Where: Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Hall A.
When: January 20, 8 to midnight.
Ticket price: $150, but it crept up to $1,000 on Stubhub.
Who: Well, Barack and Michelle Obama and Joe and Jill Biden for starters. There were six balls packed into the Convention Center and the four made their way through each one. Whispers about what time each couple would show rippled through the hall all night. The word for the Obamas was 12:20, although the pair showed up an hour before that (by 11:24, they’d moved on to the next shindig). The 7,000-strong bash lacked the star wattage of the Neighborhood Ball—there was no Stevie Wonder or J.Lo wandering around. Instead, the boldface names in the crowd were more Hill than Hollywood: New York governor David Paterson, New York senator Chuck Schumer, Virginia governer Tim Kaine, and hoping-to-be Virginia governer and longtime Clintonite Terry McAuliffe.
Food and drink: Same as the rest of the official balls: sad-looking buffets holding trays of penne, tortellini, and stuffed chicken breast. At 10, they started selling bags of chips. To get a drink from the cash bar (stocked with Jack Daniel’s-level spirits), you had to schlep to another stand to buy a ticket, then trade it in. Dessert? Ha.
Thing that makes you go “huh?”: The entertainment included a long, jam-filled set from the Grateful Dead (sans the late Jerry Garcia), who played college-stoner favorites like “Chinacat Sunflower” and “Uncle John’s Band.” Or maybe they weren’t so out of place: “I heard they were reading the Huffington Post backstage,” said Terry McAuliffe. Most of the audience swayed their heads—or flat-out ignored the band—but we caught a few noodlers in beaded dresses. No smoky haze, though.
Surprise: A three-piece-suited Wyclef Jean jumped onstage to play an unannounced set and did his best to get the timid crowd going. He opened with “No Woman No Cry,” adding freestyle lyrics like “I felt the vibe . . . I felt it at 12 o’clock . . . Obama’s the President.” He ripped off his jacket and vest and commanded the guys in the audience to wave their own jackets in the air. But our favorite part came when he dragged a reluctant, pocket-squared audience member (literally—he had to jump into the audience to bring him onstage), told him to take off his jacket, and set him to work on the long drums. The former Fugee closed out with an electric rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
What everyone was wearing: Most of the men were in your standard black tie, although we did see one bravely ruffled shirt and a few fedoras. Purple was clearly the color of the night for women, who favored one-shoulder and backless dresses.
The Bidens’ moment: The newly minted VP and wife Jill danced to Van Morrison, with Biden giving the audience a “she’s hot” thumbs-up behind her back. He gave a quick (really!) speech, invoking, as he often does, Irish poet Seamus Heaney: “History says, Don’t hope on this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.” They were in and out in a couple of minutes.
Are they here yet?: By 10:30, the crowd’s enthusiasm had waned. One photographer was slumped dead asleep in a chair. A klatch of women cinched up their gowns and sat on the floor. And literally one minute before the Obamas took the stage, a woman fainted in the middle of the throngs. After their two minute appearance, a cattlelike mass of partygoers clogged the escalators for nearly an hour. And we hadn’t even gotten to the coat check.
Boldface names: 4 out of 5.
Swankiness: 2 out of 5.
Food and drink: 1 out of 5.
Overall exclusivity: 3 out of 5.
Total score: 10 out of 20.