Parties That Lack Sizzle and Steak

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

I knew where I'd surely find the great inauguration party: in that glorious Victorian cupcake of a ballroom where partygoers celebrated Abraham Lincoln's second swearing-in, up on the third floor of what is now the Smithsonian's American Art Museum. This year it was called the "Lincoln 2.0 Ball."

Back in 1865, the guests, exhausted from years of travail and hopped up on hope, grabbed entire chickens and patés from the buffet and hoisted them over a clutch of rowdy, hungry swells. For $10 back then, you got a bash that roared into the night. The man from the Evening Star wrote that "the floor of the supper room was soon sticky, pasty and oily with wasted confections, mashed cake, and debris of fowl and meat." The president and Mrs. Lincoln stayed three hours.

Entry to Lincoln 2.0 Sunday night was a bit pricier: $375. But truth be told, you could pretty much just waltz in. "If they're not on the list, just give them a ticket," the defeated lady at the ticket desk told her workers midway through the evening. Lincoln 2.0, like too many inaugural balls whatever the year, was a bust.

In the room where Lincoln's admirers fought for fowl, a solitary couple danced into the heart of a too-quiet evening.

Outside on Seventh Street NW, the sidewalk was lined with hawkers who still believe their stock of $5 HOPE posters will get them through to the end of the month. But inside a few ballrooms in the city Sunday night, the parties were sparsely attended, as well as sparkless.

In 1865, for your $10, you reaped the bounty of the land. "The onset of the crowd upon the tables was frightful," the Star reported. "Numbers who could not find immediate room at the tables could be seen snatching whole patés, chickens, legs of veal, halves of turkies, ornamental pyramids, etc., from the tables and bearing them aloft over the heads of the shuddering crowd."

On my night out, you couldn't swipe a whole swine because there was hardly a morsel on offer. At the Declare Yourself ball at the Renaissance hotel, a Hollywood-style party hosted by sitcom producer Norman Lear and featuring pop stars Maroon 5 and John Legend, your $250 got you olives, if you could lift a couple from the bartender's stash.

At the Lincoln 2.0, sweet young dancers from the Shenandoah Valley, all dolled up in 1860s gowns, outnumbered their audience as they showed off the Virginia reel. An hour later, the hired Southern belles and gents in Confederate uniforms stepped out of character and twirled in lonely circles to Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing."

Inaugural balls are hardly anyone's idea of a blast. They're sometimes too stiff, usually too messy, never strange enough. People go because they think it's how you celebrate the new president, the fresh start.

If they go. At the Lear event, Aaron Golds was on hand because he plays in the Georgetown University Band: "They threw us 50 free tickets." It's called papering the room.

Among the first 15 people I spoke to at that ball, just one had bought a ticket. Aziz Ahmed, 32, who works at the Securities and Exchange Commission, shelled out $250 "to see Maroon 5 and Jessica Alba." He was not there for Obama, though he did vote for the man. "If you remember the millennium, New Year's Eve, everyone made a big deal of that, too," he said. "That was going to be the biggest party ever, and it was a bust, too -- overhyped, like this."

The party, I figured, was out on the street -- the 160 people waiting outside Ben's Chili Bowl for a presidential half-smoke, the midnight traffic jam in Little Ethiopia, the father and two sons on Seventh Street NW, across from the sports arena, pounding out a go-go beat on their plastic buckets, attracting a thick crowd of out-of-towners and a hefty wad of singles.

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