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IS ANYONE LISTENING? Karl Rove at the National Small Business Summit

Gratuitous grub

Capital Journal | Eating well in Washington on $0 per day

Issue: "Katie can't bar the door," July 15, 2006

Washington is more sedate in the post-Abramoff age, people say. Tighter control over freebies, whether golfing trips or even free food. So, an experiment: Could I eat well for a week by targeting receptions hosted by attention-hungry organizations? Could I scout out gratuitous grub merely by reading Washington newspapers, hearing about opportunities from other reporters, or simply Googling the words "reception" and "D.C."?

A week later and a couple of pounds heavier, I knew one of Washington's many secrets: getting three good squares a day rarely required anything of me. No commitment, no listening to a spiel-and I only used my press card once.

DAY ONE: Tuesday morning, Washington Convention Center, 8:15: TechNet International 2006's cream-cheese Danishes, donuts, fruit, teas, and coffee. I ate as Colin Powell chatted up the morning crowd. Not a great breakfast, but I came back for a fancy lunch in the banquet room. Good salad-spinach, mandarin oranges, chopped tomato, and sesame seeds spiced up by sweet vinaigrette-and a main course of seasoned chicken breast, an olive-artichoke-tomato topping, green beans, and steamed carrots.

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That evening, it was off to an American Kidney Foundation event called Shoot for Dialysis. In the Longworth House Office Building cafeteria, four arcade-style electronic basketball-shooting machines beckoned from the corners. In the middle, game-day venders had set up an all-you-can-eat buffet-golden-fried corndogs, giant hot dogs with sauerkraut, popcorn, soft pretzels, and fudge ice cream bars. Beer and wine also gratis. Templeton, the rat from E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, would have declared it a smorgasbord.

DAY TWO: Wednesday morning in the Grand Hyatt hotel, where beneath a marbled European galleria of an atrium lay the 2006 National Small Business Summit, with a breakfast of scrambled eggs, potatoes, bacon, a buttered croissant, and a few pieces of pineapple. Around lunchtime a Cato Institute's trade policy forum, which featured platters of large sandwiches, chips, cookies, brownies, and an array of sodas and San Pellegrino.

Dinner at a reception in honor of Afro-Colombian Month. Slightly less moneyed than Cato, the group held its event in the backroom of a three-room office suite and offered fresh carrot and celery sticks, bread and tasty hummus for dipping, crackers, cubed cheeses, grapes, melon squares, and cookies. As the 70 or so of us ate, a duo performed traditional currulao dances.

DAY THREE: Thursday brought NASA's Vision for Space Exploration exhibit in the Rayburn House Office Building foyer: sweet rolls, muffins, cookies, and brownies at the table. Then, a luncheon on chronic kidney disease: turkey sub sandwich, chips, a pickle, and a cookie. At 3 p.m., an Art Institutes reception featuring seafood salad sandwiches and vegetable sticks.

At 5 p.m., back to NASA's event for the official reception, and for light hors d'oeuvres like one-bite hamburgers with blue cheese and space-shuttle-shaped cookies. As always, the expansively stocked open bar was doing the most business. At 6 p.m. time for the National Albanian-American Council, where I had mini turkey sandwiches, some seven-layer dip, fresh okra, jicama, asparagus, fried jalapeños, and gingerbread cookies.

DAY FOUR: Are a coat and tie necessary for free food? Nah-wearing a touristy T-shirt, jeans, and a ball cap, I still gathered food Friday unquestioned. First an apple, two granola bars, cranberry juice, and a strawberry-banana smoothie at the WalkingWorks Challenge. Then the usual catered fare from several receptions, like the America Youth Policy Forum's luncheon on middle school reform.

Well, enough of this, as the meals day after day became repetitive. I ate to capacity, but the uneasiness in my gut came from realizing how monumentally ineffective much of this public relations seemed to be. Organizations often spend time speaking to people who are rarely listening as they nibble on or gobble up often-expensive food. Here's one question: Should contributors to nonprofit organizations that fund expensive events ask more questions about where their money is going?

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