a restaurant on 81st Street between Madison and Fifth avenues. Of George W. he said, “I think he represents what I think modern Republicans are. He has changed with the times.”
Steve Schorr, a 24-year-old financial analyst at a Wall Street investment bank and graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, is volunteering for the Senate campaign of Rick Lazio. “I think George Bush is the best candidate we’ve had since Reagan ran,” he said. “I first started to be very impressed with him because of his record in Texas, where he got almost half the Hispanic vote to re-elect him-that made him a Republican who would be impossible to demonize as a racist. It’s traditional for Democrats not just to disagree with Republicans, but to demonize them. And because Bush presents himself as someone who is virtually impossible to demonize, I think it makes Republicans in general look more reasonable.”
Clinton? A ‘Badass’
Back at the Gin Lane party, dinner was over, and David Patrick Columbia, editor of Avenue magazine, was getting a drink. He said that, contrary to his publication’s uptown bent, he was a Democrat. “I’m one of those people who thinks the environment is really the issue,” he said. “Al Gore said in one of his speeches that, in the next maybe 20 years, all the glaciers in Glacier National Park will have melted .”
David Rauch, a 30-year-old, blond, 6-foot-9 Salomon Smith Barney broker, was drinking a Heineken. He said he was business partners with Mr. D’Amato’s son. He said it was good to be a Republican, “because of George W. Other than that, I am socially a Democrat but fiscally a Republican. Fiscally is more important to me than socially right now, so that’s why I lean that way.”
He said he believed Mr. Bush’s cabinet “will be similar to Clinton’s, with women and minorities and things like that. I think he understands that’s what the country is now. It’s not a bunch of old rich white men. Some of the most qualified people are minorities and women. They were being excluded before. So that’s why I really think he gets it. I really think it’s changing now. I think it’s going to be fun.”
Did he dislike Bill Clinton? “No, I think he’s a badass. I mean, Clinton is what every man wants to be. I mean, look at the guy! C’mon! I’m gonna go get a beer now. All right-peace, man.”
The song “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” was throbbing from the sound system, and the stone patio was now full of dancers, including a finger-snapping, ass-wiggling Mr. D’Amato and his young brunette date.
Dr. Daniel Baker, plastic surgeon to the Upper East Side, was on the sidelines, smoking a fat cigar. He said he didn’t vote for Bill Clinton, but he wasn’t entirely sure about George W.
“I tell you, I’ve always liked Cheney and I thought Colin Powell was brilliant-to get somebody like that backing a ticket!” he said. “I’ve got to wait to see how it develops. I’m tired of the Clinton administration. I think they summed it up very well: ‘Let’s bring some dignity back to the White House.’ That’s a helluva message to send all the kids these days.”
Colleen Muldoon, a tall, 36-year-old blonde in a white Escada dress, said she was a mom and a system-design engineer. “I build chips,” she said. She identified herself as “extremely conservative … to the right of Rush [Limbaugh].” She said she knew former President Bush personally.
About his son, she said: “Tax benefits-bottom line. I like George because he’s our candidate. He’s certainly going to bring ethics and morals back to the office. I think he comes from a great family, I think he’s got a great soul-you know, he’s not a Clinton. And I think that says a lot.”
Al Gore? “He’s dishonest, I think he’s a criminal, I think he’s a fraud. I could go on and on with facts , things that haven’t been tapped into, because of who’s running the Justice Department.”
It was time for the birthday cake. Mr. D’Amato made his way to the microphone.
“God bless you all, happy birthday, thank you for coming!” the former Senator said. “I’ve been having birthday parties now, well, this is going into the second week. And I love it! Thirty-eight and getting younger … This is the birthday that never ends.”
-Additional reporting by Renée Kaplan and Rebecca Traister