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I embark on my mission to experience the way Washington is celebrating the Ascension Of George II. Thursday is the first big day of the four-day season - and the majority of the events are hosted by what are called State Societies. In essence these are non-profit organizations for the legions of transplants who live in D.C. who want to mingle with those who come from the same state. They also do their best to promote the image of their state. By tradition the inaugural parties they host are ostensibly bipartisan. And such bashes naturally aim at turning out their elected representatives of both parties. But the majority of the guests splashing out for tickets are inevitably those with something to celebrate. And this year that means Republicans.
The California Society in DC certainly came up with something other than the usual nighttime ball. It decided it wanted to show off a couple of aspects of the Golden State. The fashion designs which emanate from students at the state's famous Fashion Institute - and the glamor of Hollywood. So it staged a combination lunch and fashion show in a ballroom at the plush Mayflower Hotel. The third-year students were encouraged to devise clothes inspired by Hollywood and Broadway musicals. Nothing unusual in that you say. Well then throw in a desire to salute the military - and the mix becomes more interesting. This perhaps explains why twenty wafer-thin models sashayed down a runway in outfits inspired by shows such as "Hello Dolly" and "Sunset Boulevard" accompanied by a parade of clean-cut solders and sailors - direct from central casting of "A Few Good Men II - Defending The Runway." The musical accompaniment was equally inspired. Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" as sung by the Mormon Tabanacle Choir. Adding to the surreal quality of the moment - running commentary was delivered by Hollywood's self-appointed honorary mayor - the effervescent Johnny Grant - who emcees those presentations of stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The grand finale consisted of all the models posing with all the militia waving American flags as a cascade of confetti rained down amid patriotic fervor. It was magnificent - a seemingly unbowed homage to Mel Brooks' show-stopping "Springtime For Hitler" number in "The Producers." Afterwards Johnny Grant was effusive. "Hollywood and Washington are kindred spirits" he told me. "Politicians are going for the votes... entertainers go for applause. We just wanted to bring them the glitz and glamor." And how did the military feel? I quizzed a couple of the models' escorts. Seaman Gabriel Garcia stationed at Anacosta near the Potomac and Specialist Avery Green from Fort Lee, Virginia were fairly bristling with pride. Was it a tough assignment to march with models? "Just part of the job" said the crewcut sailor, who only learned of his fashion maneuvers the night before. He reassured me that none of the models had harassed him or pestered him for his phone number. As the two members of the armed services marched away with smiles playing about their faces - I realized that this event had already fulfilled one of Dubya's campaign pledges. Sending soldiers and sailors down the runway with sassy models had certainly boosted military morale.
I had a few hours to kill before the next event so I nestled into serious people-watching mode in the Mayflower's Town & Country Bar. A mixture of movers and heavyweight shakers were scattered in the plush hostelry - quaffing cocktails, chomping on stogies and barking into cell phones. One duo was particularly animated. A Ted Turner clone sat next to a George Foreman lookalike. Every few minutes a new round of loud phone calls emanated from them. "Yeah, I finally tracked down Andy Card at a reception. He's gonna call Podesta and have him speak to the President.... Nothing they haven't touched for 90 days will be affected.... Espy will call Clinton..." I had no idea what scheme was being cooked for their clients - but I wouldn't want to have them ranged against me.
In the lobby a slew of pols and celebrities mingled. Bush legal strategist Ben Ginsberg checked in. "Is this a triumphant return?" I asked him. "Well actually I've never left" he smirked. All heads turned as Mohammed Ali went by - en route to the Lincoln Memorial concert. His Parkinson's causes him to move slowly now - a literal Ali Shuffle. Several people went up to him or called out "You're still the greatest." The warmth of the greetings brought a slight but unmistakable smile to the champ's face - and his hand rose slowly to shake those who approached him.
Off to the Marriott-Wardman Hotel for the Kentucky State Society's "Bluegrass Ball" In a large glittering ballroom were a couple of thousand Kentuckians sat at round tables almost groaning with southern fare. The salad smothered in a bourbon salad dressing... beer-flavored filet mignon and George Clooney's dad Nick as the emcee. Not a bucket of KFC in sight. (Though since KFC is one of my secret guilty pleasures - I'm slightly disappointed.)
I found the deceptively mild-looking Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell in the corridor chatting with constituents. I asked him what was the most common misconception about his home state. "That we have no shoes" he responded without a pause. I glanced down and noticed a rather spiffy pair of shiny black patent tuxedo shoes. "As you see - we do. And I have another pair." He explained that his other pair were "regular shoes" - and walked off smiling. He had deftly laid that canard to rest. I checked most of the other feet at the ball - and found that the Senator was telling the truth.
A treat for the guests was a brief performance by the 97-strong Dupont school choir - the choristers who will be serenading the nation during the swearing-in ceremony. They were magnificent - singing "The Star Spangled Banner" and "America The Beautiful." Patriotic shivers went down my spine - and I'm not even American! Outside the ballroom I caught up with one of the youngsters - 15-year old Emily Sellers. She was fizzy with excitement - telling me that the choir are being put up in a local Comfort Inn - four to the room and having a blast. I wondered if the kids in the choir had political feelings. "Well about half of us were for Bush and half for Gore. But we're so proud to sing at the inauguration - we'd have sung for Ralph Nader!" Were the Gore supporters in the choir disappointed? Initially they were - but then came the zen realization that since Bill Clinton and Al Gore would be there as well - they'd be singing for Al Gore anyway. (Kids can be so much smarter than adults.) And what was the personal musical taste of this girl in her black prom dress? She giggled and told me that she rather liked Rage Against The Machine and Green Day. Would the choir ever consider performing songs by either of those bands? She laughed and said that Mr. Brown (their choirmaster) would have a heart attack.
As I waited in the hotel lobby for my car an effervescent young lady in a powder blue dress was propping up a column. "Having fun yet?" she asked me. I said that I was - and inquired what she was doing there. It transpired that she was one of D.C.'s supreme spinners - a publicist who runs what she called "crisis management" and "damage control" for politicians. Without inquiring who I was or why I was there - she effusively sailed into a detailed and juicy explanation of her day spinning on behalf of a cabinet designee currently undergoing the confirmation process. I was transfixed as she volunteered scandalous tidbits and opinions about three very prominent Republicans to a total stranger who could be anyone - even a member of the media! I suspect it was the relaxed nature of the Bluegrass Ball that caused her to share with the first person she encountered. Tempted as I am to relay all the succulent details - I have decided to award her retroactive "off-the-record" status. An uncharacteristic streak of gallantry. Maybe it was the old-fashioned Southern charm of the night - but her salacious secrets are safe with me.
Off to the final party of the night at the Washington Court Hotel on Capitol Hill. There was a smaller gathering of the Arkansas Society. With the Society's most prominent member about to leave office and leave town (well for a couple of days) there was a comparatively subdued mood to the celebrations compared to the exuberance and expansive mood of the Kentucky crew. There was a cash bar and baskets of Tyson chicken tenders with an indeterminate dipping sauce. It's clear that this is a much more modest occasion. But there is no mistaking the intense pride of the Arkansas fraternity. A proud but scrappy band called the Wild Bunch strut their stuff - with four female backing singers like a 20-years on version of the girls in "The Commitments."
There in the bar I encounter Rep. Asa Hutchinson - one of the determined House managers who pursued Arkansas' favorite son. Since we know what he disliked about the President - I wondered what he admired about him. Hutchinson paused for a moment - then reeled off an endorsement any candidate would be proud of. "I admire his intellect, his passion, his tenacity... the fact that he really cares. I believe he does. And I admire how much he loves Arkansas." And how would he feel if the former President decides to run for further office from Arkansas? "I'd fight him every inch of the way" he instantly replied with a sly smile. "Well who's more tenacious - you or him?" I asked. There was a long pause as the Congressman pondered his response. Then he grinned and shrugged his shoulders as his answer. It was clear that Rep. Hutchinson is hoping that that particular battle is not joined anytime soon.
The Arkansas delegation drift off into the drizzling night. This particular party is over....