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All Across City, Celebration at Balls

Washington Post Staff
Tuesday, January 21, 1997; Page D01

Estragon: Let's go.
Vladimir: We can't.
Estragon: Why not?
Vladimir: We're waiting‚ . . .
—From Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot"

He should be here, he will come, he said he would.

But he is President Clinton, and he was not here—yet. An inauguration is supposed to be about anticipation. A second inauguration is, therefore, nearly a contradiction in terms.

That's where the balls come in, 14 official parties, scattered across the metropolis, spread out across the night, thousands of well-wishers hoping only for a glimpse and some words, a presidential moment. In the city of cynics, the anticipation was high and the fulfillment simple. All the president needed to do was show up.

Early in the evening, the Clintons were running an hour behind a wildly ambitious agenda that was to have them out on the town until 4 this morning. But counter to character, the president made up his tardiness, zipping in and out of balls in as little as 11 minutes. He was home by 1:45 this morning, 2½ hours ahead of schedule.

"Truthfully, I like it better the second time around," Clinton said at the Midwestern ball at the Air and Space Museum. He was talking about being president. "I just can't tell you enough about how grateful I am." He said he wanted to give "a special word of thanks to the heartland, the Midwestern states."

At the New England ball at the Old Post Office Pavilion, the president danced for barely a minute with the first lady to a recorded duet of "Unforgettable" by Nat King Cole and his daughter Natalie.

Back home at the Arkansas ball, Clinton was met with thunderous applause from Arkansans and visiting New Hampshirites. "If I am lucky enough to be a very old man years and years from now," the president said, "and people ask me what the most memorable days were in my public life, I will say it was when Arkansas and New Hampshire met, when all the experts thought I was dead."

Moments later, as Sheryl Crow belted out "All I Wanna Do," Clinton danced with his daughter, while the first lady boogied—and lip-synced—with Meshach Taylor, a TV actor. Hillary Clinton also danced with the first brother, who sang his version of the R&B standard "Walkin' the Dog."

That's the moment Gigi El-Bayoumi, a Georgetown University physician, chose to call it a night. "Roger Clinton is singing," she said. "That's why we're leaving."

Clinton paid tribute to the late Paul Tsongas, he thanked campaign supporters, and, at the California ball, where he was introduced to a half-full hall by the toothy personal-power guru Tony Robbins, the president almost offered a repeat of his 1993 saxophone spectacular.

Except he didn't. As Clinton walked to stage left, he passed the band's sax player, who offered his tenor to the president. The crowd squealed with anticipation, but Clinton demurred, instead tapping lightly on the bongos. After a two-minute twirl with his wife to a Rickie Lee Jones love song, the first couple moved on.

Vladimir: It's only beginning.
Estragon: It's awful.
Vladimir: Worse than the pantomime.
Estragon: The circus.
Vladimir: The music-hall.
Estragon: The circus.

The word "ball" is what throws people. They think Cinderella, they think royalty, they think glamour.

A ball is like an enormous cocktail party where you have much to say to your date but little in common with the other thousands except for your formal wear. Banners celebrate "An American Journey," and the music is nonstop, like at an extremely expensive wedding reception. The good news is your grandmother is not there. The bad news is that everyone else in town is. (Don't even think of getting to the bathroom.)

At the California ball, at least, there were a few minor-league celebrity sightings. Melanie Griffith appeared in a strapless silver floor-length gown, and husband Antonio Banderas in tux with tails. A reporter from the E! cable network asked Griffith if she considered herself a policy wonk.

The actress mulled, pondered, considered, worked. "I consider myself an American," she said.

So if the balls were not about glamour, what were they? Think of an office party with unusually good music and a painfully long wait for dinner.

The president is dinner. Dinner is late.

Ah, but there are snacks. At the Washington Convention Center, for $5.50, you could get, in a plastic box, turkey and pesto on a croissant, or a mini-biscuit with ham and Swiss. For another $4, you could wash it down with red or white wine drawn from an 18-liter box. (Oenophiles will want to know: The label was Paul Garrett, or maybe that's the trucker who brought it in. Anyway, that's the guy who got his name on the box.)

Nearby, eating a turkey croissant sandwich, Dianne Fabian-Fabiano, a painter from Los Angeles, pointed out one of the conundrums of elegance in the casual '90s. "I went to finishing school," she told her friends. "But what's the etiquette here—do I remove my dinner gloves before eating out of this plastic box?"

At the National Building Museum, many were surprised that the Ohio-Pennsylvania gala, like the others, offered no nourishment beyond the rich air of democracy.

"Can you believe it?" said Karin Dunlevy of West Chester, Pa. "No food! I think I saw a bowl of pretzels. These tickets cost a lot of money—$150."

At both the Virginia ball and the Maryland ball, many guests had to wait up to 45 minutes to get past metal detectors.

"I thought the Republicans were running things," said Ed Crawford, a Baltimore investment banker and Democratic donor, after he finally made it inside. "There was a line out there so long it was like you were a salmon swimming upstream."

At the Tennessee ball at Union Station, the president arrived after 11 p.m. and noted that he'd met the vice president on the way in, and Gore had told him, "That's a really rowdy crowd in there."

He should have seen the crowd outside. Hundreds of people were trapped beyond the metal detectors, waiting to come inside. It was an equal-opportunity mess, with ambassadors, friends of top administration officials, and even, for a time, Tipper Gore's sister, all stuck in the cold.

"There's a lot of people out here who raised a lot of money for the Democratic Party and now they're stuck out here in the cold," said David Browne, an unhappy campaign contributor. "They seriously oversold this ball. For 150 bucks, you get a cash bar, no food and a long wait outside." But inside, there were big bowls generously filled with a fine mixture of spiced nuts, as well as an appetizing display of frozen cookies.

Susie Tomkins, of Augusta, Ga., was clever enough to bring her own box of Cheez-Its, which she was kind enough to share with strangers.

Food or no, there were sequins to flash, toasts to lift, campaign memories to trade. What else do you want for $150?

"Great moment in history," said Joseph Frank, national commander of the American Legion, who brought his whole family in from Missouri for this, his first inauguration. Even at the Veterans Inaugural Ball at the Capital Hilton, this crowd, 1,200 military people, many of them festooned in ribbons—many of them initially suspicious of this non-serving, non-fighting president—was deeply into anticipation.

"The tone's pretty decent out there," Frank said. "That draft-dodger thing was pretty big in the beginning, but the man's our president now, and the way I look at it, that's what counts."

Vladimir: Charming evening we're having.
Estragon: Unforgettable.
Vladimir: And it's not over.

If the balls were not as exciting, as magical, as some might have liked, it was the getting there that made it worthwhile for Kelly Tritschler of Florida State University. Her boyfriend, who works for Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), got tickets, and with news of the tickets the advice began flowing.

"Everyone was telling me what you need to wear and how to behave," said Tritschler. She spent hours at her sorority house trying on her friends' long dresses—she doesn't own one herself, and her mother vetoed the dressy pants she had planned to wear.

She pointed down at her strapless black velvet and lace: "It's a loaner."

The whole evening was much less intimidating than she'd expected. "I thought it would be very extravagant," she said.

Once upon a time, it was. Traditionally, the Inaugural Ball was a place where people gathered to celebrate a culture of personal acquaintance and political barter. But in consumer-minded America of 1997, an inaugural ball has followed the same arc of meaning as the word "mall"—from a grand procession of culture and history to a crowded bazaar of shops.

At the Arkansas ball in Hall B of the Convention Center, arrivals were greeted almost every place they turned with a chance to spend money. There were $5 buttons and $65 plates. There were three-piece pewter sets of shot glasses, paperweights and letter openers, $15 T-shirts, and a parade of other items that said "Mommy and Daddy went to the Ball and this was all I got." Inaugurations are not especially remembered for their wit.

Photo stands at every corner offered ballgoers a chance for a $25 formal portrait against a star-studded blue backdrop with the inaugural seal. Also for purchase was a 14-by-30-inch panorama photograph of yesterday's swearing-in, in full color, autographed by the president and vice president, framed, yours for a mere $200.

At the National Building Museum, Don Everhart of York, Pa., was a little miffed that he had to buy a ticket to the ball. He was, after all, the official sculptor of the official inaugural medallion, the one with the raised faces of President Clinton and Vice President Gore. "I used to work at the Franklin Mint for five years," Everhart said, "and this is the biggest one that I've done. This is the home run. I've been interviewed by stations in Lancaster, Philadelphia and Harrisburg .‚.‚. and I'm about to do a QVC interview as soon as I get a chance."

But enough of this tawdry commerce.

There was music in the air—Aretha Franklin, the Isley Brothers, Lester Lanin, Meat Loaf (Mr. Loaf on a night like this) and the ghost of Count Basie's band—and a time to be had.

Harvey Fierstein, the New York playwright and actor, was having a whale of a time at the New York ball at the Kennedy Center. "This is my president," he said, his inimitable whine resounding across the hall. "He says the words 'gay' and 'lesbian.' He lit the menorah at the White House. I don't know if we're going to get another one like him."

We interrupt for a Chelsea News Flash:

In a holding area offstage at the Arkansas ball, members of the vice president's press pool spotted Chelsea Clinton and conducted an exclusive interview.

"Are you having a good time?" the first daughter was asked.

"Yes, I am," she replied.

For the record, there are eight members of the vice president's press pool. This was their evening's work.

The 21st Century Ball at the National Postal Museum near Union Station seemed more like a school dance than an inaugural ball. Clusters of self-conscious teenage girls nervously eyed tuxedoed boys. The boys looked desperate. "This crowd is pretty much high school kids," said Ilya Tarassuc, as he surveyed the ballgoers from his spot behind the beer concession.

Downstairs at the telephone a pretty young girl in a red ball gown and matching red nail polish sobbed into the receiver. "I thought this was actually going to be a ball," said Kristen Beam of Clinton. "All it is is packed, and I feel like I'm going to faint." She clutched a CVS instant camera in her hand. "I look terrible," she said, wiping away tears. "Mom, I feel just awful."

Austin Epstein, self-possessed at 15, demonstrated another kind of youth. She sat cross-legged on the floor and related that "my mom was at the real thing, and she was like, hmmm, I'll send them to the youth ball. Whatever."

Wrapped in a plaid flannel scarf, Austin scoffed at the madness around her. "I don't like the whole ball scene because everyone feels like they have to impress each other," she said. "It looks like some of these people spent all day getting ready." She shook her head in disbelief. "I mean, some of these girls look like Queen Elizabeth." Tough customer. She did admit to this, however: "It's not as bad as I thought."

At Union Station, Sharita Moon, 12, shared none of Epstein's been-there, done-that worldview. This was Sharita's second inauguration and she was determined to capture every second of it.

"I'm staying up until 3," said Sharita, wearing a blue, puffed-sleeve dress and holding her coat in her arms.

"No," her mother said. "One. One. One."

The late-night entertainment at the Old Post Office Pavilion was what is surely one of the most unusual bands of the inauguration festivities—an ensemble of dreadlocked Christians from Nashville who go by the name Christafari.

"We're the only reggae band here and the only Christian band," said founder Mark Mohr, 25. He was eager to draw a distinction between pot-smoking Rastafarians and his band's values, though they share the same Jamaican beat. For the record, Mohr said the band opposes legalization or medical use of marijuana. "I used to use and grow marijuana for nine years," he said. "I've seen the negative effects of it."

At the D.C. Armory, Al and Tipper Gore joined D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and his wife, Cora, and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton in an energetic rendition of the twist.

Said Mrs. Barry to a reporter:

"The vice president and us just had a foursome onstage! Dancing, I mean."

At Union Station, even the highly touted tunes of the rock band Hootie and the Blowfish failed to perk up Barbara Kelly of Huntingdon, Tenn. This was her second inauguration too, and she allowed as how she ought to have stopped at one.

"There has got to be a better way to spend an evening," said Kelly, leaning against a table. "Can you tell me something? What is a Hootie and the Blowfish?"

The vice president himself had the same problem, hinted actor-director Kevin Spacey, who served as master of ceremonies. "I wanted to dispel a rumor that has been floating around that Al Gore wanted this band because he thought that Hootie is a spotted owl and Blowfish an endangered species," Spacey said.

While the president moved across town one way, the vice president moved through a different itinerary toward an eventual meeting of the leaders. At the New England ball, Gore led his wife, Tipper, across the stage to strains of "The Tennessee Waltz," an incongruous choice for a New England ball. Not to worry, the New Hampshire primary is almost 38 months away, and there will be plenty of time to fix these small problems.

The master of ceremonies introduced the vice president with references to his service as a soldier in Vietnam, and when the emcee mentioned that Gore might become the first Vietnam veteran to become U.S. president, the crowd erupted in cheers.

"We're glad to be able to party with you!" Gore exclaimed from the stage. "Hasn't this been a wonderful day?"

Gore even talked about his South Vietnam military service briefly—something that would have been unthinkable before Clinton had locked up his second term.

Later, the Gores boogied onstage at the Arkansas ball to a hot rendition of "Taking It to the Streets" sung by Michael McDonald, formerly of the Doobie Brothers. Watching the vice president dance is always worth the price of admission, even if the Arkansas crowd was also subjected to the saxophone strangulations of Kenny G.

As the California ball drew to a close, women walked around holding their shoes; single guys stood around holding out their, um, hopes that maybe, just maybe, the rented tux would pay for itself before the night was over.

Pozzo: Wait a little longer, you'll never regret it.
Estragon: We're in no hurry.
Pozzo: The second is never so sweet .‚.‚. as the first, I mean. But it's sweet just the same.

At the unofficial American Indian ball at the Hyatt Regency out on the frontier in Crystal City, there was no hope of a presidential visit. The Indians had to settle for Bruce Babbitt, who is—stump your friends!—still the secretary of the interior. While a new age band called Burning Sky played and guests from more than 20 tribes snacked on buffalo meatballs, there was talk of casino receipts and the vast catalogue of slights against the land's native residents. The dress code was a refreshing break from tuxes and sequins: elaborate bolo ties, beads and feathers.

"You look nice," a friend told Ray Couch, second vice president of the American Indian Society of Washington, D.C., the event's sponsor. "I feel awful, though," Couch said, noshing on a plate of smoked salmon. "This is the third time I wore a suit in my life. I hope the next time will be when I'm buried in it."

This was a work night, and this was still Washington. By 11 p.m. many guests had started to push their way out of the packed ballrooms, unwilling to wait for Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and the Drifters.

"I've had enough potato chips. It is time for dinner," said Kate Head, a Maryland political operative. "This is like a wedding where you don't know anybody. Everyone is waiting for the bride and groom, but they're not coming until 2 a.m."

Engineer Ben Chee, a Navajo from Albuquerque, was on his first trip to Washington. He spotted President Clinton in the parade from a standing-room spot on Pennsylvania Avenue. He was not impressed. "A white man is a white man to me," Chee said and giggled.

Back at the Arkansas Ball, although most people came in pairs or small groups, taekwondo grand master H.U. Lee of Little Rock brought 40 friends, including a famous singer from Seoul, Kathy Lee. She and several other women were resplendent in the traditional long-sleeved full-skirted national Korean costume called the hanbok.

The Little Rock Lee said he was attending his second Clinton inauguration because "I was a big supporter and good friend." He said the president once came to his martial arts studio, where he "broke two boards" bare-handed.

The very prospect of boards breaking at some ball somewhere in the Washington night was enough to heighten the anticipation. Which is, after all, what it's all about.

Vladimir: Well, shall we go?
Estragon: Yes, let's go.
[They do not move.]

This story was reported by Michael Abramowitz, Frank Ahrens, Donald P. Baker, Ann Gerhart, Robin Givhan, Annie Gowen, Annnie Groer, Hamil R. Harris, Dana Hull, Esther Iverem, Elizabeth Kastor, Sarah Kaufman, Richard Leiby, Phil McCombs, Ken Ringle, Jacqueline Trescott, Alona Wartofsky and Linton Weeks, and written by Marc Fisher.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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