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Saluting Her Consuming Passion

Joan Claybrook and Robert Redford (Ben Zweig)

Most retirement parties are hit-or-miss affairs: inside jokes, cheap wine, lots of old friends. Not many boast Nancy Pelosi, John McCain -- and Robert Redford.

Joan Claybrook's bash Tuesday at the Sewall-Belmont House was a salute to one of Washington's favorite hell-raisers. As head of watchdog group Public Citizen for 27 years, she fought for safer cars, medicines, a whole slew of consumer products. In her wake, she gathered exasperated admirers who came to bid farewell: McCain and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who called her "unrelenting"; Ralph Nader, who said she "bitterly wants to win"; and brother Warren Buckler, who called her "manipulative" -- but in a good way.

Redford (black coat and shirt, no tie, loafers) flew in to honor his "friend and mentor" as the person responsible for his political life. The actor, now 72, first came to Washington at the height of his '70s superstardom to lobby against a Republican nominee for interior secretary. He met with influential senators who hung on Redford's every word, invited him to dine at their homes, and nodded in agreement when he ticked off the reasons they should reject the nominee. Then they voted for the guy.

"I was just devastated," he said. Claybrook calmly told him, "There's one thing you have to learn about lobbying in this town: You don't always lose."

And she won plenty, which accounted for the many, many stories and speeches. Claybrook finally took the stage to thank Redford ("one of the best students I ever had"), her partner-in-arms Nader ("We argue all the time") and everyone in her battle for consumers.

"One of our operating principles is that we fight back when we're attacked, and we try to have fun doing it," she said with a huge grin. Retirement? Fat chance. She's already raising hell with developers near her condo in Dewey Beach, Del.

By The Reliable Source  |  June 11, 2009; 1:02 AM ET
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