The Madisons went to bed early. The Nixons watched the annual T.V. special hosted by band leader Guy Lombardo. The LBJs had friends blowing plastic horns at their ranch. The Eisenhowers hosted a spiffy champagne party in their Augusta cottage. The Reagans always went to Palm Springs.
To spend New Year’s Eve with Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1999, however, was to seemingly step into the center of the universe.
Hosting a New Year’s Eve party which totaled more invited guests than any other party in the two-hundred year history of the presidential residence, it was the grand culmination of a series of public and private events collectively known as “America’s Millennium: A Celebration for the Nation,” and being part of it embedded scenes and incidents never to be forgotten.
By the time they were shaking hands with guests coming for dinner before midnight, it had already been a full day for the President and First Lady, presiding over an opening ceremony and unveiling a “National Millennium Time Capsule,” which contained quintessentially 20th century historical objects. For nearly three years, Hillary Clinton had been planning all of the events taking place to mark the turning point of a century and a millennium, forming the White House Millennium Council.
Some two hundred-forty guests dined in the East Room, one hundred-twenty five in the State Dining Room and about one hundred of their family members in tents on the Rose Garden and the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden where the overflow of guests, family members of the V.I.P.’s in the mansion, were seated.
The dinner consisted of beluga caviar, lobster, oysters, rack of lamb, crispy polenta, light green salad, chocolate and champagne mousse with a creation of fireworks atop it, and four American wines.
There was no lingering after the dessert plates were removed. Instead, the guests were escorted into trolley buses which raced through a police-cleared lane to the Lincoln Memorial where “America’s Millennium Gala,” began at nine in the evening at the Lincoln Memorial.
And other guests were streaming into the gala from other dinners, including this writer who’d been invited into the laughter-filled rowhouse of friends David McCauley and John McLarty who’d gathered friends, siblings and Mrs. McLarty for the century’s last supper.
Along with me was a pal I’d just welcomed as my houseguest earlier that day; Peter McManus, a friend to many, is one of those fellows with whom a conversation is like a glass of champagne. Although being among a McCauley, McLarty and McManus I also had an urge for Scotch. Or Irish whiskey.
Peter had literally just been around the world in far less than eighty days, touching down on every continent, globetrotting across the seven seas – but he’d never been to the White House. What better way to cap the McManus World Tour, I thought, than to share my plus-one invitation to the Gala, and then the White House New Year’s Morning party with him. He beamed so brilliantly at this news that I nearly had to bring sunglasses.
The Gala was produced by Quincy Jones and George Stevens, Jr. with actor Will Smith serving as host.
It featured a wide swath of American entertainment, with choral groups, marching bands, tappers, dancers, trumpeters, children’s choirs, rock stars, country stars, opera stars and actors.
By far, the most stirring part of the Gala was the world premiere of Steven Spielberg film “The Unfinished Journey,” an eighteen-minute concert piece of original music, poetry and both film and still pictures which swept the full ten decades of the 20th century, providing iconic and provocative memories of the struggles and progress faced by the American people during what many early on dubbed “the American century.”
Meanwhile, emptied for a few hours of the dinner guests, the White House became an intense beehive of activity, much like it is during the few hours when one President leaves and before a new one comes in.
All of the dining tables were taken down, the dinner chairs moved into storage, preparing the rooms for the massive crowd which would descend upon it just after midnight, requiring the effort of one hundred sixty butlers, the entire executive residence staff of ninety, and forty-five workers in the kitchen.
The tented area of the Rose Garden was converted into a Disco, a first for the old mansion, and the area of the East Garden became a jazz club.
In the East Room, there would be popular American music from earlier in the century. People would be dancing all over the place. Or more accurately, wherever there was room. Which there wasn’t much of.
Back down at the Lincoln Memorial, just as President Clinton finished a speech in the nick of time, the clock struck twelve, the shouting, hooping and hollering of thousands began, nearly drowning out the crackling fireworks and light show in the sky above.
And just as everyone gazed above, we were all drench in a shower of confetti.
Simultaneously, the illuminated sign of “1999” at the base of the Washington Monument exploded in lights, leaving the year “2000” for all to see.
Then it was a clumsy slog through the cold, trampled mud looking for our assigned bus back to the White House.
Getting a foothold into the East Corridor was a challenge. I thought they were going to call the fire marshals – but do they call the fire marshals at the White House?
I don’t think so.
Instead of fighting the crowds right away, I suggested we duck into the tented dance area of the east Jacqueline Kennedy Garden.
No sooner had we entered than a friendly, elderly woman named Dorothy I knew recognized and waved me over.
She easily engaged Peter McManus in a motherly conversation about his world travels. She’d begun seeing some of the world in recent years by tagging along with her daughter and son-in-law.
Only later, when her son-in-law came over to give her a peck on the cheek before dancing with and dipping his daughter, Chelsea Clinton did it dawn on Peter just who Dorothy was the mother of.
It was like that all over this particular New Year’s Eve Party. One just kept bumping into or stepping on the toes of living legends.
Between those who either performed at the gala or were in attendance at the White House dinner, the luminary list was a bit mind-boggling: Muhammad Ali, Bono, Ruby Dee, Carl Lewis, John Fogerty, John Glenn, John McCain, Tom Jones, Jesse Jackson, Diane Keaton, Kris Kristofferson, Don McLean, Pat Morita, Neil Simon, Bebe Neuwirth, Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Kenny Rogers, Slash, Usher, Dave Brubeck, Edward Villella, Luther Vandross, Edgar Winter, Mary Tyler Moore, Itzah Perelman, Tom Wopat, Trisha Yearwood, Edward Albee, Sid Cesar, Robert Rauschenberg, Kathleen Battle, Martin Scorsese, Sophie Loren and Liz Taylor (word was that the former was miffed at the latter for consuming all the President’s attention at dinner, he being seated between them). And those were just the ones I knew about or saw.
It was like sleep-walking through a live issue of People magazine.
Or something like that.
Once we managed our way to snake up the Grand Staircase, it was a whole other world, special New Year’s Eve trees and other trimming sparkling, shimmering and gleaming in shades of silver and white, famous folks around every corner.
I had my picture moment too.
I fear I may well have half-alarmed the famous astronaut and former Senator John Glenn by asking him whether my mother had been factually correct when, in her effort to scare me into using caution while getting in and out of a tub, she invoked his own bad fall in a tub.
He didn’t really get into all of what had actually happened involving his perhaps mythic tub slip, occurring as it did back deep into the 20th century.
As the conversation shifted into one about flying conditions in Ohio (Glenn was a pilot who often ferried himself home to Dayton), however, he did oblige to sign my invitation.
And when Peter McManus, in his royal blue velvet tux beamed his dazzling white smile upon accidentally crossing paths with Bebe Neuwirth in her engine red gown, I was compelled to do my patriotic duty and snap them together in the national tricolors.
Though my days puffing away were already numbered by this date, I did take a breather to sully my lungs on the North Portico.
Realizing I had no cigarettes, I was prepared to just shrug and go back inside when some guy grunted, “Hey.”
He was generously, eagerly even, handing out butts like a new dad gives out cigars.
McManus gave me the wide eye. That’s right, it’s really him – Slash.
I’d intended to save my Slash cigarette as a sacred relic of the evening, but rapidly assessed its far greater and more immediate value of tobacco content.
We continued to march about, ever-loyal to the credo of bitter-enders ’round the world: one never knows what fun was to be had, even just minutes before the party ended.
By four in the morning, Peter McManus and I were able to practically ramble over to the Disco in the Rose Garden just outside the Oval Office. Just an hour earlier it had been impossible to gain entry, as if it were a Disco in the Rose Garden just outside the Oval Office or something. Well, yes….
We came in search not of music, however, but to investigate a credible rumor circulating on the State Floor that some wan slices of French toast had been spotted aging above some sterno.
Alas, it was a mislead given wide currency by drunken scoundrels. Cold sausage alone had survived the deluge of preceding breakfast-seekers. It was the first day of the new millennium and already, one sensed, it was the end of the road. Time to crawl home.
By the next evening, however, there seized upon me a swell of gratitude for the extraordinary honor of such a rare invitation to a once-in-a-lifetime event.
And, truly, after attending the Clinton White House Millennium New Year’s party, it never mattered much whether or not I was invited to a fancy party to meet an important person. I’d been to the fanciest one possible, welcomed as an equal among a galaxy of notable achievers.
And something else stuck with me after that, a thought still capable of providing me a brief lift when the national news is grim and foreboding. It was a line that President Clinton had made, one of those afterthought observations made spontaneously but which crack right to the truth:
“Light may be fading on the 20th century, but the sun is still rising on America.”