At Cafe Milano, a famed eatery for the city’s establishment, cabinet secretaries and Capitol Hill lawmakers mixed with media pundits, a smattering of Hollywood celebrities and other industry types.
Yet despite a crush at this Newsweek-the Daily Beast brunch to get down a short red carpet and to the main dining room, this inaugural weekend had an unmistakably different mood than that of four years ago. In 2009, there were more people, more parties, more events and a sense of the obvious historic importance to the swearing in of the White House’s new occupant.
The sequel sometimes strained to live up to the original.
That is not to say there isn’t a lot of media attention around this inaugural. Networks are planning extensive coverage throughout Monday and are using the day to show off the occasional innovation or twist.
On the National Mall, CNN has erected an elaborate, well-heated stage set where Wolf Blitzer anchored a special edition of “The Situation Room” on Saturday night as about 100 people watched from behind a fence, sometimes even chanting his name, with a lit Capitol grounds in the backdrop. For much of the hour, the cabler cut away to a Kids Inaugural Concert going on right then. Among the topics of Blitzer’s show was Usher’s performance and the diversity of the entertainment lineup.
At the events surrounding this inaugural, the urgency of being there for a great new chapter for the country has given way to a much more pragmatic need to see and be seen. Gone is the huge branding presence, like a Pepsi campaign that seemed to go hand and hand with hope and change. There is still huge merchandising, the usual T-shirts and caps, but also a framed print that one shop near the White House was selling for $395 called “Callin the Red” featuring Obama playing pool against Lyndon Johnson, with Andrew Jackson, John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt and other deceased predecessors looking on.
“Four years ago it was a singular event,” said David Axelrod, the former White House senior adviser, as well wishers shook hands with him at the Georgetown event. “Everybody’s feet were a few inches off the ground. But it is still wonderful.”
FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said, “It is like being at a wedding and then a fifth anniversary. It is wonderful, and you are glad things worked out so well.”
There is an industry presence — but not like in 2009, when plenty of entertainment figures, including Leonardo DiCaprio and George Lucas, showed up for the sake of being eyewitnesses to history. Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of Obama’s biggest fundraisers and donors to his SuperPAC, didn’t plan to make it this time around, nor did Steven Spielberg. The latter recently dined at the White House, in the private quarters, along with “Lincoln” screenwriter Tony Kushner and Daniel Day Lewis. Few showbiz names were on a recent list of inaugural donors.
Many of the boldfaced names here this time around have a defined role: James Taylor, Kelly Clarkson and Beyonce are to perform at the swearing in at the Capitol on Monday. In addition to Usher, Katy Perry and members of the “Glee” cast were among the headliners at the Kids Inaugural Concert on Saturday. Will.i.am, Common and John Legend played in the atrium of the National Portrait Gallery on Saturday at an event for twentysomething empowerment org Our Time.
On Monday, some of the performers at the two official inaugural balls include Alicia Keys, Brad Paisley, Chris Cornell, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Hudson and Marc Anthony.
And co-hosting a number of events is Eva Longoria, who was an Obama campaign co-chair and has established herself as an activist for Latino causes.
Others who are here, like Tennis Channel CEO Ken Solomon, co-chair of Obama’s Southern California finance team, were heavily involved in the campaign. Many members of the finance team, including a group from California, were treated to a weekend of events that included a candlelight dinner, briefings by senior advisers and a Friday event at the White House where they mingled with Vice President Joseph Biden.
Also present is Harvey Weinstein, among the co-hosts of the Newsweek-Daily Beast event, who also raised extensively for Obama.
Speaking on a makeshift stage at Cafe Milano, he explained in personal terms why he worked for the campaign, noting that he grew up in the city projects in rent-controlled housing.
“I am a successful product of a government that cares,” he said.
The theme of the brunch — bipartisanship — was perhaps indicative of one of Obama’s high hopes that hasn’t come to fruition. There were conservatives there, like Grover Norquist, who chatted with MPAA chairman Chris Dodd until Longoria joined them, embracing Norquist and posing for pictures.
Quipping about the mix of personalities, Daily Beast editor Tina Brown said to the crowd: “All that is missing is Clint Eastwood. He’s having a conversation with a park bench.”
Others present included current and up-and-coming administration figures Valerie Jarrett, Gene Sperling, John Kerry and Shaun Donovan.
Some expressed hopes that the divisions in Congress are beginning to soften, although the recent fiscal cliff fight and coming debt ceiling battle seem to point to a slog ahead.
Former secretary of state Colin Powell, the Republican who nevertheless endorsed Obama twice, tried to get through the crowd without being slowed by extensive conversation.
As a group of reporters rushed to him to get a quote, he said, “I am not doing interviews.” Then he gave away his reason for the rush: a buffet line at the restaurant’s rear.
“Look at the food,” he said.