The Inaugural Ball That Ate Washington

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 22 2013 9:40 AM

The Inaugural Ball That Ate Washington

Early in the post-election process, the Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC) announced a Gordian knot-slashing solution to inaugural ball demands. Instead of giving The People a smattering of cheap balls, it would stage one massive ball in the main chambers of the Washington Convention Center. Thirty thousand tickets would be available, with no-frills tickets maxing out at $150.

This is what it looks like when you put thirty thousand people in Black Tie/Elegant wear in a cavernous convention center.

photo (3)

"It's like the world's biggest high school prom," suggested a journalist pal. It was. People queued for drink tickets ($6 beer, $10 mixed drink, etc), collected the simple receipts with a NO REFUNDS disclaimer, and crowded the bars nestled by the various support pillars. There were food stations, decorated in tribute to different regions of the country (Midwest/South/Mid-Atlantic), but they offered the same fare: Pretzels, Cheez-Its, and a mixture thereof.

photo (4)

The result was a mass experiment in settling. This wasn't what Washingtonians (and visitors) expected when they put on painful heels or a tux straining from winter weight. But, whatever, they were here, they could bump into people, they could speculate about how much better tomorrow's Staff Ball would be. "Last time Arcade Fire played for 90 minutes," one Democratic strategist told me, "and then the president spoke, and then Jay-Z went on for something like two hours." Tomorrow there'd be Lady Gaga. They could endure this!

It was easy to endure. What I got in, shortly before 8 p.m., the screech/soul singer Alicia Keys was leaning into her paino, rewriting one of her hits songs into a disturbing ode to the president. "Obama's on fiiiiiiiiiire!" she sang. "O! Bam! A's on fiiiiireeeeeee!" She finished, and the line-up turned into a Sirius radio set to random -- first a Mexican pop group, then country singer Brad Paisley, then Brooklyn muppet-anthem-writers fun. (Lowercase is theirs.) The band closed with "We Are Young" -- "you know this, sing along" -- and it ended up being Barack Obama's lead-in. A few minutes after fun.'s gear cleared, the PA blasted "Hail to the Chief," and the tuxedo'd masses sprinted from wherever they were to witness the First Dance.

One reason that the balls were consolidated this way: The Obamas didn't want to go to a dozen balls for the same dance. (There's a sound logistical reason. Washington's traffic has been Bangkok-esque all week, with random-seeming road closures and tired cab drivers merging into shrunken lanes. Who wants to motorcade through that?) Their dance at this ball would be captured by a teetering wall of cameras -- box checked. The president and the first lady took the stage, waved, and acted/feigned surprise when Jennifer Hudson emerged to sing "Let's Stay Together."

The mood changed immediately -- you'd have to expect that. Instead of remembering the downsides of the mega-party, the people who loved the president enough to shell out for these tickets were watching Michelle Obama sing along to an Al Green cover. When the first couple left -- a drawn-out, thanks-you-guys series of waves and smiles -- the DJ spun "Billie Jean," and people who should have known better busted out dancing.

The people who'd only been there to see Obama left, but the bars filled up more than ever, as new celebrities came out (always introduced by how many Grammies they'd been nominated for) and paid tribute to the president. Stevie Wonder ended his set with the MLK tribute "Happy Birthday," probably the best song advocating for a national holiday since Phil Och's classic "Arbor Day or Death." As the band worked the groove, he tried to start a chant.

"Say it with me! Ba-ROCK O-BAM-a!"

Ba-ROCK O-BAM-a.

"Ba-ROCK O-BAM-a!"

Ba-ROCK O-BAM-a.

John Legend had to follow that. I watched his set with a British Labour Party volunteer who'd worked for the Obama campaign in Ohio. "John Legend came to Toledo on my first day there," she said. "Absolutely incredible -- he had a really tight stump speech." Who was the worst? "Will.i.am was useless -- jet-lagged, maybe hungover, though the event was in the afternoon." Legend worked the president into his set by saying "how inspired I was of the president's speech. We the people. We the people. Ordinary people." Then he plunked out the opening notes of his hit ballad, "Ordinary people."

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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