- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hoping to hobnob with Oprah Winfrey, belly up to the bar with Bono or schmooze with the incoming secretary of something or other next week?

Your best bet is to score an invitation to a party that is private. Even better, a party so off the list of official Washington that only the insiders know about it.

Sure, by attending one of the 10 official inaugural balls, one might get a glimpse of the Obamas as they twirl around the dance floor for about 30 seconds.

Does that make up for a watery drink and an hour spent talking to that nice couple from Moline?

Not really, said Chuck Conconi, a longtime Washington social reporter and current senior counselor at Qorvis Communications LLC.

“There is a lot of excitement surrounding this inaugural because this president is so young,” said Mr. Conconi. “But in reality, you see very few real Washington power brokers at the official balls. They are mostly at the private parties. In all the years I have been doing this, I don’t actually recall seeing anyone I know at an [official] inaugural ball.”

Mr. Conconi recalls one of his first inaugurations, in 1989 when George H.W. Bush was sworn in.

“I was reporting for ‘Nightline,’” he said. “I remember standing on the floor at the Omni Shoreham. There are people wandering around on the floor. It is mobbed with people, and there is nowhere to sit down or get a drink. Everyone is dressed up, but it is mostly folks from Toledo or Sacramento or Phoenix. They are all in town going, ‘Wow,’ but really you have spent a miserable evening.”

This year’s list of inauguration festivities might be the longest Mr. Conconi has seen in nearly 30 years of Washington coverage.

While 10 “official” balls on Tuesday is the most numerous since Bill Clinton’s 14 in 1997, it is really the rest of the dossier that takes up so much ink.

It seems anything with a cheese platter and an e-vite list can call itself an inaugural ball. You want special interest groups? Tuesday’s lineup includes the Sikh Inaugural Ball, National Inaugural Jewish Ball (featuring music by Paul Shapiro’s Ribs and Brisket Revue) and the People’s Inaugural LBGT Gayla.

Dying to do some celebrity sighting? There will be a plethora of opportunities - but again, not at the official balls. If you want to party with Sting, Jay-Z or any other A-listers, your best bet is to cozy up to someone well-connected and who already has plunked down thousands of dollars for his spot.

The Creative Coalition’s Gala Inaugural Ball at the Shakespeare Theatre’s Harman Center for the Arts will feature musicians Sting, Sam Moore and Elvis Costello. Alas, tickets, even at $10,000 for the bronze package, are long gone.

Washingtonian editor-at-large Garrett M. Graff said the Creative Coalition party would be his No. 1 choice for celebrity watching, but even the media aren’t likely to hear actress Anne Hathaway whispering into movie director Spike Lee’s ear.

“This will be the event for celeb spotting, although the press is going to be shocked when they’re held only on the red carpet,” he said.

You still can get $350 to $450 tickets for the American Music Inaugural Ball (with musicians George Clinton and Chaka Khan and the Washington Redskins’ Jason Taylor) and the Urban Inaugural Ball (with rapper Ludacris) Tuesday at the Marriott Wardman Park in Northwest.

Socialite Pamela Lynne Sorensen, who writes the D.C. blog Pamela’s Punch, said another hot ticket is Monday’s Hip Hop Inaugural Ball at the Harman Center, featuring rap’s Russell Simmons, LL Cool J and Young Jeezy.

The good news is that tickets are still available. The bad news is they start at $1,000.

“Russell Simmons, like Oprah, is an icon in his field and worldwide,” Miss Sorensen said. “His clients and artists will certainly create a memorable atmosphere for celebration.”

Speaking of Oprah, Miss Winfrey will be in town to tape a couple of shows Monday and Wednesday at the Kennedy Center. Those tickets are free but, naturally, were gobbled up within minutes. However, that doesn’t mean you won’t see Miss Winfrey out and about town, or, if you are a true insider, at some private soiree in an Upper Northwest mansion.

“Much of the excitement of Obama being sworn in has also brought buzz about the ‘Big O,’” Miss Sorensen said. “She is a powerhouse nationally and internationally, so wherever she is, people want to be. This will hopefully be one of many times she visits - or stays - in Washington, D.C.”

What is in and what is out has a lot to do, of course, with who is taking office.

Four and eight years ago, when Texan George W. Bush was sworn in, the Black Tie and Boots Inaugural Ball was an A-list destination. In 2009, it has been relegated to Monday night - as well as to over the border to the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Oxon Hill.

Nonetheless, Katherine Kennedy, a young socialite and star of the upcoming reality show “Blonde Charity Mafia,” said she is ready to kick it Texas-style.

“I am waiting with eager anticipation for Black Tie and Boots,” she said. “I just picked up some hand-dyed boots in Argentina that will match my gown perfectly. Of course, the week is more about the politics than the parties, but I am really looking forward to both.”

Want to practice your two-step? Tickets start at $200 and are available.

But here is where you won’t be:

cMTV’s Youth Ball at the Washington Hilton on Tuesday. Celebrities are sure to drop in to this event, which will be aired on MTV. Tickets are a relative bargain at $75, but available only to invited guests, mostly young Obama supporters who put in the volunteer hours. So unless you knocked on doors in Des Moines a year ago, don’t count on getting in.

cThe Hawaii State Society Inaugural Ball, Tuesday at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The society’s first-ever ball will honor its favorite son, Mr. Obama. As for you, make your own poi at home.

cThe Green Inaugural Ball, hosted by former Vice President Al Gore, is Monday at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery. The evening will bring together a coalition of environmentalist think tanks, scientists and advocates to celebrate commitment to the new green economy. So unless you are Laurie David or already plunked down $300 for tickets, take your non-recyclable plastic cups and go elsewhere.

If you just must party green, tickets are still available - at $500 each - for Saturday’s other Green Inaugural Ball: Maximum Celebration, Minimal Impact at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Northwest. The ball will feature organic food and earth-friendly serviceware.

Other private parties whose invitations won’t hit your inbox include: Buffy and Bill Cafritz’s seventh quadrennial bipartisan party at the Fairfax Hotel on Monday, Tuesday morning parties with views of the parade route at TenPenh or Central restaurants, and the private party Monday to celebrate PBS moderator Gwen Ifill’s new book about the president-elect at the home of David G. Bradley, chairman of Atlantic Media Co. - which publishes the Atlantic and the National Journal - and his wife, Katherine.

You probably won’t be stopping by the overcrowded, overheated official balls, either.

The Neighborhood Inaugural Ball at the Washington Convention Center is for the little, local people, the ones without power-broker connections. Tickets will be free or affordable - the little people are still waiting for more details - but only if you live in the District or are an invited guest. If you have medium-sized connections or live in the ‘burbs, you’d best watch it on television (or send your best wishes to the interactive webcast component).

As for the rest of the official balls, tickets range from $75 (the Youth Inaugural Ball) to $150 (all the rest). Again, you need to be invited.

Mr. Conconi said he is sitting out this inauguration. He will be traveling back to Washington from an overseas trip Monday and plans to watch the festivities at home Tuesday with a bowl of popcorn.

Mr. Conconi may be on to something. Let the tourists wait - for drinks, for limos and in a long line for the coat check, where shoving matches have been known to break out. The rest of the Washington insiders will be, well, inside, schmoozing with their own circle someplace and discussing what rush hour will look like on Wednesday when Washington gets back to business.

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