WASHINGTON–The festivities have started early.
Even as young couples and groups of bleary-eyed friends emerged from the Dupont Circle metro stop with rolled up sleeping bags tied to their backpacks in preparation for the week-long party surrounding Barack Obama’s swearing in, black sedans and cabs began depositing some of the town’s powerbrokers at the nearby Fairfax Hotel on Massachusetts Avenue on Friday evening for a “Musical Celebration of the Inauguration.”
Sponsored by Washington Life magazine, whose latest edition amounts to a who’s who in the new Obama administration (“Collector’s Edition: Obamaland”) the party featured Nancy Pelosi, John Podesta and Warren Haynes, most famously of the Allman Brothers but also a regular performer with the remaining members of the Grateful Dead. But there were also heat-lamp-lighted food stations where men in tall, cylindrical white hats offered slabs of beef or racks of lamb with pin noir jus, or salmon in a lemon mignonette sauce. Purple lights projected slow-moving lava-lamp bubbles on the ceiling and crystal chandeliers, under which balding Washington powerbrokers accompanied by women with quaffed or frosted hair talked with balding, middle-aged rockers who wore what hair they had left in dreadlocks.
On a small stage between two heavily trafficked open bars, Soroush Richard Shehabi, the magazine’s CEO, introduced, at some length, the evening’s special guests. In the middle of his thanking of many, many people, whispered comments and conversations began percolating in the crowd. That murmur grew to pre-presentation levels after he put on his “policy wonk” hat and started talking about “our film about transforming the lives of homeless people.”
“Folks, just give me a second,” he said. “One second, please.”
With the attention of the crowd regained, Shehabi started introducing Podesta. The lights on the stage turned the curtain behind him to a hunter green that seemed to be made from the same material as the floor-length skirt worn by Arianna Huffington, who floated around the room delivering whispers. The columnist E. J. Dionne bit into a dinner roll.
Podesta, thin and dressed in a gray suit, took the stage to applause.
“The speaker and I are the Italian-American warm-up act for Warren Haynes,” he said, before expressing his optimism about Obama and observing that the administration’s transition team, which he led, “accomplished a lot in those 77 days.”
Pelosi, up next, wearing a pastel green jacket, bore the look of someone clearly enjoying herself.
“When people ask me about John Podesta, I say two words,” she said, with a pause. “Three actually. The Gold Standard.”
“I have seen him honored all over the country,” she continued. “I am honored to be honored with him tonight as we are the warm act for Warren Hayes — Haynes.”
The crowd started talking at full volume again even as she thanked the transition team. She said “in conclusion” and gave way to Haynes and his guitar. Except for a small, devoted ring that formed around the stage, the crowd did not stop talking as he started his set with a cover of the U2 song and political staple “One.” For the most part, music was not what this crowd was interested in.
They were talking about the new Obama order, their role in it, and how it and they would change Washington.
“The spirit of openness has really not been seen in this town for a very long time,” Podesta told The Observer. “Not just through the Web sites but through real dialogue, through listening to people and respecting each other and breaking down that sense of war. The town will definitely be a cooler place to live.”
His sister-in-law, Heather Podesta, stopped over.
“It’s been really interesting to work downtown because all of a sudden we have a president,” she said. “What’s been amazing in the last few weeks is to realize that Bush never left the White House. And all of a sudden we have traffic jams.”
“When was the last time Bush went to Ben’s Chili Bowl,” the leader of the transition said.
“Or Equinox,” she added.
Pelosi, surrounded by a scrum of well-wishers, smiled for pictures and then licked her lips before speaking again. She told the Observer she thought Washington “will become a city of greater hope and a city where the disparities will be reduced.” Asked if it would be a cooler city, as Podesta promised it would, Pelosi answered, “That I don’t know. It’s going to be a hardworking city. I know that.”
Out in the hall, Shehabi was introducing people to Podesta and urging his guests to enjoy themselves.
He thought a lot was going to happen.
“It’s not just about us versus them,” he told The Observer. “Because we’re all in this together. Whether you go back to the days of busing or desegregation or white flight, ‘oh we don’t want to pay for their education because they are different from ours,’ realizing that it’s our national security at stake. If we don’t take care of the other folks and include them and fund education, take care of our environment, maintain our security at sort of a bipartisan level, not just in sort of a corrupt, cronyist level. That’s just one level.”
A more simple interpretation of how the city might change came from Bruce Keiloch, a 43-year-old Democratic consultant, who wore a purple tie and sunglasses like a headband to keep back his dreadlocks.
“It’s going to be a much sexier city,” he said, as he stood in the front row listening to Haynes play. “You know what Carville said about it being Hollywood for ugly people, and Chicago is like a nice New York with no fashion sense? Well, D.C. is about to get a lot sexier.”
“Think about all those people who had those epiphanies that maybe they were part of the solution. They’re all coming here,” he said. “And I don’t know if you ever saw the Dead, but I grew up having a lot of epiphanies that told me I’m part of the solution.”