News & Politics

We Searched for Soft Sensuality at the Inaugural Balls

We found Ted Cruz instead.

A scene from the Texas-themed Black Tie and Boots Inaugural Ball. Photograph by Mario Tama Getty Images.

We were told to expect “soft sensuality” from last week’s inaugural slate. That’s how President Trump’s lead inauguration planner, Tom Barrack, put it earlier this month this when he promised a “poetic cadence” and nothing “circus-like” during the festivities.

But how, exactly, would soft sensuality materialize? I’m not sure anyone knew.

The party circuit began for many at the Embassy of New Zealand last Tuesday. Perhaps the island nation known best to Americans as the filming location for the Lord of the Rings movies could fulfill Barrack’s prediction. But Ambassador Tim Groser made no attempt to hide his elation about the evening’s guest list. There was senior adviser Rick Dearborn and campaign field director Stuart Jolly, and campaign committee chairman Michael Glassner. The White House’s incoming chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was reportedly spotted, too. Jon Voight, Trump’s most famous Hollywood supporter, was en route. Breitbart writer Matt Boyle, who once joked that he would be Trump’s White House press secretary—alas, the job went to Sean Spicer—manspreaded on a couch near Groser’s lectern.

“Getting access to Trump will be everybody’s ambition,” the ambassador said. He beamed at all of his new friends. “We have got off to a flying start.”

It didn’t matter that Groser had helped craft the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade agreement from which Trump today withdrew. It didn’t matter that Groser has spent much of his career promoting other trade policies antithetical to Trumpism. Disagreements be damned, what mattered now was access—something everyone scrambles for with each regime change in Washington, but always demurely. Yet Groser was unabashed: he regaled the crowd with the story of how he first snagged Trump’s cell phone number (he knew a guy who knew a guy), and professed his own thrill about the end of “PC” culture. The Trump campaign may have decried Hollywood, but Groser and the scores of guests in black tie were openly star-struck by the new folks in town. (Except, perhaps, Alabama Senator Richard Shelby’s wife, Annette. Asked if they planned to stay long, she looked at me with eyes that seemed to say, “Darling, you must be joking.”)

Much of the same crew, plus thousands of others, trekked to National Harbor for the Texas State Society’s quadrennial Black Tie & Boots ball. Soft it was not—former Hoosiers basketball coach Bobby Knight, wearing neither black tie nor boots, took the stage to introduce the evening’s headliner, the Mike Love-led, Brian Wilson-less Beach Boys. Knight enthused that there would be “no bullshit” in the Trump administration. The audience, packed onto the dance floor, whooped and hollered in response.

Even Senator Ted Cruz was enjoying himself. He stood and smiled for hours with starry-eyed fans seeking photographs. His wife, Heidi, joined in, but gracefully bowed out after a few selfies. “Oh, God, he must be miserable,” one Trump aide said to a Cruz friend. The friend appeared shocked. “No,” he said, with a hint of pride in the Texas senator. “He absolutely loves it.”

Jolly, who during the early days of the Trump campaign was considered the Dr. Jekyll to Corey Lewandowski‘s Mr. Hyde, gazed around the party’s glittering VIP arena. (Jolly’s new outfit, the Sonoran Policy Group, partnered with the Kiwis for Tuesday’s fête.)

“The energy level here is…” he began, apparently at a loss for words. “Look, our guy won, and now we finally have some certainty in the world. It’s amazing. Here’s the deal: No one prepared for Mr. Trump winning. That has played into my hands perfectly.”

Jolly recalled the early morning hours of Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, when his phone popped with “140 text messages.” “I have a lot of new friends. Especially since he won,” he said.

Did Jolly respond to them?

“Every single one. That’s just the kind of guy I am.”

It was a curious divergence from Trump, who is motivated by loyalty from those who work for him and vendettas against others he feels have slighted him. But his aides and friends indeed appear excited to hobnob with and forgive—but not forget—their enemies from 2016. “I remember. I know where they were,” Jolly said. “But it’s politics.”

The week’s purported theme, or at least the latter half of it, crystallized Friday evening at the official Freedom Ball, held in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. The festivities stretched across several ballrooms, and the cracked concrete floors and black ceilings and black walls made one wonder if “American Carnage” was in fact the name of Trump’s metal band and we were all in fact gathered in this titanic garage to hear its debut. Champagne flutes were $20 a pop; a tiny Dasani went for $5.

Just as it was at Trump’s swearing-in, the crowd was thinner than usual, or at least appeared to be against the vastness of the space. But only Trump himself could have cared. The new leader of the free world may be desperate for validation, but his various aides, surrogates, and loyalists feel that they already have it. After 18 months of being mocked and derided, this cast of characters now sits on top, and, unlike their boss, does not care for your approval. One imagines their metal band covering the immortal words of PRhyme:

We’re an acquired taste. If you don’t like us, acquire some taste.

Softness? No. But sensuality? For a select set, sure.

Take Sean Hannity: Trump’s most devoted cable-news booster, flanked by his Fox News colleague, Geraldo Rivera, planted himself toward the back of the ballroom. Scores of fans flocked over, forming a circle around the two. Rivera—who once promised to reveal “embarrassing” tapes of Trump interviews, only to walk it back—and Hannity sparkled for iPhone photos.

A pretty blonde woman in a white gown asked Hannity how he was doing this evening. As she looked at him, awaited his response, he kept his eyes fixed on the cameras. “I’ve never felt better,” he said. Power, as Napoleon once observed, is the greatest of all aphrodisiacs.

Staff Writer

Elaina Plott joined Washingtonian in June 2016 as a staff writer. She has written about her past life as an Ann Coulter fangirl, how the Obamas changed Washington, and the rise and fall of Roll Call. She previously covered Congress for National Review. Her writing has appeared in the New York Observer, GQ, and Harper’s Bazaar.