Reporters Monica Hesse and Dan Zak face off in the Running of the (Inaugural) Balls
By Monica Hesse and Dan Zak,
In which our fearless reporters compete to attend the most inaugural galas, completing ridiculous and dignity-defying feats along the way. Read the rules of the game.
7:15 p.m. Saturday. DAN: In the locker room of the Post’s gym, I don my fauxedo and plan a shoot-the-moon strategy. I will hit the two outlying balls first: the Bluegrass Ball up in Woodley Park and then Texas’s Black Tie & Boots Ball down at National Harbor. No one has ever attempted such a ball-related feat. My photographer, Jonathan Newton, and I hop on the Red Line at Farragut North at 7:25.
7:35 p.m. MONICA: Intel tells me that Dan is starting in Northwest D.C. I’m beginning way down south for Black Tie & Boots, then backtracking up through the freezing District. I am calling my strategy the Ginger Rogers: Backward and in high heels. High heels, long johns and a HotHands hand-warmer stuffed down my bra. THAT’S HOW I ROLL.
8 p.m. DAN: And we’re off! At the media check-in desk inside the Bluegrass Ball, a former Romney staffer asks whether she can help me find anyone. WHY, YES SHE CAN. I ask to be taken to an elected official. Any elected official.
8:01 p.m. MONICA: There is a lot of giant boot paraphernalia at the Black Tie & Boots Ball. But no giant tie. Why? Also, bales of hay. Also, Miss Texas. Someone says Miss Texas is here. I shall find her. Tiara = exit cue (see rules).
8:02 p.m. DAN: “Dan, this is Congressman Brett Guthrie.” Bingo. We chat near a tray heaped with half-empty tumblers of bourbon as Kentuckians cascade down a carpeted staircase to the ballroom for a dinner of short ribs and soft grits. “I have Heaven Hill and Jim Beam in my district,” explains Rep. Guthrie (R). “I lost Maker’s Mark in redistricting.”
8:09 p.m. DAN: After a photo with Guthrie, I’m out the door and hoofing it back to the Red Line. I literally run onto a train bound for Silver Spring as the doors are closing. The Metro gods are with me.
8:15 p.m. MONICA: Must find Miss Texas. Must find Miss Texas. Everyone says she is nine feet tall and wearing a big dress and a crown. Why can’t I find her? Must find Miss Texas. Focus on nothing else.
My photographer, John McDonnell, spots a brigade of attractive people dressed like cowboys and cowgirls. Must find Miss Texas. One of the burly cowboy men — part of a dance troupe called the Wildcat Wranglers — says he can lift a cowgirl over his head like a barbell. (Must find Miss Texas.) He says he can lift me over his head like a barbell.
Forget Miss Texas. LIFT ME.
8:22 p.m. DAN: The charter-bus gods are not with me. I just miss a shuttle to Black Tie & Boots outside Union Station. I board the next one and wait.
8:23 p.m. MONICA: Must find Miss Texas. Texas is a land of beauty queens. They have not delivered one to me. I am surly.
But wait. Waaaait. My new friends, the Wranglers, offer to teach me a line dance. A group dance? Yes, please. Exit cue!
I learn to Tush Push. I Tush Push for my freedom.
8:33 p.m. DAN: Still waiting on this bus. After a whizbang start at Kentucky, we’re hemorrhaging time as we wait for all of Texas to board. Lots of crystal earrings and buzz cuts.
8:34 p.m. MONICA: There is precisely zero traffic on I-295, heading back to Washington in my Zipcar. I am a champion. With three points.
8:37 p.m. DAN: This bus is not going anywhere. A blonde in a white ruffled top, sitting behind me, to her seatmate: “My toenail fell off. Not all of it, but most of it. They told me it was in trouble the last time I got a pedicure.”
8:38 p.m. DAN: The bus driver closes the door and starts the engine!
8:57 p.m. DAN: As we pull up to Black Tie & Boots, Monica sends me a photo of herself BEING LIFTED INTO THE AIR BY A BRAWNY TEXAN. My competitive nerve is duly tweaked. I race-walk into the Gaylord. The giant presidents from Nationals Stadium are tottering around, and I run at them to shake their hands, for no reason.
9:06 p.m. MONICA: Approximately four minutes after arriving at the North Carolina ball held in Nationals Stadium, I run into former Congressman Heath Shuler. I am still a champion.
Problem: His term just ended. He’s no longer an elected official.
Unless — STUNNINGLY BRILLIANT IDEA. I e-mail Post colleagues for a ruling on his renown. Amy Argetsinger confirms: Shuler doesn’t count as an elected official but, as a former Redskin, he does count as a celebrity.
“Should we make the P90X sign?” I ask Shuler — I know he works out to Tony Horton.
“No,” he says, laughing. “No.”
9:10 p.m. DAN: Jamie Foxx, native Texan, is onstage in one of the ballrooms! I creep onto the stage and follow him into the shadowy wings. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) comes out of nowhere, body-blocks me and takes Foxx’s arm. I trail them through the darkness until we emerge in a narrow backstage hallway. We all run straight into Miss Texas USA. A triple whammy: Elected official, celebrity and a tiara! Alas, Foxx’s body man yanks me back as the actor slips into a VIP room. I settle for Miss Texas.
9:12 p.m. DAN: So, Miss Texas, what makes a Texas party different from, say, a Kentucky party?
“Everything’s bigger in Texas,” says Miss Texas, aka Ali Nugent, 20.
Care to elaborate?
“Everything you see here will be bigger,” she replies. Okay, good enough for us.
9:30 p.m. MONICA: Errant thought: Dan and I have not yet run into each other at any balls. It’s only a matter of time. And when we do, there will be A Reckoning.
9:35 p.m. DAN: In the Stars and Stripes Club at Nats Stadium, the North Carolina Society’s ball smells delicious but is barren of exit cues. Centerpieces are filled with baseballs and red roses. Everybody looks like nobody.
9:45 p.m. MONICA: I’ve landed in Iowa, land of my people, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. I must pause in order to consume three fried Twinkies, stat. Woman next to me, dreamily: “It’s almost as good as being at the Iowa State Fair.”
9:49 p.m. DAN: A rising panic. I ask attendees whether they’ve seen an elected official, but many admit to not knowing what North Carolina’s elected officials look like. There are no VIPs in the VIP section. The live band starts playing an atrocious, auto-tuned cover of Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite.” STEVIE WONDER, WHERE ARE YOU?
10:06 p.m. MONICA: I never want to leave Iowa. I love Iowa. I casually mention looking for an elected official, and a phalanx of helpfulness escorts me to Monica Vernon, a City Council rep for Cedar Rapids. We squeal about our matching names, and I tell her she’s just like Leslie Knope in “Parks and Recreation.”
10:06 p.m. DAN: This is it. I’m going to have to walk to L’Enfant Plaza.
Then, reprieve: Post colleague Cara Kelly spots me and connects me to a representative of the North Carolina State Society, who escorts me to Sen. Kay Hagan (D). “Senator, how is a North Carolina party different from any other state’s party?”
“It’s a wonderfully diverse crowd,” she says, “and everybody gets along.” This is the most boring quotation ever documented in journalism, but I don’t have time to prod for genius. Two more points, totaling seven.
10:08 p.m. MONICA: I can’t get out of Iowa. I’ve already got my exit cue, but people are too friendly. First, someone wants to introduce me to their friend, who is good friends with the president of China. Or maybe the ambassador to China. Then someone wants to make sure I saw that the Rice Krispie treats are stars ‘n’ stripes-themed. Themed food? It’s another exit cue!
10:10 p.m. MONICA: Curse you, people of Iowa, and your excessive hospitality. They are going to nice me into losing this competition.
Now someone is asking whether I tried the Twinkies. Now they have started playing “The Wobble.” A group dance? Really, Iowa? My third exit cue?
10:14 p.m. DAN: Down into the Navy Yard Metro station, where a Green Line train to Greenbelt is four minutes away. TAKE ME, GREEN LINE, TAKE ME.
10:20 p.m. MONICA: Having returned the Zipcar I rented for the first portion of the night, I move on to my next planned form of transportation: The bicycle I stashed outside the Iowa Ball earlier this afternoon. I shall ride it through Washington in my floor-length ball gown.
It’s about to get real.
10:25 p.m. DAN: I am lost in the labyrinthine hellscape that is L’Enfant Plaza, looking for the International Ball. “Do Not Enter” signs are at every turn. Am I even on a street?
10:30 p.m. MONICA: The Illinois ball is 90 million miles long and there are 4 million different rooms and I am lost and I am never getting out of here and I think that if we looked hard enough we would find Jimmy Hoffa’s body because this ball is that big. The cover band tells me that they have a Stevie Wonder medley planned. But not for awhile. Dan just tweeted that he has seven points so far. We are exactly tied.
10:36 p.m. DAN: Finally, after getting trapped in a corral of inaugural barricades, I find the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel. With so much time lost in North Carolina, I go straight to a DJ and request “The Wobble.” I position myself just outside the dance floor so I can listen for a musical exit cue and watch the red carpet for VIPs. Everyone’s taking photos with cartoonish cutouts of Barack Obama and Martin Luther King Jr. Gin and tonics are $9.
10:47 p.m. DAN: Rising panic, again. I decide to visit the other dance floor and put in a request. But — and I kid you not — as I enter the room “The Wobble” IS ALREADY UNDERWAY. I slide into formation with a bunch of black women and start to believe in God.
10:52 p.m. MONICA: Riding my bike down 11th Street NW. Strange man yells: “Baby, I’ll ride witchoo.”
10:54 p.m. MONICA: Riding my bike down F Street NW. Strange man yells: “It’s Miss Gulch!” WIZARD OF OZ REFERENCE!
11:00 p.m. MONICA: Florida ball. Even before I check my coat: Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), representing the bedazzled cowboy hat, is standing in the lobby. BAM.
11:10 p.m. DAN: With eight points, my spirit still wobbling, I cab to the National Museum of American History for the Root Ball. I’m squirming my way through the crowd like a madman when I get a text from Jonathan, my photographer: “Let’s go. I got Monica. She didn’t see me first.” BOOM. That’s an exit cue for me and a 15-minute penalty for her. GAME-CHANGER.
11:15 p.m. MONICA: Tragedy. The Reckoning has occurred. I’ve been surreptitiously spotted at the Root Ball. This seriously impacts my chances: I’d planned on getting to two more balls, but with this 15-minute handicap I’ll be lucky to make one more before midnight. I am a failure. I am a bad person. What am I doing here? What is the meaning of life?
11:15 p.m. DAN: Froggering across Constitution Avenue to the Florida Ball in the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium. Neither Monica nor I are on the list — which is why this ball is worth two points — but Jonathan talks our way in.
11:22 p.m. DAN: The Floridians are pretty drunk at this point, and dancing to Big Ray and the Kool Kats. I tap on one of the singer’s ankles and request Stevie Wonder. “We’ve been playing Stevie all night,” she says. She is weary. I am weary.
11:31 p.m. MONICA: Trying to get my game back after The Reckoning, biking to the Our Time ball. Everyone is in jeans. Everyone looks cooler than me.
I desperately harass the woman next to me: “Is that Bulldog? Is that Bullldoogggg?”
She gives me an odd look. “No.”
Three seconds later I realize I meant Pitbull, the rapper. But I’m not going to correct myself now.
(Was Pitbull there? Did anyone see him?)
11:35 p.m. DAN: In trouble. This party clearly peaked an hour earlier. Need to leave within five minutes. Then, a glimmer of hope. One of the Kool Kats starts crooning “New York, New York.” A kick line is bound to form. So I wait for it.
“I wanna wake up in a city that never sleeps.” A two-person kick line here. “And find I’m king of the hill.” A four-person kick line there. “Top of the heap.” And we’re kicking.
WE’RE ALL KICKING.
“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere!”
11:38 p.m. DAN: Outside, cabs are scarce. I order an Uber. Naseem pulls up in his black car by 11:43. “To the Post!”
11:40 p.m. MONICA: I can cycle back to the Post in 10 minutes only if I Lance it. (Lancing = doping. It’s a phrase!) I must get out of here now.
“Make me an election-themed cocktail!” I grandiosely instruct the bartender.
“We don’t have any — ”
Invent one, you fool!
The bartender blends some grapefruit juice and something sparkly and something else not-sparkly. “It’s a First Lady,” she declares. I take down the First Lady in one giant gulp. All the girls behind me start ordering First Ladies. I am a trend-setter. I can’t be stopped.
11:43 p.m. DAN: TRAFFIC.
11:45 p.m. MONICA: I can be stopped. Do not try to ride a bicyle while wearing heels and a ball gown after drinking a First Lady. Run with the bicycle. Run hard.
11:51 p.m. DAN: TRAFFIC.
11:53 p.m. MONICA: I HAVE REACHED THE POST.
11:54 p.m. DAN: Monica is sitting on the steps, her bike nearby. We regard each other.
11:55 p.m. MONICA: We tally. Texas, North Carolina, Iowa, Illinois, Florida, The Root, Our Time. 3+2+1+1+2+1+1 = 11.
11:56 p.m. DAN: Kentucky, Texas, North Carolina, International, The Root, Florida. 2+3+2+1+1+2 = 11.
11:57 p.m. MONICA & DAN:
11:58 p.m. MONICA: Tiebreaker: 2017?
11:59 p.m. DAN: Your long johns are showing.