From the pages of
Something changed between Friday night's parties and the bashes given after the new President was sworn-in. Actuality set in. If you were a Bush supporter your dream had finally come true. And without a last minute subpoena from Al Sharpton demanding a recount at the Supreme Court. And if you were a Gore fan - the brutal reality sank in when you saw how ably Bush read his speechwriters' inaugural speech off the TelePrompter. Now it was time to face the music and dance.
The Saturday party choices broadly were either to attend one of the official eight balls or go to one of the myriad satellite parties that mushroomed up on the DC society calendar.
Seasoned ball-goers such as Washington socialite Sally Quinn have been on TV in the past week reiterating how truly dire those official celebrations always are. Over-crowded, problems with parking, coat check, cash bar, food lines, and only a fleeting glimpse of the new President as he swoops by all the balls to thank the contributors and troops. Attending those parties is all about the before and after. The anticipation - and telling ones' friends that one is going. And then the rose-tinted memory - and telling ones' friends that one was there. The actual experience is awful. Unless you're behind the inner velvet rope of the VIP section reserved for big money contributors.
Control to Armstrong...
It was thus that I decided to explore the alternative celebrations (not that I had invitations to the Big Eight). First on my dance-card was a visit to a party at a brand-new political TV station - Renaissance Network - a predominantly conservative-themed channel which is structured like a public access station. Conservative believers pay money to put on TV shows to propagate their views to an audience of... fellow conservatives. Robert Novak and Judicial Watch President Larry Klayman have their own shows.
And one of the key players is leading black conservative radio host Armstrong Williams - who attended the celebration with an entourage of fellow Blacks For Bush. Williams spoke exultantly of George Bush like it was the Second Coming - which in literal terms it actually is. His passion for the conservative cause is intense. When he spoke to the assembled guests he preambled his speech by issuing a long list of instructions on what had to happen so that not a word was missed. "Food servers - please stop serving. No more drinks please. Turn off the TV audio. Switch off cell phones and pagers." This is a speaker with what mental-health professionals call "control issues."
His passionate paean to Bush and the beauty of this new free enterprise TV endeavor was slightly undercut by a glance at the TV screen showing Robert Novak in full flow on the new network. The network's logo in the bottom right hand corner of the screen resembles nothing less than the former Soviet Union's hammer & sickle.
Judicial Watch's Larry Klayman - who became a legal nag to the Clinton administration by filing over a dozen nuisance lawsuits and forcing endless depositions from White House staffers - seemed to have mixed feelings about the end of the Clinton era. On one hand he won't have President Clinton to kick around any more - though he promised me that he would still be pursuing Citizen Clinton. But now he is under pressure to live up to the ostensible Judicial Watch creed of governmental oversight. Would he be as assiduous in policing the Bush administration? He assured me he would. And to prove it he launched into denunciations of Labor Secretary-designate Elaine Chao and her husband Republican Senator Mitch McConnell. Some people just don't know how to savor a victory...
Seeds in the Garden State
I went to the Hyatt Regency Hotel for a post-inaugural party given by the New Jersey State Society. The Garden State is a no-frills state - and that may have explained the rather spartan look of the event. It was held in a vast anonymous ballroom - carpeted and decorated in early-Hyatt. There were food stations serving catering-strength pasta and stir-fry. With dimmed lights that cast the room in an amber gloom it actually resembled the wedding of a distant relation of the Sopranos. And none of the celebrants seemed to mind. I spoke with Sen. Jon Corzine who narrowly won the state's "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire Senator?" election game using $60 million of his own funds. He was a pleasant chap who chanted the bipartisan mantra of the day. But as befits a babyboomer - it came out sounding like a 60's lyric. Bush had to be given his chance... He needed to have time to plant seeds... Everything has its season... I left the conversation humming "Turn Turn Turn" by The Byrds.
Star of the party was undoubtedly Governor Christine Todd Whitman. Received like a homecoming queen on her way to become Director of the EPA, she paused for photos, handshakes and to receive adulation. She has a skillful way with those she encounters. When listening to people she cocks her head in the recommended style for public figures - a stance which signifies "I'm Listening To You." I asked her what words of reassurance she could offer to those who feared for the environment under President Bush.
"The fact that the President has the same record of cleaning the air and cleaning the water in Texas as I do in New Jersey." It was THE pluperfect political answer. You could parse it every-which-way and it would still confirm your preexisting opinion. Pro-industrialist and Sierra Club activist alike could brandish that quote as evidence for or against her at her confirmation hearings. As she spoke to me I had a deep sense of deja vu. Where had I seen that political facial style before? And then it struck me. Whitman has that brow-furrowed-in-concern look that became the Margaret Thatcher trademark. Whitman is definitely someone to watch for the future. Notwithstanding her pro-choice position - if in 2008 Republicans are facing a Hillary Clinton presidential bid - pragmatic heads might concede that Whitman would be the perfect antidote - perhaps as a VP.
A Snake in the Lobby
I thought I should check out a party across town that was most eagerly awaiting the arrival of the presumed EPA Director. The Environmental Ball has been held every inauguration since 1989 by a consortium of corporations and lobbying groups interested in the environment. This year it was being held in the sprawling Sequoia restaurant by the Potomac river.
Those who feel that America doesn't "do" irony well should have been there. The menu positively shouted out its pleasure at offering up the spoils of Mother Nature. Grilled beef tenderloin - juicily rare and bloody - assembly-line chickens smothered in black bean sauce, beef satay and a generous array of fishfarm-reared seafood.
The music played by New Columbia Swing - a Benny Goodman tribute orchestra - offered endless tips and predictions for Bush's environmental policy. "Devil And The Deep Blue Sea" perhaps a meditation on the merits of offshore oil drilling. Woody Herman's "Woodchopper's Ball" - the debate over deforestation. And most ominously - Nat King Cole's "Orange Colored Sky."
As if the menu and music weren't suffice - the ultimate irony was in a small decorative touch. Amidst thousands of square feet of expensively-dressed politicians, corporate chieftains and lobbyists consuming exquisitely-cooked animal flesh - the organizers had devoted an entire corner of the lobby (measuring 8 foot by 2 foot) to a "rainforest exhibit." This consisted of a miniature waterfall and some plants - rather like a tropical-themed hole at a miniature golf course. And a couple of earnest zoologists brandishing a 7-foot pink-tinged boa constrictor ("he doesn't have a name - he's not a pet and we don't want to patronize him.") I politely declined the invitation to stroke the snake. I couldn't help feeling that I'd seen his second cousin on the feet of a well-heeled Texan at the previous night's Black Tie "N' Boots Ball.
Control to Aldrin...
It was time to face the hip, cutting-edge, dynamic, white-heat of the technological revolution. In other words - yes, there was an event that was linked to the Internet. Billed as the first ever "e-naugural" - it was a grand bash held at the National Press Club. Kings of the dotcom world mingled with politicos and noshed on roast beef and fresh-cooked pasta. Titular host was astronaut Buzz Aldrin who was charming and utterly opaque. "Why are you here doing this? What about the digital age excited you to be host of this online event" I inquired. "Well I'm here because they asked me" he responded carefully. It was no lie.
I asked one of the organizers if there would be other celebrities present during the evening. "Oh yes!" exclaimed Mike Harrigan of the "Events Of Purpose" company. "We have Miss Maryland, Miss Delaware, Miss Virginia, Miss District of Columbia... We have beauty queens from the entire Mid-Atlantic..." This was not exactly what I had in mind - but perhaps one gets spoiled living in Hollywood.
There's something slightly Emperor's New Clothes about so-called Internet events. Yes there was a 360░ camera in the ballroom which people logging-on at home could notionally "direct" - but what did it show? It showed scores of people in tuxes wandering around looking for the center of the party - not understanding that THEY were the center of the party. The celebrated 60's psychologist and counter-culture author R. D. Laing once noted that "the self you're looking for - is the self that's looking for it..." That dog-chasing-its-tail quality continues to haunt these events. I spotted a photographer for Fortune magazine studiously taking photographs of all the computers being tweaked by the webcasters. Those should make exciting viewing...
I sped off to attend one final ball. By now the night was snowing hard and on the streets one could hear the shrill voices of female protesters just outside the party locations. They were expressing a fury that not even Al Sharpton could have whipped up. All night I could hear the refrain: "My hair!! My heels!! My mink!!"
The bad weather and the mass of limos, taxis and cars in search of the right party was creating appalling gridlock in the center of DC. An army of traffic cops in orange capes were struggling to direct the flow of traffic. Armed with whistles and an incomprehensible range of hand signals that seemed to be borrowed from Twyla Tharp, they created a surreal scene. The night-air was filled with a barrage of car horns, yells of frustration - and endless rhythmic whistle blasts. it sounded like an acid-house remix of something by Disco Tex and the Sexolettes.
Transport to Camelot
Finally I arrived what had become the most exclusive ticket of the week - the invitation-only ball thrown by the Creative Coalition - the entertainment industry group which is active in First Amendment, education and other issues. The organizers had taken over a fancy museum in the heart of Washington - the National Museum of Women In The Arts - and suddenly one entered a world of elegance far removed from the spit and sawdust of the Texan hoedowns.
This was a class party in every sense of the word. The food included gourmet-level sushi, quesadillas, grilled chicken and delicate pastries. The music was provided by the band led by Max Weinberg (late of Bruce Springsteen) and the mood was erudite and sophisticated. The guest list was eclectic - and it attracted a wide range of entertainers of differing political persuasions. Coalition President (and liberal activist) Billy Baldwin rubbed shoulders with Bush supporter Bo Derek. Other celebrity guests included Lou Diamond Phillips, Sharon Lawrence, Rick Schroeder (nÚ Ricky), Beach Boy Mike Love, comic Jim Morris, TV host Chris Matthews and of course the inevitable Arianna Huffington - who has become a rather thorny rose in the side of Republicans.
Baldwin and Lawrence were most articulate in underscoring the need for the organization to pursue a bipartisan course. "The objectives we seek are not furthered by this endless simplification that one political side is good and the other bad" said Lawrence. "We have to be constructive and move our agenda" offered Baldwin - who was the most photographed guest at the party.
The bipartisan spirit was not just liberal-conservative - but also entertainer-politician. This was underscored by the presence of actor-turned-politician Senator Fred Thompson who spoke admiringly of the Coalition's methodology - which includes ensuring that entertainers become well informed about the political topics on which they opine. "If the Coalition had been around earlier - I might not have made the mistake of going into politics" he quipped. I asked him who among the acting profession he thought could defeat him in an election battle - expecting him to nominate one of the liberal Baldwin brothers. But Thompson displayed his wit by nominating Charlton Heston - noting that in his native Tennessee the NRA president might whip him good.
The non-celebrity guests seemed to be an equal mixture of Democrats and Republicans who were happy to meander through the open spaces of the stylish building. And there wasn't a cowboy hat or boot in sight.
As the guests reluctantly left at 2am I was struck by the contrast between this event and practically every other of the twenty parties I'd attended since Wednesday night. This bash with its classy Úlan had lived up to the true meaning of the word "ball" In some ways it was a throwback to the elegant parties of the Kennedy era. This was perhaps an Inaugural Ball that Bobby Kennedy might have thrown in January 1969 had the cookie not crumbled as it did. I felt that I'd been transported back to a late-60's Camelot for a brief shining moment. I stepped outside into the bitter blizzard and the moment passed. Camelot is no more. We are now in the Kingdom of Crawford. And so shall it be for the next four years...