The soiree was bigger — and certainly more sober — than most Super Bowl parties.
There were the United States Marine Band and the United States Army Chorus, pressed and crisp. There were pitchers of iced tea and lemonade. And there was President Trump, shaking hands to a John Philip Sousa march.
But what was missing, this time, was football — or at least, the football players.
Trump’s roughly five minutes of remarks Tuesday on the South Lawn of the White House in honor of the Philadelphia Eagles never mentioned the reigning Super Bowl champions by name but seemed determined to answer some age-old etiquette questions: Is a party really a party if none of the special guests show up? Or if the host — in this case, the president of the United States — abruptly disinvites the special guests in a fit of pique?
The answer, it appears, is a resounding “sort of” — a gathering more of circumstance than pomp.
“It’s very dull,” assessed John DeFinnis, 75, a dentist and Eagles season ticket holder who came down from Berwick, Pa., for the event, when asked how it compared with a more traditional Super Bowl party. “Not even close.”
The crowd of alleged Eagles fans looked more like overflow from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, a sea of gray and blue blazers and sensible dresses, with scant patches of Eagles memorabilia. Some of the men had stripped down to their dress shirts and ties — including a few in Eagles green — in either a nod to the sunny Washington day or a very poor simulacrum of the hedonistic abandon for which Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field has become known.
Still, everyone made a noble attempt to channel their best Fly-Eagles-Fly joie de vivre. Trump warbled along to the Army Chorus’s “God Bless America.” (At one point, when the president seemed uncertain of the lyrics, he briefly shifted to silent bopping and nodding.)
A gaggle of young men held aloft the jersey of Carson Wentz, the Eagles quarterback, and shouted their team’s chant — “E-A-G-L-E-S! Eagles!” — as they walked past the cordoned-off media.
And there was even a lone heckler, a man who shouted something and took a knee before being lightly booed and a called a Cowboys fan by the crowd — an especially grievous insult in a Redskins town.
It was an utterly restrained and civil display of cheer at an event honoring a team, and a city, whose fans are perhaps best known for booing Santa Claus before pelting him with snowballs.
But then, the planned Eagles celebration wasn’t really about the Eagles, or even football. Instead, Trump — who has long used the refusal by some NFL players to stand for the national anthem as a galvanizing cultural issue with his base — turned the festivities into yet another political cudgel.
Monday evening, Trump hastily disinvited the entire team from the White House, expressing dismay that the Eagles had wanted to send only a “smaller delegation” to the event Tuesday. “They disagree with their president because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country,” Trump said in a statement released Monday night, despite the fact that no Eagles players knelt in protest during the regular 2017 season, as some players on other teams had to protest police brutality.
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also sought to explain in a statement why the president had jettisoned what is normally an apolitical, feel-good gathering.
Sanders said the Eagles told the White House last Thursday that the team planned to send 81 individuals to the event, then tried on Friday to reschedule their visit for a date when Trump was set to be traveling out of the country. “Despite sensing a lack of good faith” from the team, Sanders continued, the White House worked to accommodate them, but finally pulled the plug when the Eagles offered to send “only a tiny handful of representatives.”
“In other words, the vast majority of the Eagles team decided to abandon their fans,” Sanders wrote in her statement. “Upon learning these facts, the president decided to change the event so that it would be a celebration of the American flag with Eagles fans and performances by United States Marine Band and the United States Army Chorus.”
The move echoed much of Trump’s behavior in office so far, laced with a certain I’ll-dump-you-before-you-can-dump-me defensiveness. Last month, the president abruptly canceled a planned summit with North Korea after some especially bellicose rhetoric from the rogue nation, only to reinstate it the next week after a North Korean envoy hand-delivered him an oversize and presumably flattering letter on behalf of dictator Kim Jong Un.
“That awkward moment when nobody wants to go to your child’s birthday party so your embarrassed child says they didn’t want a party anyway, then demands a new party for themselves alone, then complains all day about being lonely,” wrote Rogue POTUS Staff, a Twitter account that purports to be the “unofficial resistance team” inside the White House. “But your child is President of the United States.”
Still, there seemed to be few hard feelings in the subdued crowd. DeFinnis called the day “very disappointing” without the Super Bowl champions, but said he was a fan of both Trump (“I’m not especially happy with his style, but I like his principles”) and the Eagles.
Asked if he had to choose between the team and the president, DeFinnis at first demurred, then laughed and offered a response befitting the diplomatic setting. “I like them both,” he said. “I’d say it’s a dead heat.”