Sure, the 2012 inauguration isn’t the glittering bacchanal of four years ago. All the same, it’s not your average Washington weekend, either. Here’s an initial report from a Saturday night spent among the parties for the powerful, the not-so-powerful, and the folks somewhere in the middle:
Just like the other toddlers, tweens and teens waiting in line to buy overpriced food before the Kids' Inaugural Ball Saturday night at Washington's Convention Center, Brooke Holder--daughter of a U.S. Attorney General named Eric--was excited to see Katy Perry perform after an appearance by Mrs. Obama and the Girls. But, even having had a front row seat to the realities of American politics over the last four years, she was hoping to see a little more from the next.
"I thought his first term was a little slow," Holder said, piping up immediately when I asked her crew what they thought of the president (her two friends happily deferred). With long, silky straightened hair, Holder had the poise of one from whom much is expected at family dinners, and knew exactly which campaign promise had been the most completely broken. "Honestly, global warming. It's been kind of overlooked, with all the shootings. But that's the global issue."
Not that this was an evening about issues. It was a giant room full of kids with more than your average level of exposure to public affairs: The sons and daughters of connected D.C. officials and members of the military, whom the whole shebang was set up to honor (each performer would praise their heroism, against the logo of Michelle Obama's new project for military families, "Joining Forces").
So, as the announcer interrupted the piped-in Bieber again and again to promise the event was about to begin, and the taut advance staffers with wires plugged into their ears tried telling flocks of aimless volunteers what to do, I went searching for more peewee pundits.
"I didn't like his position against abortion," proclaimed seventh grader Simone Liu, of Mitt Romney. "That was really the biggest thing for me."
But you're in seventh grade, I told her and her two girlfriends, who looked like they'd run out of things to talk about while waiting for the main event. Is this really your biggest issue right now? It could be in the next four years, they nodded gravely.
"People don't realize that it's going to affect them," said Brielle Quarles, elegant in a rouched green top. Their small Alexandria private school is mostly full of Democrats, they said. But, like good liberals, they tried to be tolerant.
"I'm not against Republicans at all," said Elena Pipkin, who wore her blonde hair braided and a tiny dancer charm necklace. "I had a best friend and she was Republican."
"They can be good people," agreed Liu, charitably. I asked what the girls thought of their governor, Bob McDonnell, expecting righteous outrage over his opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
"One thing that bothers me about our governor," began Liu. "He has super thin lips. It's just skin and lips!" She looked up a picture of McDonnell on her phone to illustrate, and Pipkin contorted her face into her best McDonnell impression.
I took my leave of the young partisans as the emcee for the night took the stage--Nick Cannon, a.k.a. Mr. Mariah Carey--and kids stood on their chairs seeking a few over the crowd. Surprise guest Usher was introduced, to screams. And the protective parents, eyes wide under the cover of darkness, looked no less enthralled.
INDIAN DIASPORA BALL
Washington has two kinds of inaugural balls: There are the money-making enterprises thrown by party promoters who recruit C-list celebrities to convince as many people to drop hundreds of dollars on a ticket as possible. And then there are the ones run by interest groups, for whom opulent galas are a show of strength.
None fits more solidly in the second category this year than the Indiaspora ball, the first of its kind put on by anew grouptrying to raise the profile of the Indian American community in politics. They set up a red carpet in the basement of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, with photographers snapping attendees against a backdrop spangled with the logo of the Indian mega-conglomerate Tata Consultancy Services. And the shimmering gold-clad organizer M.R. Rangaswami, taking every chance to talk up the 1,300-person sold-out crowd, pronounced the effort a triumph.
"Absolutely, you know you're a hot ball when you're on Craigslist, Ebay, all these sites," he told a fawning interviewer who'd asked whether this wasn't the buzziest party in town. The nationalistic press in attendance, beaming interviews into Indian living rooms, were happy to play along.
"Would you say that the fact that you're here is a sign that whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, Indo-American relations are paramount?" a reporter for NDTV asked Ed Royce, the Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who talked of friendship and cooperation on terrorism and trade.
Royce may have realized the Indian American community leans Democratic. The event's rotund, backslapping emcee, who had been announcing each minor dignitary as they entered the ballroom as "So and so and his beautiful wife!" grumbled jokingly out of earshot: "You're going to make me promote a Republican?"
Baby-faced governor Martin O'Malley, by contrast, was no stranger to the wealthy Indian crowd. "Hey, how you been? Haven't seen you since Kumar's fundraiser!" he exclaimed over a cameraman's head.
As the VIPs started repeating themselves, I left the rope line and dove into the main hall, packed with Nehru jackets and technicolor silks. It was billed as a "heavy reception," which differs from "dinner" in that food is served buffet-style on small plates and napkins, often to steer clear of campaign finance rules. Kingfisher flowed from the bar, situated in a massive dais festooned with flowers and textiles. Attendees bobbed indifferently to Banghra groups whirling on stage, and started to look bored; many took refuge in the hall outside. I found a cluster of girls taking pictures, and asked them about the whole Indians-in-politics thing.
"We are the highest earning minority in the United States," answered 23-year-old Lily Patel, in diaphanous orange. "I don't think it's a surprise that we're getting into politics."
What about the fact that the highest-achieving Indian American politicians so far are Republicans? "I think Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley have raised a lot of press for themselves, and that's great," sniffed Patel. But they all agreed that the dashing Rajiv Shah, who became the highest-ranking Indian American official when he was appointed USAID administrator at the age of 36, was a better role model.
It wasn't all India boosters. Lurking on the sidelines, I ran into Longtime NPR All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen and friend Lisa Markuson, who informed me that I stuck out "like a sore thumb." Sporting a culture-clashing bolo tie and prim white dress respectively, so did they.
"Of course not," Markuson answered, when I asked if they'd paid $300 to be there. "We don't pay for anything we go to. We trade ball tickets."
"She's got one ball, I got another," quipped Boilen. Scrotum jokes, an inaugural tradition.
"No, you got one ball, I got two balls!" protested Markuson, who was putting on a Yogi Ball the next day. "Are you talking about HRC? Because I am literally on Cindy Lauper's list."
After one more pass through the choked ballroom, it was time for me to move on. In the lobby, a peacock made of real dried flowers and feathers was slowly shedding, as people surreptitiously plucked souvenirs. The Clintons hadn't shown up, as it had been rumored they might. But on my left as I exited, some consolation for the Indians: A stack of printed-out resolutions sponsored by Senator Mark Warner, "Recognizing the religious and historical significance of the Festival of Diwali." Perhaps, they have arrived.
For my last stop of the night, I chose the Millennial Ball. It was for Millennials, where Millennials hang out, which in D.C. is H Street NE--Fox News, in its preview of the event, even recognized it as a favorite of "the young and left-leaning."
But in Washington, hipsters are of no color or creed. The first person I ran into was Derek Khanna, the Republican Study Committee stafferwho'd been fired after authoring a heterodox memo on copyright reform, leading topraise from the New York Times' David Brooks. He had interpreted the "Black Tie Casual" dress code as a tuxedo, sans tie (most others went similarly crazy with sneakers under their dress pants, or a pair of loud sunglasses).
"I would describe this as D.C.'s premiere pop-up space," said Will Cox, who works for a "boutique" corporate consulting firm, and recently moved to the neighborhood. "And I'm a Republican!"
The space, a former clothing store that's been pressed into service for self-consciously edgy events over the last few months, was covered with uncategorizable art projects--graffiti, oil paintings, an interactive video installation. Platters of fried chicken had disappeared before I arrived, leaving only plates of bones, and the $75 "open bar"--constructed out of wooden freight palettes, featuring "Whiskey!!"--had a line 15 minutes long. Downstairs, about 100 Millennials bounced to ear-crushing pop, like they might have at a high-school concert only a few years ago.
The party was a production of the Millennial Trains project, whichaims to send 100 Millennial Entrepreneurs on train trips across the country to "lay the groundwork for sustainable, Millennial-driven economic progress and community-focused innovation nationwide." That accounted for the Amtrak schedules at the check-in table, and the otherwise incongruous branding presence of the National Association of Rail Passengers, which has had trouble reaching people who're much more likely to take a $20 Megabus. Malcolm Kenton, NARP's reedy young outreach coordinator, was thrilled with the exposure.
"This is what I've been waiting for," said Kenton, sitting alone on a couch in front of a giant poster with trains drawn on it. "I've been trying to get something to really galvanize youth interest in our cause." Kenton often has to convince his contemporaries that trains are expensive because Amtrak hasn't been able to invest in upgrades, and tries to sell them on the more pleasant experience. "There's no cafe car on the bus," he explained.
Is this really about building a youth movement for rail transportation? "Not explicitly," said Millennial Trains founder Patrick Dowd, a ex-private equity bro who'd opted for Toms shoes scrawled with a marker under his tux. The train theme is more metaphorical. "The idea is, it's a platform for people to get on and lead. Trains are the most efficient way to expose large groups of people to the realities of their homeland…This is Birthright America. It's like a campaign that's not trying to elect anyone, and the constituency is our generation."
Dowd says he hasn't exactly found someone to fund the project yet. "We're looking for a Warren Buffett to come in and support it," he said. Or Google, with which he says he's had "high-level conversations."
I left at about 1:30 a.m., as the party was breaking up. My generation was stumbling along the sidewalk that reeked of spilled Yuengling, trying to catch cabs, on a street equipped with very expensive train tracks to nowhere.