- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2009


After a very public day, full of popping flashbulbs and millions of people shouting their support, newly inaugurated President Obama and his wife, Michelle, seemed to take time for an intimate moment as they kicked off a night of ball-hopping by slow-dancing to Etta James’ “At Last.”

The Obamas reappeared in evening finery - he in white tie, she in a one-shouldered, floor-length dress and dangling earrings - at the Neighborhood Ball at the Washington Convention Center around 8:30 p.m.

Mr. Obama made a few brief remarks before pop singer Beyonce, who was visibly emotional, sang the ballad to the couple as they moved on the dance floor for the first of the couple’s 10 scheduled official ball appearances. The party-hopping ran from the Obama Home States Inaugural Ball, full of constituents from Hawaii and Illinois, to a hip-hop ball broadcast on MTV.

The first couple were introduced to the Neighborhood Ball — intended to be low-cost or free to D.C. residents — by actor Denzel Washington and received thunderous applause and strains of “Hail to the Chief” from “the President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band.

“How good-looking is my wife?” Mr. Obama asked the crowd, who answered with more screams.

“I want to thank each and every one of you, not merely for helping me get elected, but I wanted to thank each and every one of you and all the people who are watching tonight for what you do to make this country better,” Mr. Obama said to the crowd.

“We are neighborhood people. I cut my teeth in doing neighborhood work. This campaign was organized neighborhood by neighborhood. And as neighbors, we as Americans are bound together. Of all the balls, this and the Commander-in-Chief Ball are the ones that capture best the spirit of the campaign.”

After the Obamas danced, an ensemble then sang the Stevie Wonder classic “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” while the Obamas remained onstage, danced and greeted the invited guests from Saturday’s train ride, who came out onstage with them.

After that song, Mr. Obama grabbed a microphone and tapped it, walking around the stage looking for sound.

When the tech folks turned it on, he said: “Everybody, we have nine more balls to go to. But Michelle and I both want to say thanks. Thanks for this honor. Thanks for this privilege. And remember what we said during the campaign: Yes we can. Yes we will. As long as we all are working together.”

The crowd broke into a brief chant of “U.S.A.” as the Obamas left. They were there for 17 minutes.

There was an atmosphere of excitement at the Neighborhood Ball even before the stars of the evening arrived. As the thousands inside the cavernous ballroom waited for the Obamas, artist Nick Cannon warmed the crowd up with two turntables and a microphone, exclaiming repeatedly, “It’s a new day.”

“This is the hottest ball in D.C.,” Mr. Cannon said.

Will.i.am began the performances, opening a live, nationally televised broadcast with the words, “Happy new day, America.”

Queen Latifah lauded Mr. Obama for opening an inaugural ball to the public for the first time and reminded the crowd that parties around the world were being linked with their gathering over the Internet.

A large TV screen in one corner showed some of those remotely linked parties — from San Francisco; Boca Raton, Fla.; Ramstein Air Base in Germany; and Spokane, Wash.

Entertainers Mary J. Blige, Maroon 5 and Mariah Carey also performed before the Obamas arrived. Miss Blige and Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine electrified the crowd, with an enormous digital background showing neon lightning bolts behind Maroon 5.

Miss Carey dedicated her ballad, “Hero,” to Mr. Obama.

The Obamas were scheduled to dance — and Mr. Obama to speak — at each ball.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. arrived at the National Building Museum for the Commander-in-Chief Ball just before 9 p.m. and was greeted with a huge reception.

“I speak to you as a father who has a son stationed in Iraq,” Mr. Biden told the crowd of military members, referring to his son Beau. “That is a greater honor than being vice president.”

Several other balls were to be held at the convention center, which made for smoother and quicker visits between parties.

The Obama Home States Inaugural Ball — for constituents from Illinois and Hawaii and for invited guests — was to be there, as were the Biden Home States Ball for Delaware and Pennsylvania, the Mid-Atlantic Inaugural Ball, the Midwest Inaugural Ball and the Western Inaugural Ball.

Wyclef Jean opened his set at the Mid-Atlantic Ball with the Bob Marley classic “No Woman, No Cry,” but a song of more recent vintage was even better-received. The hip-hop star, dressed to the nines in a stylish pinstriped three-piece suit and tie, segued into a composition of his own creation.

“I woke up at 5:30 this morning, excited as a kid going to Disneyland,” he began, as he described how his Inauguration Day went. He never failed to get huge cheers every time he repeated the chorus of “Obama’s the president.”

He described the new president as a “fighter from Africa with the spirit of America.”

Mr. Jean himself came to this “land of opportunity” from Haiti at age 10 without knowing any English. During a bout of “freestyling” rap, he displayed knowledge of about half a dozen languages — including Hebrew.

Everyone in normally staid Washington seemed star-struck. The crowd gathered around the stage was mostly young, but not entirely. Even balding men with gray hair were taking videos for YouTube. Mr. Jean, in fact, name-checked the Web site and encouraged it.

The sea of tuxes and gowns was buzzing with rumors of who would make an appearance at the ball, which included representatives from New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and the District.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat, and his wife, Elizabeth, were making the rounds at the Midwest ball early in the evening. They were joined by Mr. Kucinich’s brother, Frank, a Marine from Sandusky, Ohio.

The trio was on the stage at the Capitol during the swearing-in ceremony earlier in the day.

“Looking out from the platform at a million people, I saw America come together,” Mr. Kucinich said. “This is really a night of celebration that really transcends politics.”

Mrs. Kucinich, a statuesque redhead, wore a blue chiffon sheath dress from the Ohio boutique Wings of Change.

“It’s a good name for today,” Mrs. Kucinich quipped.

At the Eastern Inaugural Ball at Union Station, there was an air of simplicity as the crowd awaiting a performance from James Taylor.

At the Commander-in-Chief Ball at the National Building Museum, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his wife, Deborah, mingled with the crowd.

“This was an amazing historical moment, a spectacular day,” he said. “We’re here to serve. Whatever direction our president chooses to take, were going to stand behind him.”

At the Southern Ball at the D.C. Armory, guests in gowns didn’t start arriving until after 8 p.m., and the president did not show up until much later.

But guests didn’t hang their heads. Particularly not Kelly Jacobs from Hernando, Miss., who was wearing a Code Pink gown and jacket with 122 anti-Bush and pro-Obama pins.

“This is my favorite one,” Miss Jacobs said and pointed to a black pin that said: “If you can read this, you’re not the president.” And then she added: “Our new, wonderful president is smart.”

While there were 10 hot tickets, the hottest one for hip-hop fans was the Youth Ball, where people crammed in for a chance to see Kanye West.

Early on, as Mr. Obama was dancing to Beyonce, the Youth Ball was getting crowded. The attire was more hip and less traditional than standard ball fare, with a ton of short dresses and some of what looked like bridesmaid frocks. Naturally, that one was the ball MTV chose to air.

As one of the first performers, Kid Rock closed his set with “Give me the beat, boys” and told the crowd in the quickly filling Washington Hilton ballroom that they should “celebrate.”

The crowd — mostly in their 20s and 30s — responded by chanting “Obama, Obama.” Proving the crowd’s Generation X status, when, in between performers, the DJ chose 1990 hit “Poison” by Bel Biv DeVoe, the attendees knew all the words and belted them out while burning up the dance floor. Other favorites being spun were a Prince mix and House of Pain’s “Jump Around.”

Attendees were wind-burned from a day of celebrating on the National Mall, but in great spirits and cheering the new president.

“God bless Sarah Palin,” one young man said of the Republican vice-presidential candidate, whom he saw as unintentionally helping the Obama campaign.

The disc jockey kept announcing the crowd should move further into the room, and dancers smashed close together. When they announced, “Kanye is almost in position,” the crowd cheered wildly.

The $9 cocktails were spilling everywhere, but no one seemed to care as they danced faster and closer together. The president arrived late in the evening.

“Kanye. Yes we can,” the crowd chanted. Finally Mr. West came on, opening with “Touch the Sky” and then later riffing on his own lyrics and getting big cheers for “Obama, I need you right now.”

The boisterous crowd at times shoved, danced and waved their hands in the air as the hip-hop star performed a mix of his biggest hits, talked about the civil rights struggle in his own family and got the crowd to chant the new president’s name.

He kept his trademark sunglasses on throughout the set.

Staff writers Christina Bellantoni, Andrea Billups, Gabriella Boston, Sara A. Carter, Stephanie Green, Kelly Jane Torrance and R. Denise Yourse contributed to this article.

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