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At White House, Parties Must Go On

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  • By Roxanne Roberts
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, December 18, 1998; Page D01

    'Twas the night before the impeachment debate and all through the White House, not a creature was acting worried. They were not merely stirring, but eating, drinking and generally whooping it up.

    "Pretty rowdy crowd tonight," said President Clinton, who was greeted last night with sustained applause and cheers at a black-tie gala celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Special Olympics.

    As missiles glistened in the air over Baghdad and Speaker-elect Bob Livingston confessed to midlife indiscretions, hundreds of guests streamed into the executive mansion for another of this month's holiday soirees.

    "While certainly what's happening overseas is on everyone's mind, given the season, people are very determined not to be distracted," said Washington lawyer Robert Altman.

    There's a party at the White House every night until Christmas Eve: Tonight friends from Arkansas and Tennessee will have a down-home celebration of the season. Tomorrow, Sunday and Tuesday nights, the president and first lady will host donors, supporters and friends at holiday dinners and receptions; Wednesday night is reserved for the resident staff.

    Monday's gathering may be the most awkward of all: After reporters spend the weekend combing through the wreckage of the previous few days, they will head to the White House for the annual press party.

    "I can't think of a better time to be at a party," filmmaker Michael Moore said last night. "Is something going on I don't know about?"

    And that was before the Livingston story raced through the crowd. Reality had, once again, superseded fiction. But the gala, which had been planned for months, went on despite the chaos.

    "These are things people count on and we can't disappoint them," said Marsha Berry, press secretary to the first lady.

    "The holidays are so busy that truly we focus in on the parties, on the guests, the entertainers, the food and the holiday spirit," said social secretary Capricia Marshall. "I don't have time to focus on anything else."

    But this year the White House has to balance the social obligations with a stunning series of current events. As Clinton's tiniest moves are dissected, the decision to attend or skip a White House party is viewed as yet another peek into the presidential psyche. To cancel or curtail a holiday event because of the impeachment battle could be interpreted as a sign of fear or weakness -- clearly not the message the president or first lady wants to send out.

    War is another matter entirely. It would be unseemly to appear playful while allied troops are at risk, and the president was careful to acknowledge those in Iraq during his toast last night. But as long as the airstrikes have not resulted in any allied casualties, it is considered acceptable to continue the holiday receptions and dinners.

    "I think Washington needs a nice night of entertainment," said Peace Corps Director Mark Gearan.

    Last night's gala was a feel-good celebrity affair. Whoopi Goldberg, Eric Clapton, Mary J. Blige, Sheryl Crow, Jon Bon Jovi, Run-DMC, Tracy Chapman and Vanessa Williams were all on hand to perform in a huge heated pavilion erected on the South Lawn to accommodate more than 300 guests. The show will be broadcast Sunday on TNT.

    "I think it's important for us to celebrate the things about our nation that are so special -- like the Special Olympics," Goldberg said. "And you know, it's important for us to be able to say to people, 'Yes, we are in tough times now. But there are great things going on and we can be part of that.' "

    This party was off the charts on the heartwarming scale. The guest list included dozens of Kennedys with adorable children in tow. Even Socks the cat made a quick appearance in front of reporters.

    Dinner began with a parade of Special Olympics athletes. Then Hillary Rodham Clinton gave her most generous introduction to date: She was "particularly proud" of "my husband, my partner and our president."

    Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics in 1968, was even more effusive: "Even if there were 300,000 people on the White House lawn tonight, Mr. President, you would find no greater loyalty, no greater faith in your leadership than right here among us tonight."

    The crowd leapt to its feet as the president squeezed his wife's shoulder and looked terribly grateful.

    Then it was time to shift from political nurturing to seasonal cheeriness, which proved difficult for this crowd at first. "You all got to wake up!" admonished Goldberg. "This is a party and we have to make America believe we're not depressed!"

    The performances were spirited, especially a rousing encore that proved to be unintentionally hilarious. "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" may be a holiday classic, but lusty refrains of "gonna find out who's naughty or nice" and "you better be good for goodness' sake" were just a teeny bit off-message.

    "Life goes on," said an uncharacteristically serene Sen. Orrin Hatch. "We have to continue to do the things that count for our country."

    Party on.


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