It's Party Time for Media Stars, Too

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Filmmaker Ron Howard was chatting in Maureen Dowd's living room, saying he didn't mind spending hours in the cold for the inauguration and that even his conservative brother had come to admire Barack Obama.

Outside on the chilly Sunday night, Tom Hanks decided against venturing into the jam-packed rowhouse, mock-announcing to a small crowd on the Georgetown street that the party was paralyzed: "No more hot dogs! The Chinese food never got here!"

The country's big-name anchors, actors, commentators, news executives, producers, editors and scribes have been celebrating the quadrennial event -- and themselves -- at one glitzy gathering after another in the run-up to today's inauguration.

"It's turning into the royal wedding, isn't it?" asks Tina Brown, who threw a brunch Sunday at the Council on Foreign Relations with MSNBC's Joe Scarborough.

Every inauguration is a major media moment, with nonstop television coverage, newspapers churning out special editions and correspondents parachuting in from around the globe. But it is hard to envision this level of intensity if John McCain were taking the oath of office. All the hoopla has left the impression that many in journalism are thrilled by Obama's swearing-in.

"We wanted to celebrate the key themes of the Obama era," says Arianna Huffington, who hosted more than 1,500 guests at the Newseum last night at a bash featuring massive computer screens -- and live-blogging stations -- and entertainment by Will.I.Am, Sheryl Crow and Sting. These include "the rise of the Internet and new media and the role they had in getting him elected, and the way he's going to use it to govern."

At times, the line between celebrity and journalist seemed to vanish. Sharon Stone began interviewing 11-year-old Adrian Kali Turner, one of a group of kids picked to sing with Will.I.Am, on a reporter's behalf.

Why was she excited by Obama? "It's a benchmark in history," Adrian said. Can we get past color? "We're all the same inside," she said.

Beaming at her journalistic handiwork, Stone declared: "It wasn't Will.I.Am who said that. It was a little girl who said that."

Bill Press, a radio host at WWRC (1260 AM) -- now renamed "OBAMA 1260" -- arranged for other liberal hosts, including Stephanie Miller and Randi Rhodes, to join a radio and television broadcast on Sunday at George Washington University, complete with a live band. "We wanted to celebrate the inauguration of someone we all worked hard to get elected, and the role that progressive talk radio played," he says.

Obama is being covered not just as an incoming president but as a white-hot celebrity. In recent days, the New York tabloids have run front-page stories on his official portrait and new Cadillac limousine, amid such headlines as "VOICE OF HOPE" and "RENEW THE DREAM." The Washington Times gave front-page play yesterday to an essay Obama wrote for the paper, while Parade magazine's cover story was a letter that Obama wrote to his daughters. Michelle Obama is being touted as America's next supermodel. And there has been much panting over the family's search for a dog.

At what point does the recognition of Obama's gifts and this juncture in histor y spill over into partisan adulation? Some journalists justify the ebullient tone by arguing that Obama is simply more fascinating than most politicians, as well as a trailblazer following 43 white presidents. Others say they are merely reflecting a public groundswell. Still others say Obama moves product when he's on TV shows and magazine covers. Perhaps, more than one reporter says privately, Obama deserves the adulation, given the fact that he pulled off a political feat even harder than successfully landing a crippled jet on the Hudson River.

As for liberal pundits who reflexively booed George W. Bush, are they now waving the pompoms for Obama?

"We're all wrestling with this," Press says. "In the '80s, every night I could just slam Reagan. It's tougher when your guy is in the White House, but it doesn't mean you support everything he does. Your role shifts to holding his feet to the fire."

A bit harder to do when you're broadcasting for OBAMA 1260.

"If the expectations are that he's going to be the savior, absolutely, they can never be met," Huffington says. But she believes that "Obama can be the catalyst for fundamental change in how we all act as citizens."

There appear to be more blowout bashes than when Bush or Bill Clinton came to power, perhaps reflecting the allure of Obamamania. But there are also many more media outlets than in the pre-blogging age.

One thing is certain: In the midst of two long wars and an unnerving financial crisis, even some conservatives say that everyone wants a piece of this feel-good story.

"A lot of people feel a lot of happiness, and it's not a bad thing to grab a happy moment and show it and revel in it," says Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan.

And feeling good is the point of the social scene as well, as with the New Republic sponsoring a Yo-Yo Ma concert Saturday, and NBC Chief Executive Jeff Zucker hosting a brunch for 800 yesterday at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Jeffrey Immelt, chief executive of NBC parent company General Electric, addressed the sushi-nibbling crowd from a grand staircase at the museum: "I thought I'd begin by saying, welcome, fellow Democrats." It was, apparently, a joke.

The Washington Post Co. has been a player as well: Slate threw a soiree Saturday at the apartment of Christopher Hitchens, while Chairman Donald Graham hosted a Sunday night ball at the National Museum of American History for the company's black-oriented Web site, the Root. Boldfaced names included Spike Lee, Henry Louis Gates, Samuel L. Jackson, Natalie Portman and -- mostly secluded in a VIP lounge -- Oprah Winfrey. David Gregory even boogied, showing off his dance moves.

"There's a slightly manic feel to it all, welcoming in a new era with such hope," says Brown, whose brunch helped promote her new Web site, the Daily Beast. "There's such relief that this eight years is gone and everyone wants to celebrate. There's hope that Obama is going to be the man who leads everyone to the promised land. Everyone kind of wants this young president to succeed."

Some serious business was conducted amid the hors d'oeuvres as incoming White House aides made the rounds. Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski chatted with David Axelrod at the Beast brunch Sunday, while at a CNN luncheon at the Newseum an hour later, Gloria Borger tried to wheedle information out of Rahm Emanuel.

But not all the talk was about politics. At Dowd's party, where guests caught glimpses of David Geffen and Diane von Furstenberg, Larry David got into a surprisingly passionate debate about the Eagles-Cardinals playoff game with ESPN's Tony Kornheiser. But the utter gridlock proved a deterrent: Ben Affleck, like Hanks before him, took one look at the mob scene and fled.

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