The illuminated marquee of the Beacon Theater on Wednesday night read “Hillary’s Birthday Party.”
But despite the flashiness of Hillary Clinton’s 60th birthday celebration—jokes by Billy Crystal, music by the Wallflowers and Elvis Costello—it was first and foremost a political event.
The tickets counted as fund-raising contributions and brought in $1.5 million for the campaign. And the honored guests consisted of prominent bundlers and political supporters.
The stage adorned with a triptych of black and white pictures of Clinton—as a smiling baby, as a smiling college student, as a smiling senator—was also a political battleground from which she tossed a political grenade at Rudy Giuliani.
After arriving on stage dressed in a black pantsuit and orange blouse, Clinton thanked Crystal for ribbing Giuliani earlier in the evening about his rooting for the Boston Red Sox, the sworn enemy of the former mayor’s New York Yankees, in order to gain favor with New Hampshire voters.
“I appreciate everything he said tonight about the Yankees,” said Clinton, “Because I have been a fan and I remain a fan of the New York Yankees, with no changes. No looking to curry favor with anybody else.” Clinton then delivered her usual stump speech, about turning the country around, paying more attention than the Bush administration has to the middle class, science and diplomacy, and emphasized the “optimism” she had in meeting all the daunting challenges facing the next president.
The audience gave her a standing ovation.
Since long before the actual moment Clinton took the stage, the international press had been treating the birthday like major news.
On Broadway and 75th Street, a correspondent from Korea’s MKTV giddily interviewed attendees under the theater’s marquee, before being rounded up and herded with the rest of the press to the second floor of the Beacon Hotel down the block. For about an hour, reporters speaking English, Italian, French and Japanese chose from an offering of Coke, Sprite, or Dasani water. The sodas went mostly untouched, unlike the selection of Sam Adams, Heineken and Michelob beers floating in icy buckets.
The plastic “Hillary” press passes soon ran out, and flustered volunteers started supplying reporters with index cards, across which the word “press” was sloppily scrawled. Picking from clear plastic glasses filled with potato chips and nibbling at white bread sandwiches cut in triangles and filled with mayonnaise, the reporters slumped around in the harsh hotel light, complaining about the long wait and talking politics. A group of Japanese reporters stood in a circle, laughing and bowing to one another.
Junichi Hirata, a 34-year-old reporter from Japan’s TV-Asahi, said that his viewers had more interest in Hillary’s birthday than most of her other campaign events.
“She’s 60,” said Hirata. “My boss probably thought there would be birthday cake and that she would blow out all the candles. It’s good footage. More than just giving a speech.”
After about an hour of waiting, two Clinton campaign aides finally appeared. Backs straightened. One aide divided the still photographers and TV cameras from the print reporters, who were now asked to wait in the former “will call” area and told by Clinton spokesman Jay Carson, “We’re coming down in the middle of Elvis Costello being on stage, so please don’t bang around.”
Carson, dressed in a sharp gray wool suit and jet-black tie, led the reporters down to the theater. On the way they passed Mrs. Clinton’s slim and stylish personal aide, Huma Abedin, (“The Wallflowers did four songs and they were amazing,” she said) and to the theater door. “We’re going to aisle three!” said Carson in a hush to the blue-glowing, laptop-and-cellphone-toting pack of reporters, who duly proceeded to bang around.
In the theater, Elvis Costello, dressed in his usual black, strummed his guitar alone and sang “Alison.” (“I wish that I could stop you from talking.”) Between songs he said that Clinton was “someone who was going to bring music back into the White House,” and then invited Jakob Dylan and the rest of the Wallflowers back on to perform “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” and “Pump It Up.”
Some people got up and danced, others got up and stood in place, and a few older women plugged their fingers in their ears.
“I couldn’t stand it,” said one elderly woman in a red jacket covered in Chinese lettering. “To me, it’s not music–it’s noise. Ask me about Billy Crystal.”
According to the director Ron Howard, who was in attendance, the audience “were happy to have” Crystal’s joke at Giuliani’s expense. Crystal strode back onto the stage later in the evening, told some more jokes, and said of Clinton, “There’s a leader coming who you can trust.” He then introduced Bill Clinton, who was lead onto the stage by Chelsea Clinton, dressed in a black and white checkered dress.
The former president reminisced about first meeting Hillary.
“In bringing her up here, I want to tell you something entirely different tonight, about her life, because I’ve seen it now for more than half of her life,” he said. “She was just 23 when we met. Poor child didn’t know better than to talk to me.
“And I was thinking tonight about how we celebrated her 24th birthday when she was in law school and all the ones we’ve celebrated since.
“I’ve known her for most of the decades of her life, and I’ve filled in the blanks from the decades before.”
After the event at the theater, Bill and Hillary got together with some top campaign donors at an after party at the Russian Tea Room. They drank champagne and wine and ate appetizers. One longtime Clinton supporter who was present said that spirits were high, but that there was a general consensus “that this is going to get a lot nastier.”