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01.18.09

D.C. Diary

Sometimes the cliché “we are at a turning point,” wheeled out at every new presidential era, turns out to be true.

Is something going on in this town? There seem to be an awful lot of people around. The Acela train from Penn Station to Washington yesterday morning was stuffed to the gills with anchor people toting even more luggage than I was. And when I arrived to check in at the Ritz-Carlton on 22nd Street, an ABC camera crew pursued me to the elevator, asking me what I thought of “all the hoopla.” “I am the hoopla, darling,” was all I could think of to say.

What is immediately apparent as soon as you step off the train is the epic cold. It’s like a knife at the throat every time you sally forth to brave the next event. It’s one more thing to bond about in the reigning atmosphere of almost gooey good will. The new president will be toasted more in hot chocolate than in champagne.

Everyone is in permanent motion. It’s as if only the number of events you attend sufficiently registers how deeply you want this new presidential era to arrive.

For years we’ve fantasized with vindictive glee about what it would be like when we finally sent President Bush on his merry way into a dark page of history. But now that the moment has finally arrived, the joy among the assembled multitudes is not a yelp, or a whoopee—it’s more a deep collective exhalation that carries us into conversation with perfect strangers. The days after 9/11 were filled with instant bonds, too, but then the bond was tragedy. Now it’s about starting over.

The British Embassy reception for the Illinois delegation, hosted by the ambassador, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, and Lady Sheinwald, was a jubilant mix of incoming Obama folk, former Clinton folk, Washington power fixtures, and stiff-upper-lip Brits. In such a festive atmosphere, it seemed almost impolite to mention the other currently famous personage from Illinois politics, but even Blago seemed to be getting the benefit of the doubt in this room.

“The governor isn’t what he’s painted,” one prominent delegate told me. “He’s been fixed because he wouldn’t do business as usual with the old machine guys. This whole thing started when his father-in-law—an important alderman—wanted a dumping contract and didn’t get it, and he was mad about that and fed the press. I don’t know how I’ll vote on his impeachment.”

Are we about to see a revisionist pushback on how Hot Rod has already been hanged, drawn, and quartered?

Many of the Illinois delegation were still trying to process the idea that Obama, their Obama, has transmuted into the magic man now appointed to save the world. “In the Senate, he was just another guy,” state Senator James Clayborne Jr. told me wonderingly. “We played golf. We knew he was very bright, but…he was just another guy.”

That was then. Now the aura of the incoming 44th president permeates everything. You could feel his presence as we pulled into Philadelphia and knew that very soon he would follow us down the line on his special slow-rolling train with a 1930s caboose (Let’s hope it’s a clue that some of the new billions he has to spend will go into the railways.)

At the embassy, an official’s wife told me how on Friday night, her manicurist at a Georgetown salon suddenly got a call from Blair House to come over and do Michelle’s and her mother’s nails. The manicurist had just finished administering the polish to Michelle when there was a knock on the door, and there he was! The president-elect himself, come to pick up the first lady-to-be for dinner! She said she would remember his smile for the rest of her life.

There are 30 things going on every night leading up to the big moment with the Lincoln Bible, so everyone is in permanent motion. It’s as if only the number of events you attend sufficiently registers how deeply you want this new presidential era to arrive. So many guests poured into the elevator on the way up to Slate’s inaugural bash at writer Christopher Hitchens’ Columbia Road apartment that when Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee squeezed in with his wife at the last moment, the car gave an asthmatic cough, rose all of one foot, and stopped. Nobody seemed to care. It was a cocktail party in an elevator, and you felt like a downer to suggest the alarm might be pressed.

“Women and bloggers first!” The Times’ Mark Leibovitch at last declared. The door was prised open by the editor of The American Prospect, Michael Tomasky, and we all spilled out, still furiously bonding.

That's why it was a bit hard to fathom the sepulchral tone of Marty Peretz, chairman of The New Republic, introducing a celebration concert at the Sidney Harman Hall by the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma. Rahm Emanuel, Barney Frank, and Larry Summers had been arraigned to bless the magazine’s inaugural musical celebration. Rahm and Barney were clearly squeezing this in as another fly-by, but Summers reminded us of something we all feel so deeply: that sometimes the old cliché “we are at a turning point,” wheeled out in every new presidential era, happens to be true.

One first ray of new beginnings was Peretz’ announcement of a cease-fire in Gaza. Exiting into the harsh cold, Summers’ words about the turning point stayed with me. So much is at stake, it’s not optimism we feel—that word sounds almost too callow, and too risky—but a profound yearning, a solemn hope. So much is resting on the slim shoulders of the Magic Man.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown. She has written for numerous publications, including The Times of London, The Spectator, and The Washington Post.