A Middle East peace agreement? Hah! Try throwing a state dinner without a full set of china.

The noise inside the Corcoran Ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel is almost deafening. Amid the crystal chandeliers and pink brocade wallpaper, servers in gray coats and black collars scurry to wait on the 400 or so women who have come for today’s program, “Behind the Scenes at the White House.”

The insiders offering their perspectives aren’t a collection of

battle-scarred former White House aides rehashing tales of political brinkmanship for the delectation of political newcomers; they’re four former White House social secretaries. These are, as the event’s press puts it, “the women who helped past White House residents set the style and convey a message.”

Just as the setting suggests, this is no brown-bag affair. In fact, “business casual” seems to mean little to this crowd, where power suits are de rigueur, as are coifs the consistency of a good soufflé. You might call this the power-matron set. If there are any veterans of feminism’s first wave around here, their bra-burning days are long behind them.

As the ladies pick over melon balls at the bottom of their fruit cups, Gail Berendzen stands at the podium, reviewing her remarks. Berendzen is the founder of Women of Washington Inc., the self-described “premier networking organization for women in the nation’s capital,” which is hosting today’s event. Berendzen discovered the power of sisterhood back in 1990, when her husband, American University President Richard Berendzen, resigned after pleading guilty to making obscene phone calls. (He agreed to undergo therapy in exchange for a suspension of two 30-day jail terms.) A year after the scandal, Berendzen, a former elementary school teacher who had put her career aside to be a professional wife, founded Women of Washington.

Today, the group boasts some 2,000 members, described in publicity materials as women who want “au courant information and high-level contacts.” Anyone with $100 can become a Woman of Washington, though, to judge from looking around the room, very few women under 40 care to pony up the dough. For that fee, members receive a permanent name tag, hotel dining privileges at the Four Seasons in D.C. and Los Angeles, and a glossy newsletter called In Touch. This month’s edition of In Touch includes ads for such services as a “life coach”—and a chance to participate in professional mentoring programs.

The real perk of being a Woman of Washington, though, is the chance to imbibe the wisdom of others at the group’s monthly luncheon forums. Previous speakers have included Suzanne Somers, Ted Turner, Naomi Wolf, and Mary Matalin. Ubiquitous ABC and NPR talking head Cokie Roberts even put in an appearance at a recent Women of Washington program titled “Love…Lust…and Longing: Relationships in the 21st Century.” To mix it up a little, the group throws an annual “Hope Is a Woman” luncheon, featuring speakers ranging in age from 70 to 116, among them UPI White House correspondent Helen Thomas.

Given the atmosphere, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that, despite the group’s message of pulling yourself up by your own pumps, there’s still something vaguely pre-Feminine Mystique about the whole thing.

When Berendzen starts to speak, the room finally succumbs to some semblance of silence. Before starting today’s discussion, Berendzen takes care of some group business, announcing the topics of upcoming forums: “In a few weeks, Dr. Pam Peeke will be here to talk about her book, Fight Fat After 40.”

“Not that you’re in your 40s or fat,” Berendzen quickly adds, as the room erupts in laughter.

“No one is fighting [it],” quips a woman at a table in back.

Berendzen moves on to introducing today’s panelists. Their responsibilities, she insists, are not to be taken lightly. “People underestimate the importance of the social secretary, as if somehow their work is divorced from the hard-core work of policymaking,” she says. “But what the atmosphere is in the White House can have a big impact on a presidency.”

The featured guests soon file on stage: Elaine Crispin Sawyer, social secretary to Nancy Reagan; Ann Stock, social secretary to Hillary Rodham Clinton; Tara Sonenshine, the panel’s moderator; Maria Downs, social secretary to Betty Ford; and Letitia Baldrige, social secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy.

The panelists waste no time delving into the strategic importance of china. When the Gipper arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., “We did not have a full place setting of china for guests,” moans Sawyer. And when Nancy Reagan sought to replenish the cupboard with $209,508 worth of place settings, Sawyer recalls, the press slammed her for wasting money on something as frivolous as dishes at a time when her husband was cutting government programs. But Sawyer

is here to set the record straight: “A private foundation in Florida paid to have that china made!”

To hear the panelists tell it, being a gracious hostess at the White House is more than what china pattern you choose: It’s a subtle, stealthy form of high-stakes diplomacy. “The substantive relationship [the first ladies] have with heads of state and their wives is unbelievably important,” says Baldrige. Henry Kissinger, who needs ya?

And forget such obvious displays of power as Hillary Clinton’s push for health-care reform and the price congressional Democrats paid for its failure: Sawyer reminds the audience of who really made an impact. “I want to bring you back to when everyone pooh-poohed Nancy Reagan’s simplistic plan to teach elementary children to ‘just say no’ to drugs,” she says. “Drug use was down in the early ’80s and ’90s. Now, drug use is up. I’m not a mathematician, but if I do the math, the kids who were 6, 7, and 8 years old then are not the ones who are doing drugs now….I don’t see why it’s so difficult for people to understand.”

Yet, despite their insistence of the importance of past first ladies as policy-makers, when someone asks whether the first lady should be paid, Sawyer replies, “I don’t think so.”

“We’re not ready for that yet,” Baldrige adds.

There’s some jockeying among the social secretaries: Each can’t help boasting that her first couple left the biggest mark on the White House. Bill Clinton—who found uses for the place that managed to make both Martha Stewart and Hugh Hefner proud—had only one mandate, says Stock: to make the White House “as American as possible.”

The Clintons had definite ideas about what that meant. They banned smoking and brought in the White House’s first American chef, Stock notes proudly.

But the Clintons weren’t the first to try out such a radical concept. The Fords wanted their White House to be very American, too, Downs insists. “We borrowed folk art from the New York Folk Art Museum for state dinners,” she says to approving murmurs.

As the luncheon winds down, one of the women in the audience asks panel members how their experiences compare to The West Wing, the behind-the-scenes-at-the-White House TV drama.

“It’s realistic,” says Stock. But she is the only one who recognizes the White House she worked in. The rest shake their heads.

“I’ve never seen such a frenzy of activity,” says Baldrige. CP