“Did you notice there weren’t any chairs?” one woman said to a friend. “I guess we’re expected to stand the entire night!”
Stargazing was the crowd-sourcing sport of choice. But not an easy sport, not on an evening when the VIPs were less overt than on, say, a typical White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
“Is that Queen Latifah?” one woman asked. (It’s not).
“Is that Keith Urban?” another asked. (Nope!)
Who was here? Richard Schiff (Toby from “The West Wing”) — but isn’t he always? — and Matthew Lesko, a.k.a. the Question Mark man, wearing one of his trademark suits and gamely posing for pictures with fans.
When the guests weren’t ogling, ahem, stars or eating Cheez-Its, there were trinkets to accumulate. Presidential golf balls for 25 bucks, a $50 official inaugural medal, $10 presidential shot glasses.
The official Inaugural Ball was split over separate floors, the better to accommodate about 40,000 guests. And one was decidedly swankier than the other. At the elite level, there were fewer people, more carpeting, and penne al pomodoro instead of pretzels. And . . . Al Franken.
On a night with few real highlights — no president and first lady doing the bump this time — the poor cable networks were left to replay “Obama’s on firrrrre!!” enough times to make a viewer want to scream, “Put out the fire!”
The inauguration night balls are merely the biggest and splashiest in a series of galas that have clogged Washington’s subway system and its taxi fleet for three days with men and women in formal attire. There were unofficial balls to celebrate Kentucky bluegrass, India’s diaspora, Latinos, R&B and on and on . . . and on. There was a Chefs Ball at Art and Soul restaurant to celebrate food and, as it turns out, bipartisanship. “As I say, ‘Fried chicken takes no sides,’ ” said host Art Smith, Oprah Winfrey’s former personal chef. In two weeks, he’ll cook for former first lady Barbara Bush.
None of the alternative balls attracted the president, but they had their moments, too. Some were moments that it took a lifetime to realize. Like when a 94-year-old man walked into the Clarion Hotel in Oxon Hill, where Swing Phi Swing was holding its White and Black Ball. Harvey Lewis has volunteered for every Democratic campaign since John Kennedy’s, and he has been lauded as one of the 2008 Obama campaign’s oldest volunteers.
But he had never been to a ball. Too much money. Never could pull it off. Until Sunday.
An old friend picked up the tab for two tickets, one for Harvey and one for his third wife, Linda.
He pulled her onto the dance floor, swaying to “We are One,” by Frankie Beverly and his soul and funk band, Maze.
“He has not slowed down, he uses no Viagra,” said Linda Lewis, grabbing his hand as he swung her out on to the dance floor. Later, he says with a laugh, he did use Bengay.
“I never felt like such a VIP in my life,” Harvey said.
In the lines at all the balls, at Twitter-trigger speed, people could talk about the day’s viral GIFs. The first lady’s eye roll at lunch with House Speaker John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who tangled with her hubby at the edge of the “fiscal cliff.” There was Antonin Scalia’s puffy hat, the one that reminded so many of Sir Thomas More. And there was the photobombing from the day: Bill Clinton photobombing Kelly Clarkson, first daughter Malia photobombing (or was that photo-blocking) as her sister, Sasha, tried to snap a picture of their parents smooching in the inaugural parade reviewing booth.
Layla Crockett could probably relate. She just might be the youngest belle of this particular ball, all of 7 years old. She came up from Huntsville, Ala., to witness history.
“We just wanted her to see something she would always remember,” said her mom, Lisa. “To be a part of something bigger than herself.”
They picked the right night. They picked the right room.
And it’s not as if the president and first lady were pushing Layla too far past her bedtime. Four years ago — before the health-care fight, before the fiscal cliff fight, before hope and change smashed into the realities of sniping and griping in Washington — the Obamas were still dancing past midnight. On this night, the president and first lady were back home just before 10:15 pm.
Katharine Boyle, Jason Horowitz, Maura Judkis, Cara Kelly, Marie Elizabeth Oliver, Robert Samuels, Emily Wax and Dan Zak contributed to this report.