Maybe it's the post-Kosovo, pre-senatorial-campaign lull. Last night at Ford's Theatre, the first couple got the white-glove treatment, rating two standing ovations from a crowd of bipartisan swells, and not a word--not one--of even the most innocuous joshing from a parade of performers on hand for the theater's annual gala benefit.
The president and Mrs. Clinton--he in regulation tux, she in an aqua caftan--strolled into the glorious old barn to the kind of sustained applause befitting a conquering NATO hero.
And then, for the next two hours, they were more or less ignored.
The mood was decidedly different from last year's gala, where smack in the middle of Monica-gate the Clintons had to endure a few riffs from the stage. This year: nada about nada. About the most topical humor available was Nathan Lane's quip that Ford's "is the only theater in America not playing 'Star Wars.' "
Summing up the mood was Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), who said, "It's not a night for Washington cynicism. There's a lot of history and tradition here. We ought to celebrate without slopping around all the time in this city." Even author David Brock, who detailed Clinton's philandering as Arkansas governor and wrote a biography of Hillary Clinton, wouldn't take the bait. Asked to explain the respectful reception, Brock nervously begged off.
It probably helped that this year's gala diverged from its vaudeville past, with nary a comic in the line-up. With an exception here and there (actress Debbie Allen performed a monologue honoring Harriet Tubman), this year's event was an all-music program; it will be carried next month on ABC as "A Celebration of American Music."
It didn't matter much that not all of the music was American and that not all of the featured performers were citizens of the republic. The two-hour show offered a deli platter's worth of native musical forms: jazz, country, Broadway and gospel, with a little classical singing thrown in just for culture.
Judging by the president and first lady's delighted reactions, the showstoppers may have been a couple of kids: 13-year-old Welsh soprano Charlotte Church and 9-year-old District native Cartier Anthony Williams.
Church offered a beautifully controlled and soaring version of "Amazing Grace." Before laying out a near perfect "Pie Jesu," by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the young singer proved she's actually a child, babbling on in giddy Valley Girl-speak, by way of England ("Let's get on with it then . . . ").
Williams shone with an athletic tap dance to "Yankee Doodle Dandy" that ended with an exuberant cartwheel and a James Brown-quality split. Afterward he gave Mrs. Clinton a pint-size bear hug onstage.
About the closest thing to a political statement for the evening was country star Alan Jackson's rendition of "Little Man," a Springsteenesque paean to the small-town store proprietors who were pillars of their communities "before the big money shut 'em down." Fortunately, Wal-Mart was not a sponsor of the gala.
The evening also featured performances by Canadian jazz vocalist Diana Krall, who dedicated "Take the 'A' Train" to its composer, Duke Ellington; foot-stopping gospel singer Queen Esther Marrow; and soprano Kathleen Battle, who nearly shattered the chandeliers with her climax to "Battle Hymn of the Republic."
The only hitch in the otherwise flawless evening was the timing of a Secret Service sweep of the theater a few hours before show time, forcing all of the performers out of the building just in time to enjoy a late-spring shower.
Measured by limo traffic alone, the event was among the swankest in town, with Cabinet officers, congressional representatives and business executives. Patrons paid $2,500 a head for the gala alone, and up to $5,000 for the show and a series of events: a post-rehearsal reception, a White House reception yesterday afternoon and an apres-performance dinner at the Organization of American States.
In all, the gala raised almost $800,000, which will be used to underwrite theater shows and discounted tickets for some 30,000 students.
Tricia Lott, wife of the Senate majority leader, was awarded the Ford's Theatre Lincoln Medal for good works on behalf of the historic building; Mrs. Clinton received the medal last year.
Noted Frankie Hewitt, the theater's producing artistic director, "We have a policy of putting both Democrats and Republicans to work for us."
CAPTION: The first lady, with the president nearby, applauds guests at last's night's Ford's Theatre gala, where the Clintons received two standing ovations.
CAPTION: The first lady congratulates 9-year-old tap dancer Cartier Anthony Williams.