Last night Barack Obama attended the annual Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington, D.C. It’s one of those private/elitist dinners where members celebrate themselves and poke fun at one another. Much is being made of the president’s comments in reference to the origin of the group and the timing of the dinner. The organization was founded in 1913 and was meant to honor the life of Robert E. Lee. On the face of it, not a big deal, but according to Tommy Christopher at the Political Machine the Lee connection has been almost entirely ignored by the press as well as by Obama’s White House Staff in the days leading up to the dinner. Somehow word of this got to the president who chose to reference the connection in his opening remarks:
I am seriously glad to be here tonight at the annual Alfalfa dinner. 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. If he were here with us tonight, the General would be 202 years old. And very confused.
No doubt, the reference garnered a laugh or two from the audience, but how many members scratched their heads in confusion? Apparently, the connection with Lee has slackened in recent years according to a 2007 Washington Post article:
It is such an obscure factoid that an informal poll of some of last night’s revelers produced none who’d ever known this to be true — and who apparently would rather not have been asked, judging by the defensiveness that ensued. “I don’t think that has any meaning today,” Sen. Norm Coleman (R- Minn.) said of the Confederate connection. “I will be sitting across the table from Kenneth Chenault, the African American chair of American Express.” Jack Kemp hadn’t heard of the Confederate connection either.
The irony of our first black president reminding a predominantly white audience (I assume) of their connection to Robert E. Lee must be savoured like a fine wine.