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Waiting for Bill Clinton at the Arkansas Ball

“Is that abortion asshole still up there?” A man behind me, walking out of today’s inauguration crowd, was asking the question on everyone’s mind—and phrasing it just right. The asshole in question was an apparently spry older white gentleman who had managed to climb a tree inside the green ticketed area, and hoist a sign reading “Pray to End Abortion.” But instead of praying silently, he’d decided to shout, with quite a set of pipes, through the whole ceremony. “Babykillers!” was a favorite refrain “What about the bayyyy-bies?” He screamed during hushed moments. The guy had timing, too. As President Obama invoked history—our “certain inalienable rights”—and paused for dramatic effect the man answered him “WHAT ABOUT THE RIGHTS OF THE BABIES?” There were occasional boos and “shut ups” (and plenty of attention) from the crowd, and the Capitol Hill Police had brought a ladder to the scene, but the asshole got to do his thing. He was half comic relief and half annoyance, but mostly he was just another person living out his political dreams. After all, on inauguration weekend, everyone gets the heightened, idealized version of Washington they want—and that includes the nutters who love to test everyone else’s belief in the First Amendment on the largest possible stage.

The abortion asshole probably wouldn’t have had a very good time at Planned Parenthood/Rock the Vote’s event at the 9:30 club on Saturday night, but plenty of young, progressive DC types certainly did. Q-Tip was spinning (he told the crowd at the end of his set, with not a ton of faith either in their hipness or his, that they could “Wikipedia” him). Sandra Fluke sat in the VIP section, quietly, with her fiancee’s hand on her knee. A very blonde, very sleek Cecile Richards swanned her way through the crowd, dressed in regal gold spangles and greeted like a queen by the hordes of twentysomething staffers who were enjoying the payoff of free champagne and access to the boss. There were neon-packaged condoms for free. One Planned Parenthood employee danced jollily around in a shiny blue mascot suit shaped like a package of birth control pills. She made sure that I spelled her name – Pillomena – just right. This was the version of DC that people who have bought condos in Columbia Heights wanted to see on display. After all, as one button-down-wearing gentleman lurking around the edges of the dance floor explained to me while invoking a New York Times Style Section article on the city’s renaissance, it was the second time in the past year that his very street, 11th, had been mentioned in the paper. “ It’s the hippest street in the country. It’s got the New York vibe, wine bars, little pastries.” This declaration, he then informed me, was not for attribution.

Still another idealized version of the capital was on display at the National Press club that same evening, at the Arkansas State Society Ball. Here, there were roast-beef stations and bacon-wrapped scallops, but also a free liquor bar involving plastic cups and raspberry-flavored vodka. There was a trio of college-age women with Southern accents in matching red ballgowns, like bridesmaids for Obama’s vow renewal. There were old people on the dance floor. There were men who called one another sir in the coat check line- and women who called each other darling in the bathroom. There was a lot of happy reminiscing about the magic of the 2008 campaign (less so about the 2012 version.) There was a critical discussion of Walmart’s labor practices, followed by a “Shh! Don’t you know what state this is?” There was a crowd that was decidedly less white, and less local, than the one at the 9:30 Club. This was the vision of Old Washington glamour as refracted through a states’-eye view.

This was also Old Washington in a very specific—1990s—sense. President Bill Clinton had been promised, and self-identified Friends of Bill had varying degrees of faith about whether he’d ever show. Jerry Malone, a Little Rock lawyer who’d served as chief of staff for Department of Transportation during his friend’s administration, said Clinton wasn’t just famously late, he was always late. “He’s still giving of himself to people somewhere,” Malone explained. But it was 11:30 and there was no sign of him. The dance floor swelled even as the party dimmed. A young blonde woman in a very purple, very shiny gown, seeing my notebook, came up and offered, as conversational gambit, the assurance that Clinton was coming, at 12:30. Was she involved with the event in an official capacity? “Can’t confirm or deny.” She was a “consultant.” Where? “Can’t confirm or deny,” a puzzling reply to what was not a yes or no question. Midnight came, and she left. Why? “I can see him any time I want in New York.” Was she with the Clinton Foundation? “I’m with … an old friend.” Some people’s idealized version of a Washington weekend involves ostentatious faux-discretion. (And maybe an inflated sense of connection: the former president never showed up.)

At the inauguration itself, things were easier the better your tickets were—and, of course, the more people you know, the better your tickets were. (This is no one’s ideal of Washington, and also its most obvious reality.) In the red section, the families behind me in line for security scanning discussed bike trails in Tahoe. One of the fathers told a story about how he’d managed to get an excellent seat in 1992 because he’d been escorting the president’s mother. The young men from Atlanta in front of me talked about the several options they’d had for free tickets. Our line went fast, and there were seats, and an excellent Jumbotron view of the Mall, shimmering with thousands of people who didn’t have seats or tickets but had cared enough to schlep in the cold. 

This post originally referred to Sandra Fluke's "husband." She is engaged, not married.