Hangovers and stale banter - holiday parties taking their toll

Pass the eggnog, please.

That is what many aides and lobbyists find themselves saying in the flurry of the holiday-party circuit when awkward interactions with co-workers and repetitive conversations about holiday plans are the norm.

Pass the eggnog, please.

That is what many aides and lobbyists find themselves saying in the flurry of the holiday-party circuit when awkward interactions with co-workers and repetitive conversations about holiday plans are the norm.

Of course, some Capitol Hill partygoers welcome any excuse to let loose at the end of an intense session — and some are feeling the downside of partying too hard.

“Yeah, I think it probably explains the onset of my bird flu,” joked Tripp Donnelly, a former consultant to Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential campaign, who spent the weekend in bed recovering from what he says were horrible stomach and head difficulties that he hasn’t felt in more than a year.

Donnelly, also the vice president of Inphonic Communications, a D.C. technology company, has been attending annual holiday parties nonstop for the past two weeks but finally had to take a breather this weekend.

“I had to send myself to the penalty box over the weekend so I can celebrate Christmas with my family,” he said. “I got crushed.”

Despite the minor setback, Donnelly generally enjoys the party season — everything from small get-togethers with friends to larger theme parties. They include the Capital Club’s Santa’s Soiree, the fourth annual Mistletoe and Cocktails (which ballooned into a 300-person event this year at the Guards in Georgetown) and Naughty or Nice, a 300- to 400-person affair down the street at Third Edition to which guests must bring an unwrapped toy for charity.

Not everyone is ecstatic about holiday parties. A Democratic female House aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity is slogging through the holidays after a recent breakup.

“I’m not in a very holiday mood,” she said. “If you’re out of a relationship like I am, it really sucks because everyone is so happy. So you have a the pressure of a breakup and the pressure to be happy … to be joyous when you’re not.”

Though she typically enjoys hearing Christmas music, the aide said, this year “I absolutely hate it with all my heart. The White House Christmas card should say ‘Unhappy Holidays’ or ‘Happy Miserable Holidays.’”

The staffer laughed and said she is aware that she sounds like Scrooge and other Christmas movie characters that need to be taught gratitude at this time of year. To make matters worse, the aide said, she couldn’t drink at the office party because she was on antibiotics.

Lanier Avant, chief of staff to Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), tries to avoid the party circuit altogether at this time of year. “You’ve been to one, you’ve been to all of them,” he said. “This is my sixth Capitol Hill Christmas. I try to conserve most of my Christmas cheer for when I get back to Mississippi.”

Avant said he finds the Hill holiday parties full of “too much pomp and circumstance. I want to go to a Christmas party where no one is going to ask me how my boss is going to vote on something. I don’t want to talk about some stupid Republican bill.”

The same cannot be said for Ben McKay, director of government relations for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, who has attended an onslaught of parties in the past couple of weeks and didn’t mind talking shop.

“I spend a lot of my holiday conversations talking about work,” he said, “which at times made me say, ‘I have to go get some more eggnog to clear my head.’ It’s like going to the amusement park and spending the whole time on your BlackBerry.”

All the parties help explain why McKay was sniffling into the phone. “I’m worn out,” he said. “I’m exhausted from it. With the terrorism insurance bill not passing until almost the last minute, we had to work that straight through and attend all the parties.”

This does not mean that all the parties were not fun.

“They’ve run the gamut,” he said, explaining that he has been to these “monster parties” and to parties where people had to remain civilized because they often had to attend the party and then return to the office to work. “The crazier parties happened this weekend when people could finally let loose a little bit.”

McKay said the parties are enjoyable because “they provide an opportunity for everybody to have goodwill towards each other, which is very important at the end of a contentious session.”

What has been the party banter this year?

Donnelly said one conversation that he has heard over and over again at holiday parties is whether baseball is staying in D.C., which for a non-fan such as Donnelly grows old fast. “One thing I try to stay out of is the conversation turning political,” he said. “I’ll talk about baseball until the cows come home. It’s better than politics.”

Donnelly noted that he has found himself stuck in conversations he’d rather not have and that with all the holiday props it’s not hard to make an excuse and head clear across the room. Anything will do: “I’ve got to reload the eggnog,” he said, providing an example. “I’ve got to stand under the mistletoe.”

One Republican House aide said he finds the parties intermittently boring and enjoyable. While he enjoys the holiday fests “because everyone is in a good mood” and “Christmas carols never get old,” he said some of the conversations grow a bit stale.

“The conversations are the same: ‘How have you been? How is work? Have you done all your shopping? When are you heading home for the holidays?’ And they seem to all be with people you see once a year, only at these parties. The obvious questions get old quickly.”

The aide said he finds that older people “get bombed” because “it’s like they have a built-in excuse to drink because it’s the holidays” and that younger people like himself keep it under control.

McKay said he looks forward to visiting his parents in upstate New York, where he will be able to clear his head at his parents’ place, which just so happens to be on a mountain. “There’s not a lot I can do, and in fact my cell phone doesn’t work there. That should be enough of a sanctuary for me.”

Some people do flourish on the holiday party circuit.

A Republican lobbyist, who spoke anonymously, said it’s a great time of year to spend with friends and colleagues. “I love this time of year,” he said. “It’s fun to see everybody. They’ve all been fantastic parties. It’s been a blast.”

Devin Talbott, a senior associate at the Cohen Group in New York and the son of Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution, said the only holiday party he has attended so far was a low-key office dinner at Mr. Chow’s, an upscale Chinese eatery. The event included only five employees who work for the company’s merchant banking arm.

“It’s a small, collegial office. It was nice,” Talbott said. “I’m not a glitzy guy.”

An endearing thing happened during dinner when his managing director, a former Army captain who had been stationed in Germany, introduced the group to his tradition of buying books for soldiers who have to serve on Christmas Eve. Although they are not soldiers, the managing director bought them all books that were meant to be personal in some way — Talbott received Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong? and The Book of Answers, a New York Public Library reference of the most unusual and entertaining questions.

The books appealed to Talbott’s interest in foreign policy (Lewis writes about clashes between Islam and the West) and his penchant for factoids.

A Democratic House aide said he inevitably finds himself in an awkward encounter with a gentleman at his wife’s work party who insists on chatting him up about politics.

“He seeks me out because he’s a bit active in politics in Georgia. He comes to D.C. several times a year, including Christmas, and ALWAYS wants to talk to me about his hometown congressman,” the aide wrote in an e-mail. “Not fun and not interesting. I know next to nothing about Georgia politics, but somehow every year I get stuck talking to the same guy about the same things. He’s nice and all, but never has anything new to say.

“I think he likes talking to me because he ‘knows someone in politics,’ and to be painfully honest, English is his second language and he doesn’t speak it nearly as well as he thinks he does. When you add in the loud music, the language barrier, the political differences (he’s a hard-core right winger) and the fact that I know nothing about Georgia politics, it’s just a painful conversation.”

The aide said he does his best to be pleasant with the politically obsessed partygoer but excuses himself to “make the rounds” or “see what his wife is doing.”