WASHINGTON -- They glided in on private jets or simply stepped outside their doors to attend. They called in political favors for a coveted invitation, traded on the currency of their celebrity, or just ordered from the QVC shopping channel. One night, you needed only look skyward to be part of the celebration; others, you couldn't beg or buy your way past the man with The List.
A presidential inauguration is a party, a sprawling, three-day, round-the-clock, glorious mess of an affair. It is both private and public, all-embracing and exclusive. It lurches from grandly ceremonial one moment to entirely frivolous the next: A president takes office; a supermodel strikes a pose; We the People crowd the tents on the Mall and the sidewalks on the parade route; They the Beautiful People watch from their roped-off VIP rooms.
There is cheering and almost as much carping, and yet every four years, we do it all over again. Inaugurations fill some latent need to rustle up an extravagant gown; buy a platter-sized souvenir button; press into an over-populated, under-bartended ball; get goosebumpy at the fireworks, Jessye Norman's Amazing Grace, the high school marching bands from Texarkana and New Bedford.
"You very rarely get to feel so American," said Mary Malaszek, here from Rochester, N.Y., to attend one of the unofficial balls.
For one weekend, they moved in parallel paths -- the visitors and the locals, those who went to the parties and those who fed, drove, manicured, entertained, dry-cleaned and otherwise made last night a Cinderella fantasy come to life.
But those paths criss-crossed visibly in the subway, where the black ties and sequins of inaugural festivities sat alongside the baseball hats and bluejeans of urban transit-wear. At the Metro Center stop, ball-goers stopped to have their pictures taken with a bomb-sniffing police dog that probably had never seen so much cleavage. It must have been the black-tie he was wearing around his collar.
Mostly, the people of these two worlds seemed uninterested in trading places.
"The one thing you never want to do is go to an inaugural ball," declares Tim Temple, a long-time resident here. "I went to Kennedy's inaugural ball, and the excitement I felt at being there was equaled by the disappointment I felt at having been."
Temple spent this year on the flip side of the official party scene: The retired federal bureaucrat now runs Splash!, a carwash that specializes in limousine washing and detailing. Over the weekend, he marshaled a parade of 150 yachts-on-wheels that stopped by for a rubdown before picking up VIPs. "Now I'm a minor part of the servicing of the inauguration," says Temple, who opened the carwash six blocks from the Capitol in July. "I never even thought of this existing."
Across town, combs were flying at the chic Okyo salon in Georgetown, where about 60 women kept eight stylists busy yesterday. All of the customers headed later to a ball -- or four balls, in the case of Diane "Fifi" Sanchez, who had Robert Novel sleek her hair back into a bow-shaped chignon.
Even people outside this considerable cottage industry, or those who didn't think they were particularly interested in the hoo-ha, found themselves drawn into the vortex: They found a party that, well, yes, they would attend after all. Or they stopped, for just a moment, outside a ritzy hotel hoping to glimpse a visiting celebrity. Or left a warm bed at dawn to eyeball the man of the moment himself.
"I saw his little gray head bobbing in there," Jim Wylde announced happily as he bounced in the cold yesterday morning, having spotted President Clinton through the police cars and Secret Service agents paving his way to a prayer service at the Metropolitan AME Church.
"See, and you were the one who didn't want to get up this morning," teased Mary Greer, a friend from Missouri staying with Wylde and his wife Karen Gladbach in their Arlington, Va., home.
Mission accomplished, the trio headed to their next assignation -- the Watergate Hotel, where they heard you could spot James Taylor and Whoopi Goldberg, in town for the festivities.
The stars came out, and so did Chelsea.
One of the illicit delights of an inauguration is open stargazing, a chance for this buttoned-down city of Very Serious People to openly gawk at the visiting beautiful ones -- Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas here, Kevin Costner there, Sheryl Crow in purple lipstick.
Still, the biggest commotion was reserved for the local celebs, the Clintons.
Even after four years and a daylong Billfest, the president's arrival at the 14 inaugural balls sent a ripple in what was no doubt a partisan crowd. "I think it's better the second time around," Clinton declared at one of his first stops, the New England Inaugural Ball. Hillary, wearing a dress previously seen on 6-foot, concave supermodels, looked a bit matronly by comparison, the golden-laced Oscar de la Renta dress hugging her decidedly more mature figure. While the President was rarely seen in the flesh until yesterday's swearing-in and inaugural balls, Hillary and Chelsea had turned up seemingly everywhere over the weekend.
It has always been thus, hasn't it, when it comes to official parties, from proms to weddings to inaugural balls: They're really for women. Which sex, after all, likes to dress up and dance, use a clean plate every time you get a bit of food and not worry who will wash all those dishes?
Horrid gender stereotyping and hetero-centrist thinking aside (and this inauguration spawned several gay and lesbian parties), it's funny that it took until this year for someone to host a Women's Inaugural Ball. Many women turned up with Kens, of course, yet nearly as many came solo or with girlfriends to the National Women's Political Caucus fete on Saturday night. Gender equity at last: At $150-a-ticket, it was as expensive as last night's official gatherings.
As the first women's ball, some kinks could stand ironing out: The invitations called for black-tie, for example. And the entertainment included Crystal Bernard, the "Wings" sitcom actress who proceeded to do a set of he-done-her-wrong country songs, one about a guy in high school who treated her badly, another dedicated to all women whose men dumped them for someone else.
Mercifully, next up was Betty, that wild-maned trio of rap-and-rock. Even they, though, had to step back when the First Riot Grrrrl, Hillary, showed up.
Her Rodhamness gave a few impromptu remarks to great and loving applause from the crowd, some of whom were teetering on high heels on wobbly chairs to get a look at her.
As the blond Betty noted, "Hillary rocks!"
Another First Partyer
Actually, we vote for Chelsea as the Clinton who rules.
The first daughter, increasingly coming out of the protective custody that her parents gave her during the first term, turned up quietly and unannounced at the hipper events this weekend, such as the Conde Nast/MTV party at the Corcoran Gallery Saturday and another MTV bash at Red Sage. Taller than expected, but her hair as untameably curly as ever, Chelsea was usually surrounded by equally lanky and poised friends, said to be from both here and Arkansas.
At the Corcoran, she introduced herself to Conan O'Brien and chatted, seemingly oblivious to the cameras in her face. Someone from the press tried to get the girlfriend standing closest to Chelsea to pose for a picture with her famous pal. She politely but firmly declined.
"She said, 'I'm, like, from Vogue,' " the girlfriend told another, images of being in the magazine next to, like, Kate Moss, perhaps flickering through her mind. "But I said no."
"Good work," the other one assured her.
The First Celebs
Every inauguration has its cast of inescapable celebs. Last time around, it was Barbra Streisand on the official, Lincoln Bedroom, level, Michael Stipe for the alternative set. This year, Kevin Spacey is the everywhere man and model Lauren Hutton the ubiquitous woman.
Friday night, the actor known for his coolly scary criminal roles in "The Usual Suspects" and "Seven" kicked off the people-watching with a screening of his first directing gig, "Albino Alligator," followed by a party at Planet Hollywood. Pal Hutton showed up as well, in jeans and trademark gap between her front teeth. Saturday, Spacey did a tent on the Mall, and later turned up at all the right parties, as did Hutton. Sunday, they brunched at Kramerbooks' cafe, their cell phone-equipped entourage camped out in a corner booth in the popular Dupont Circle spot. And last night, Spacey emcee'd the ball everyone wanted to go to, for the president-in-waiting's home state of Tennessee.
When you're hot, you're hot. "Four years ago, I was doing quieter work as an actor," he said. Translation: No one asked him to host a ball.
For all his ubiquity, Spacey, with his blond streaked hair, drew appreciative oohs. This is D.C., after all, where the citizenry must satisfy their celebrity imperative with the likes of Cabinet secretaries, administration figures or media pundits.
Party like it's 1999
There haven't been this many red suits in one room since the reign of Nancy. It's not Reagan red, though, but Razorback red because this, the Arkansas Travelers brunch at the Mayflower Hotel on Saturday, is one of numerous parties celebrating the state that gave us Bill Clinton. Yet there's an air of melancholy, too, amid the din of "how're yews" and "don't you look preeeettys."
They've ridden quite a roller coaster with their man: Whitewater, Gennifer Flowers, the travel office, Paula Jones, the FBI files, Webb Hubbell, Susan McDougal. But some 5,000 Arkansans have returned to Washington for another inauguration, even if their enthusiasm for the federal city has been tempered.
"It hurts to see our friends treated that way," said Sheila Bronfman, a business consultant from Little Rock. Bronfman headed the Arkansas Travelers, a group that hit the road in vans in 1992 to campaign for Clinton.
Others have campaigned for him in his state races. "My mother was the Union County circuit clerk when Bill Clinton ran for attorney general the first time, and she took him by the hand like this," Gloria Calhoun says, reaching for the hand of her nephew, "and took him to all the lawyers he didn't know and said, 'This is Bill Clinton, and I want him to be the next attorney general.'
"Stop me right now, I'm getting goosebumps," she continues, her eyes moistening. "This is the first time a Democratic president has been re-elected since FDR, and I have been to both inaugurations. How many people can say they've been a part of something like that?"
Nonetheless, the fickle masses are shifting their attentions from Arkansas to Tennessee. At 10: 15 last night, 1,000 would-be revelers cooled their dress shoes outside the Tennessee ball at Union Station because fire marshals would not allow any more ticketholders inside.
Rumors that there were already 10,000 luckier friends of Al inside the hall circulated amid chants of "Let us in! Let us in!"
"It's the Tennessee connection," said Gail Connaughton, who owns an Annapolis health club. "It's the next president of the United States' ball."
The friendly skies
The sleek private jet glides to the ground and a waiting truck leads it to a parking space. A van follows respectfully behind, first to unload the baggage -- white garment bags that loft like parachutes as the ball gowns inside catch the wind -- and then to ferry the passengers to the terminal and their waiting limousine. Their feet barely touch pavement; this is the true first class of air travel.
From the window of the offices of Signature Flight Services, which handles the private plane traffic at National Airport, you could have watched this discreet minuet repeat itself endlessly over the weekend.
The planes whisked in Fortune 500 executives and big contributors with entre to the private parties and the official inaugural balls. Or their cargo was the stars who lend their glamour and names to drop when the partygoers get back home.
Gloria Estefan arrived around 2 a.m. Saturday, Robin Williams was expected later that afternoon. Kenny Rogers was expected but was diverted to Dulles because his plane didn't meet noise restrictions at National.
"They all come through here," the elfin Pat Thornton says with a shrug. He is known affectionately as Ambassador -- except to Tipper Gore, who has been calling him Coach since he worked one of her son's soccer games. This is a job perfectly suited for the 65-year-old Irishman, given his lifetime of serving the titled, first as a steward in the Royal Air Force, then as an assistant in the British Embassy, then as a head waiter at the Hay-Adams here. With his background in security, he also helps shoo away the paparazzi and professional autograph seekers.
Mostly, though, it is his easy cheer that passengers remember. Hillary Clinton once asked him why he was always smiling. With disarming honesty, he replied, "Because I'm a Republican."
"Oh, we'll have to work on that," the first lady rejoined.
She better hurry. She only has four more years.
Pub Date: 1/21/97