The Pennsylvania Society
The setting could hardly have been more festive: New York City at Christmas with its crowds, carols, shopping, bright lights and snow. No wonder then that Pennsylvania politicos and business seekers by the thousands tore themselves away for the 107th annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Society. As they roamed through the Waldorf-Astoria seeking the next reception, there was, of course, an element of “rubes abroad.”
We’re dressed up, in New York City, and isn’t it great?
The Society’s original and stated purpose is to “Cultivate social intercourse among its members and to promote their best interest; to collect historical material relating to the State of Pennsylvania, and keep alive its memory in New York.” The practical purpose, though, is lobbying on all fronts, with enough politics to make even the pros weary.
Long ago, the line on the weekend was that business leaders gave political leaders their marching orders for the approaching year. Now it’s more symbiotic, with heavy courting of politicians by business and nonprofit leaders alike, all eager to win business, favors or a place in the capital budget. It’s billed as a way for people to network and see each other in a different, relaxed setting. But for many of the non-politicos, it’s an expensive trip that had better pay off. Efficiency is a key. Know your legislative target. Have a friendly chat, but don’t be a boor. Testimony to the underlying seriousness of the game is that a standard order at the bar is club soda with a lime.
The weekend’s most interesting event was at the Metropolitan Club, where political aspirants took turns wooing their host, the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association. The appetizer came in the form of the Republican gubernatorial hopefuls, with Bill Scranton winning for the most cogent description of the state’s economic problems and solutions. The best line of the morning belonged to Senator Arlen Specter, opting for Q and A instead of a speech: “I don’t learn much when I do the talking — you don’t either.”
The entrée featured the two combatants in the most anticipated political battle in the nation: State Treasurer Bob Casey and U.S. Senator Rick Santorum. Casey’s friendly, lowkey presentation had some wishing they’d had less food and more coffee at the preceding breakfast reception. Santorum then stepped to the podium and gave a speech befitting a man who knows he’s covered with bull’s eyes. The fiery Senator ranged from accusatory rhetoric aimed at Casey to moving descriptions of the toll of and the reasons for the war in Iraq. The speech earned Santorum a standing ovation.
For better or worse, though, rousing oratory no longer wins elections. Seldom will voters see Casey and Santorum speak back-to-back. The election, both sides know, will be decided by tides that have their own rhythms and turns: the national economy, the war in Iraq and, to a lesser degree, the popularity of the President. The two men will endure the bruising battle but in supporting roles. The leads in this drama will be played by money and television.
The weekend culminates in the Society’s banquet in the Waldorf’s art deco Grand Ballroom. After two days of networking, most people bypass it in favor of finding a restaurant. For the first-timer, though, it’s something to behold. The Grand Ballroom holds 1,500, with most seated on the main floor at white tables with red candles. On three sides, the square room sports more tables in two tiers of balconies, festooned with green garlands and lights. The fourth side holds the stage, with a huge American flag hanging from the 40-foot ceiling. The evening’s luminaries are announced, one by one, as they step onto the stage to their tables. The entertainment featured a choir and a speaker from York and a band and two speakers from Philadelphia — a lineup that might confirm western suspicions that the state is tilting eastward.
The Pennsylvania Society weekend is often criticized because it’s in New York. Why not spend the millions on a rotating basis in Pennsylvania cities? One answer is that it’s always been in New York. Another is that New York is more fun. It’s always at the Waldorf-Astoria because early member Andrew Carnegie developed the hotel and wanted it so. So if there’s an element of political boondoggle involved, which everyone knows there is, then at least it’s a boondoggle on a grand scale and with a long tradition.