The line of black limos and Secret Service SUVs glided under the portico at the British Embassy, depositing resplendent revelers at one of the many über-exclusive cocktail parties of the inaugural weekend.
There was the typical Washington A-list, bold-faced names rubbing elbows under a modern portrait of Queen Elizabeth II alongside—what else?—silver urns of hot tea and crumpets. And this was just one of a panoply of elite gatherings as the capital rolls out a series of red carpets in a quadrennial ritual as old as the republic.
Yet for all the glitter and glamour surrounding Barack Obama’s second swearing in, there is an unmistakable sense of having been there and done that. There are fewer huge parties than four years ago and far less political sizzle in the air.
“The fact that we don’t have the incredible event of the first black president is making a difference,” says Arianna Huffington, who threw a massive shindig last time. It says something when even Arianna, known for her blowout bashes, isn’t hosting her own gig.
Even the rockin’ late-night party Saturday at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery—hosted by will.i.am and OurTime.org—didn’t pack ’em in like the events of four years ago. Seems headliners like hip-hop artist Common and John Legend couldn’t persuade the true believers to travel from far and wide to party like it was 2008.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, whom we caught up with at the People for the American Way party, bagged having her own bash at her townhouse in Georgetown and made the rounds at less high-profile events. In 2008 even Tom Hanks couldn’t get into Dowd’s digs, holding court on the street instead.
She says the bloom is definitely off the Obama rose. “There was a little bit of marketing of him and mocking of him last time as a messiah,” Dowd says. “We actually made him a messiah afterward. He had so many hopes pinned on him, unrealistic hopes.”
“But there’s still hope he’ll be able to come to fruition as president using the skills he’s developed.”
At the People for the American Way reception, held at the legendary Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, ads attacking Mitt Romney looped on flat-screen TVs above the food table.
Wait, Mitt who?
“We just wanted to show off some of the stuff we were doing,” says Drew Courtney, the organization's communication director, which aired the commercials on Spanish-language television.
“Mitt Romney and the Republicans have done a tremendously good job at making people absolutely thrilled to welcome in a second Obama term,” Courtney says.
Upstairs, where decked-out VIPs paid a thousand bucks per ticket, portraits of such presidents as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson shared space with Shepard Fairey’s multicolored Obama “Hope” poster—an iconic image that seems oddly dated in 2013.
The president’s loyalists strained to put the best face on the situation. “It’s a different kind of excitement than there was, as it was a different kind of election,” Anita Dunn, Obama’s former communications director, said at a celebrity-studded brunch hosted by The Daily Beast/Newsweek. “You can only be first once.”
Former Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe, who was mobbed at the Beast brunch at the tony Café Milano, said, “The second inaugural is always different. I actually chaired Bill Clinton’s second inaugural. They’re different. The first one is obviously new excitement. You still have a lot of excitement with the second one, but it’s just a different feeling.”
“It was a long campaign, but this weekend is about celebrating, and then Tuesday we all go back to work,” says McAuliffe, who is running for governor of Virginia.
Laura Ingraham, the conservative radio host and Fox commentator, was in good spirits despite facing another four years of Democratic rule. “I’m wearing purple, this is bipartisan,” she says. “There actually are conservatives still in Washington. We exist. I think people think we belong at the Smithsonian at this point, but we’re actually pretty fun and cool. We just want to cut spending.”
Margaret Carlson, the Bloomberg News columnist, offered a more personal take: “The president has gray hair. There are lots of looming issues. There are hostages in Algeria. There’s just a lot of terrible stuff, but when you hear all the music and the band plays and the pageantry, it makes you forget it for a moment.”
Actress Kerry Washington, who plays a D.C. fixer in the cable series Scandal, declared herself “really thrilled to be participating in the festivities.”
As a member of Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, she is careful not to confuse fiction with the realities of the present-day Beltway.
“I always remind people that the administration on the show is not real,” Washington says. “We’re an alternate universe. It’s a Republican administration. It’s a different place, different time.”
The favored party of administration power players was clearly a late-night gathering co-hosted by longtime Democratic lawyer Vernon Jordan at the Madison Hotel. Amid the Vietnamese spring rolls, beef, salmon, and mini-dessert cakes with gold stars, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice mused about whether to wear her long underwear to the inauguration as she did last time. White House aide Valerie Jarrett and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel mingled, along with such Republicans as Bill Cohen and Susan Eisenhower.
“There are not many parties like this, bringing Washington together,” says Debbie Dingell, wife of 86-year-old Democratic congressman John Dingell.
All this partying, and the shrimp and crab claws and free-flowing booze, at times seems to overshadow the actual event being celebrated. While Monday may be the official inauguration day, Carl Hulse, the veteran New York Times correspondent, says that seems a bit artificial.
The big day “definitely has a weird feel to it—plus the fact that it’s faux because he’s already been sworn in,” he says. “It’s the Milli Vanilli of inaugurations.”