'Twas the Night Before the Inaugural...

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ERIC GAY/AP

Students from Lake Highlands High School in Texas dance the Cotton-eyed Joe

'Twas the night before Inaugural, and all through the town not a liberal was stirring. Not even....

Well, that was not exactly true Friday night. But Democrats certainly were thin on the ground. This was D Minus 1 (One day to Dubya) and the GOP invasion troops were out in force. The hottest ticket of the night was the Texas Black Tie 'N' Boots Ball — and I had not succeeded in securing a ticket for it. But all was not lost. I resolved to test my own gate-crasher's guide to the inauguration. But first I would attend the lesser bashes to which I had been invited.

Jesting with Hyde

I started at the VIP reception that preceded the Illinois State Society Ball, held deep in the bowels of the Grand Hyatt Hotel. I descended three sets of escalators into a ballroom teeming with well-heeled citizens of Illinois, as well as several fairground sideshows, such as a man who would guess your weight. Since House Speaker Dennis Hastert was due to pass by I thought that this was a rather cheeky touch. The event publicist had promised to effect introductions to various state luminaries such as Eugene Cernan, the last man to set foot on the moon; unfortunately, no one in the reception seemed to know who he was. Feeling a responsibility to interview somebody, I spied some famous sons and daughters of Illinois: Ulysses S. Grant, Superman and The Blues Brothers. They turned out not to be the originals; instead they were students from Springfield High School. I asked former president Grant what he thought of the outgoing President. Speaking through his 21st-century incarnation — 18-year-old Mike Spidel — General Grant gave Bill Clinton surprisingly good marks. Would the General consider time travel to our era to run for office in 2004? "That depends on how badly Bush does," was the gruff response. I asked Superman (alias 16-year-old Herman Ramos) if he could put an end to all the partisan bickering in Washington. "I'm afraid I don't have enough power to do that," conceded the superhero with a regretful smile. I spoke briefly to the Blues Brothers (16-year-old Bradley Veres and 17-year-old Fred Peterbark) about the GOP's inaugural music choices. I detected a terse attitude toward Ricky Martin and decided to move on.

Just as I was leaving, I encountered the familiar figure of the "lead singer" of the House Managers, Rep. Henry Hyde. I asked him how he felt about the day's big news — Bill Clinton's deal with Special Prosecutor Robert Ray. The hulking congressman was exultant. "It vindicates what we did!" he crowed. "Clinton admitted that he lied and obstructed justice!" Feeling a little like CNN's Greta van Susteren, I gently informed him of Clinton lawyer David Kendall's strong assertion that the President had only conceded being evasive on a non-material matter in a dismissed case. "Semantic baloney!" boomed Hyde. An onlooker opined that that sounded like the name of a pop group. Rep. Hyde picked up on this notion. "If there isn't a group called Semantic Baloney we should start one..." he quipped. It was time to leave.

Imported food expensive for Alaskans

I dashed down to the Senate and Room 106 of the Dirksen Building. The Alaska Society was holding a cocktail reception in a caucus room usually the province of the Senate Rules Committee. Alaskans for Oil Drilling were out in force, encouraged no doubt by the Big Oil credentials of the incoming President and VP. I asked the organizer if it had proven difficult to secure this impressive room for the event. The Alaskan Society had apparently paid through the nose for the privilege; wanting to bring in their own catering crew — they were determined to feed their members with Alaskan salmon and reindeer sausage — had cost a small fortune. The Senate caterers charged an equivalent to a cork fee, a sort of antler fee, to allow the state's home delicacies through the congressional portals. The members seemed pleased, though. And the surprising thing about reindeer is that it tastes exactly like... reindeer.

New Hampshire already looking forward to 2004

I raced back across town to the Willard Hotel, to the Franklin Pierce Room, named for the only president to come from New Hampshire. Fittingly, it was the location of the Granite State's inaugural cocktail party. I was curious to see if any pols from other states would show up to do a bit of early schmoozing and thus laying down a marker for the 2004 primaries. Renegade Senator Bob Smith told me that he hadn't seen any interlopers, but an aide mentioned that the attorney general for Delaware had looked in. I sensed a scoop until the aide revealed that the outsider was merely searching for a pal. I quizzed Rep. John Sununu as to whether New Hampshire citizens were skeptical of all the attention paid to them every four years by the Men (and Women) Who Would Be Prez. The son of the former New Hampshire governor and White House chief of staff said that they were used to it and indeed expected it. He expects the next influx, especially of Democrats, to start as early as this March. "It's surprising how many politicians come to Manchester saying that they were 'just in the area,'" he quipped.

I decided to warm up for my attempted gate-crash of the Texas ball by testing my theory that anyone with a half-filled wine glass can wander into any party. (The glass gives you the air of an invited guest returning after a smoke break.) I spied a dinner in an adjacent ballroom and brandishing a champagne flute casually sauntered into what turned out to be the Christian Inaugural Gala. A casual glance revealed that the event was entirely alcohol-free! Nothing stronger than soda was being drunk! I rapidly retraced my steps before I was cast out as a sinner. The theory worked. But would it work with the Texans?

A North Carolina star in the making?

I had three other balls to attend at which I could pluck up courage. As the rain drizzled into the night I bypassed the long line of wealthy partygoers who were waiting with exasperation for their gridlocked limos and walked along a few doors to the North Carolina party being held in the Hotel Washington.

As I descended into the ballroom I was immediately struck by the sight of former senator Bob Dole. Was something wrong here? Surely I wasn't in Kansas any more. In fact, even though I'd quaffed quite a few drinks, I couldn't recall having been in Kansas at all. But I was not hallucinating. The failed 1996 GOP candidate was in attendance because his wife was born in North Carolina. And it turned out that Elizabeth Dole was quite the belle of the ball. Though her presidential bid sputtered out, she still has the impressive aura that comes with having been America's highest-paid charity worker. Fans lined up to be photographed with her, to which she graciously consented.

By the way, it's not generally appreciated but North Carolina is one of the most gastronomically sophisticated states. The ball attendees were feasting on a wide array of international cuisine. Swedish meatballs, Chicken Dijon and "Spanakopita" (which I was reliably informed by a proud Carolinian was Greek for "spinach pie"). The food was delicious. The enthusiastic partygoers were chowing down, whooping it up in gleeful hoedown mode.

The other star attraction at the Ball was the state’' Democratic senator, John Edwards, who was briefly considered by Al Gore as a running mate. (These state balls are ostensibly bipartisan, though usually dominated by the winning party.) The senator cuts an impressive dash and seemed to be bathing in a JFK glow. He possesses a self-deprecating charm and is clearly a rising star.

Suddenly, the man Edwards defeated in 1998, former Senator Lauch Faircloth arrived. The ultra-conservative Faircloth was the Clintons' worst nightmare — and is believed by many to have played a key behind-the-scenes role in the three-judge panel's decision to replace original Whitewater Independent Prosecutor Robert Fiske (who seemed to be drilling "dry oilwells" in Arkansas) with the more relentless Ken Starr. Had the Bush message of a new civil tone reached the former senator? I tested this by seeking his views on the day's news. "Good riddance to Clinton!" he bellowed. "Clinton is old news!"

Of Andy Warhol and Strom Thurmond

Since I had sampled the rich North Carolina hospitality, I felt it only fair to experience the largesse of South Carolina. The state's contingent was holed up in the tony Corcoran Gallery, one of the city's most hallowed halls of art and a spacious elegant building with large expanses of cream marble and wide staircases (it rather resembles the villa of a Mediterranean potentate). The Sid Miller Band was pumping out some jaunty '60s and 70s tunes while sprightly youngsters danced up a storm. I looked around for the 98-year-old Senator Strom Thurmond, as I was keen to meet the man who had proudly initiated the hounding of John Lennon by the Nixon administration. But it seemed he had had his fill of the shrimp and crawfish jambalaya, the fried green tomatoes and the black bean smashed garlic dip and departed into the night.

I discovered that the gallery was presenting a huge Andy Warhol exhibit, so I wandered upstairs to look at the art. In one of the spacious galleries I spotted a precious sight: a young couple alone in the room were waltzing to the music wafting up from the ground floor. I waited till they finished their dance and then inquired why they were dancing in this room of Warhol canvases. "So we don’t have to look at them," was the instant response, one which I suspect Warhol would have enjoyed. Max and Kelly, for that is their names, turned out to be the quintessential young Republicans — a "Jack & Diane" for the new Bush era. Max is clerking for a federal judge and Kelly is imminently going to Romania for a Christian charity. I spotted the painting that they had been waltzing in front of. It was a portrait of Richard Nixon in his glazed-smile prime, on which Warhol had introduced hues ranging from a tangerine backdrop to a pea soup-green face and Pepto-Bismol pink suit. Under this garish visage, Warhol had simply scrawled the legend "Vote McGovern." I pointed it out to the new Jack & Diane, but they had never heard of McGovern (and didn't seem too aware of Nixon, either). I think Warhol would have been amused by that too.

Deep in the heart of the Texas ball

Now the night had just one ball left to visit. The famed Texas "Black Tie 'N' Boots" gala. With ducats for the sold-out party changing hands at exorbitant prices on eBay, I headed off for the Marriott-Wardman Hotel with no ticket, no press pass and no money. But I was armed with two trusty accessories. A wine glass and a 20-gallon white Stetson. I decided to test my Big Hat Theory — a variation of the Big Lie principle (the bigger the lie/hat, the more plausible the perpetrator.)

As I approached the hotel around 11 p.m (with three hours remaining for the ball), I noticed a steady stream of departing guests. The combination of rain and traffic gridlock appeared to be influencing many of the guests — some rather the worse for wear — to leave early. As they lurched through the parking lot clutching beer bottles, quite a few seemed to be having problems holding on to all they had consumed through the night.

Getting into the ball was stunningly easy. I don't think anyone even glanced at the stunt wine glass in my hand. No one with such a loud, huge hat could possibly be anything but a thoroughbred Texan, so I wandered in and out of all the rooms with ease.

The mood was jubilant and effusive. Everywhere there were larger-than-life Texans in loud tuxes and ball gowns. The women were dolled up to the nines.

As I drifted through the various ballrooms I was struck by the marked contrast with the celebrants at all the other balls. While the partygoers at the other states had been fairly happy and effusive, the Texans were in a league of their own. Whatever ailments Texans may suffer, low self-esteem is not among them. The arrival in the White House of the first Texan since LBJ — Poppy does not count — seems to have sparked a wave of state pride verging on the arrogant. As Tanya Tucker strutted the stage whipping up the fervor of the crowd, there was an unmistakable air of "Texas Über Alles." This is not a Republican-Democrat or conservative-liberal divide. Those Texan boots are made for walking. And it seems that that's just what they'll do. The Texas genie is out of the bottle now. And from what I observed, I suspect that it won't go back in quietly.