Bits of bipartisanship seen at D.C.'s 2013 inauguration parties


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WASHINGTON -- They were schmoozing at the Daily Beast "bipartisan brunch" in Georgetown, noshing at the Chef's Ball on Capitol Hill, thronging the Poets and Busboys eatery at 14th and V streets.

During a surprisingly balmy pre-inaugural weekend, high rollers, lowly volunteers and giddy supporters of President Barack Obama were celebrating throughout the nation's capital -- but nowhere were they as happy, perhaps, as in the ball-gown department of Neiman Marcus' Chevy Chase, Md., store Saturday afternoon.

"Can you believe it? I never thought I would be here the first time, and here I am again," said Bertha Jones, statuesque in her chinchilla jacket as she combed through the Oscar de la Rentas, the J. Mendels and Tadashis.

Ms. Jones, who had just flown in from Los Angeles, had brought three different Escada outfits to wear to three different balls, noting that at Sunday night's All-American Ball she will be dressed not just in Escada but in Louis Vuitton boots and a cowboy hat.

Then, she spilled her guilty secret: She voted for Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 primary.

"I am a single, successful woman, and I could relate to her," she said. "But as an African-American, I felt I needed to be here to show my pride in this president."

Just a few steps away, it was a slightly different story for Joel Callins, an Atlanta lawyer. Relaxing in a chair, he watched his wife, Keisha, a doctor, try on different outfits for tonight's inaugural ball at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. (Would it be the short black cocktail dress with the feathered skirt or the long slinky red number? "The red," he said to his wife, who looked undecided.)

As an African-American, Mr. Callins felt it was important to make the trip, but "just for the history, not the policy," he said.

Why?

"I'm a Republican," he said with a grin. "When you talk about voting your pocketbook, Obama is not my candidate. But for my family, this may be the last opportunity to see a black president inaugurated in my lifetime."

As Mr. Obama prepares for his second inauguration today, there is a sense of an era passing. There's talk of a more subdued event, smaller crowds, less pomp and pageantry.

Indeed, the cult of personality surrounding the first black president seems to have faded. There are strikingly few images of Mr. Obama on the streets of the city or at any of the hundreds of parties that began in earnest Saturday night. At the Bluegrass Ball, "the loudest cheers of the night came when a speaker mentioned bourbon, not President Obama," wrote Washington Post blogger Lavanya Ramanathan.

Still, there were dozens, if not hundreds, of celebrations in every neighborhood. On Sunday night in front of the Russian Embassy, people in black ties and sequins could be seen hurrying to one event, while at the Art and Soul Restaurant on Capitol Hill, Washington's top chefs prepared mint roasted lamb gyros, crawfish etouffee minipies and other little bites for a sold-out crowd of 500 people -- with a starting time of 11 p.m., so that people could stop by after their other parties.

While there are fewer official balls -- two this time, down from 10 -- it's still the same as it ever was, not just one inaugural but two: the one you see on television or from the Washington Mall, and the one just underneath, fueled by money and special interests who see yet another opportunity to gain access to power, said Christina Wilkie, who covers K Street and lobbyists for the Huffington Post website.

Regardless of who is president, "the Washington influence machine is churning at exactly the same rate," she said.

Inaugural festivities actually span about a week, with this year's kickoff a Wednesday cocktail party sponsored by -- wait for it -- Brooks Brothers. "They've dressed so many presidents, and they, like so many other businesses, probably feel they have to have a stake in the American story," Ms. Wilkie said.

Intensely partisan -- and intensely disappointed -- Republican congressional staffers will skip town, but corporate lobbyists know it's important to have a presence at the inaugural regardless of political leanings.

"Sure, corporate influence peddling doesn't happen at these balls, but to not be here is an omission that gets noticed," Ms. Wilkie said.

At the Pennsylvania Society party Sunday night at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel near George Washington University, Chuck Kolling, a lawyer with Buchanan Ingersoll, surveyed the crowd and waved to newly minted Rep. Keith Rothfus, a Sewickley Republican who seemed perfectly sanguine about celebrating the second inaugural of a Democratic president.

"This is about new beginnings, and new beginnings are always an opportunity," Mr. Rothfus said.

At yet another party, another Republican was taking it on the chin with good grace -- Mark McKinnon, a onetime political consultant for former President George W. Bush and blogger for The Daily Beast, who noted that last week's agreement to extend the debt ceiling deadline was "a good sign, a sign that we need to focus on problem solving, with less fighting."

Mr. McKinnon was fighting, actually, to be heard over the din at an event hosted Sunday morning by Tina Brown, founder of The Daily Beast website, at the trendy Georgetown watering hole Cafe Milano. Not only were there Republicans on the guest list, but the bash was sponsored by the banking giant Credit Suisse.

"People have this image of a poisonously polarized city, and Tina wanted to show them another side," said Howard Kurtz, who writes about the media for The Daily Beast. Indeed, Grover Norquist did show up, and earned a big embrace from Eva Longoria, the former "Desperate Housewives" star who is a big fundraiser for Mr. Obama.

The mood was anything but serious -- it was Sunday morning, after all. Young congressional staffers craned their necks looking for a sighting of someone famous. A 20-something "breaking news reporter" for a national media organization thrust her cell phone camera -- and herself -- at Ms. Brown and Arianna Huffington, the two political website grandees, who smiled tolerantly at camera strobe lights. Unshaven movie mogul Harvey Weinstein strode in with an entourage of about a half-dozen young women and huddled in a corner of the jammed room, before announcing to the crowd that he hadn't seen so many people since his bar mitzvah.

"Washington simply reflects America: We have a female House Democratic leader, a Mormon Senate majority leader, an Irish vice president, a black president and orange speaker of the House," Ms. Brown told the crowd.

Joking aside, this second inaugural falls on the federal holiday honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and neighborhoods that burned after he was shot in 1968 have slowly returned to life. The "BlissPop Inauguration Ball," featuring rock singer Moby, actually inaugurated the U Street Music Hall in a rejuvenated area once crawling with drug dealers.

"People are as excited this time as they were last time," said Anita Dunn, former White House communications director and longtime Democratic operative, at The Daily Beast party. "Just wait until you see those crowds on the Washington Mall tomorrow."

By the time you read this, tomorrow will have arrived, Mr. Obama will be ready to take publicly an oath he has already taken in private, and the hordes may or may not be descending on the Washington Mall -- another day for the history books in a town that has seen a lot of them.

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Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1949. First Published January 21, 2013 5:00 AM


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