Slate crashes Bush's farewell party.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 19 2009 1:47 PM

The President's Last Goodbye

Slate crashes Bush's farewell party.

See all the coverage of Slate's farewell to Bush.

You can often tell a party by its parties. This week, Democrats are feting the incoming chief with top-shelf DJs, valet parking, and more coat checks than coats. Republicans, on the other hand, seem to be partying on a tight budget, if at all.

Such was the case Sunday night at Glen Echo Park in Maryland, where outgoing administration officials gathered for a final send-off. (Well, almost final: They'll see Bush off Tuesday at Andrews Air Force Base.) Everyone from the lowliest White House aides to President Bush himself was there, many of them bundled in coats, chomping on barbecue, knocking back Buds, and dressed in the "very casual attire" the invitation called for.

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The party, dubbed "Crossing the Finish Line" and held in the park's giant Spanish Ballroom, was organized by outgoing White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and his predecessor, Andy Card.

The venue had been somewhat controversial, according to attendees. There was no heating, so a lot of bodies were needed. "Due to the historic nature of the venue, there are limitations on what can be done in terms of climate control," the hosts warned in an e-mail. "DO: Wear layers and coats.  DON'T: Dress like you're going to Gold Cup or Smith Point."

Apparently some of the more climate-controlled venues had been taken. "There weren't a lot [of places] available," said Card. "There weren't a lot of bands available, either."

"Are these all white people—I mean White House people?" I asked someone in a genuine Freudian slip. Turned out the crowd was a mix of alumni from the White House, State Department, Treasury, and Justice and a few campaign workers. The mood felt more sweet than bitter. Many staffers had spent the weekend clearing out their offices. The question I kept hearing was "What's next?" Some were applying to grad schools, others were heading to D.C. law firms or think tanks, and others were returning to their home states or traveling. One outgoing Treasury employee had already landed a job as a manager at Abercrombie & Fitch.

As I stood in line for barbecue, Dana Perino came over to greet some friends. "I'm starting to breathe!" she said. I asked her for a comment on the party. "It's a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the outgoing administration and reminisce in casual clothes," she said.

Indeed, Bolten made the rounds in a bright-purple fleece, while Card sported a tweed blazer. Karl Rove, afloat in a gaggle of camera-toting staffers, rocked a cap from the 2004 Bush campaign.

I told Rove I was following him on Twitter. (Most recent tweet: "Heading to an Alumni BBQ.") "They let you in?" he asked when I said I was a reporter. He wouldn't go on the record, but we agreed to talk when I get a job with Fox News.

Condoleezza Rice showed up briefly, and Alberto Gonzales was milling around with his wife, Rebecca. His left eye was bloodshot. He asked how I got in, but I could not recall.

"I hope you make it out of here alive," he said.

Around 8 p.m., the band stepped off, and Card took the stage. "We've been blessed to work for a phenomenal president," he said to cheers. "The president invites the best and the brightest to help, and many of us fooled someone to get there. But there's someone who really is the best and the brightest, and that's Josh Bolten."

Applause as Bolten took the mic. "We've had a lot of blessings," he said, one of which is "to have each other. … If ever there was a group to leave government with their heads held high, this is it."

He then introduced "two special guests," Laura and George W. Bush. Huge cheers as entrance music blasted. People waved giant cutouts of the letter W.

"So we're no longer sprinting to the finish—we're dancing to the finish," Bush said once the crowd calmed down.

"This is objectively the finest group of people ever to serve our country," he said. "Not to serve me, not to serve the Republican Party, but the United States of America."

"I am glad we made this journey," he went on. Then he engaged in a little reminiscence. "Remember the time in 2003 when Bartlett came to work all hung over?" Laughs. "Nothing ever changes."

He continued: "We never shruck—"

"Shirked!" someone yelled.

"Shirked," Bush corrected, smiling. "You might have shirked; I shrucked. I mean we took the deals head on."

"It has been an awesome eight years," he went on. "The days are long, but the years are short. … If you ever want a nice meal, come and knock on our door in Dallas, Texas." He waved goodbye over the opening chords of "Don't Stop Believin'."

On the way out, I picked up a form to join the Bush-Cheney Alumni Association, which promises to "provide up-to-date news on the Bushes' and Cheneys' post-White House activities." Apparently it's only for "employees, appointees, and interns of President George W. Bush … as well as campaign donors and volunteers." Then again, so was the party.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.