!Like so many of us during this pandemic I find myself home alone snuggled up with my fur kids this holiday season. Recalling a historical moment that I witnessed first hand makes this time of Covid fear accompanied by vaccine rush and Russian hacking even more surreal. I worked as a journalist at The White House New Years Eve ushering in 2000, the millennium. It was an evening I’ll always remember, one that despite terrorism fears, enabled frontline memories of optimism for the new century, memories unlike the gruesome ones facing healthcare workers today just 20 years later. I was fortunate to work both sides of the rope line at President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton’s White House party of the century. It was truly Hollywood on the Potomac and looking back, a time that seems almost a fantasy world.
The Clintons outdid themselves with their “A” list Millennium gala. Guests — Muhammad Ali, Robert De Niro, Will Smith, Sid Caesar, Quincy Jones, Bono, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor — decked out in Black Tie, designer gowns and jewels arrived at The White House at dusk and partied until dawn’s early light. An evening of caviar, lobster, champagne, and fabulous music. Not wanting to miss even a minute of the action, many guests brought designer totes filled with cold weather gear to change into for the outdoor festivities at the Lincoln Memorial. Then they all traveled back to the big House for breakfast and dancing to Mary Wilson of the Supremes, who performed in a tent converted to a disco in the Rose Garden. It was hard to tell whether Wilson was more excited about performing at The White House on this occasion or about the Supremes reunion with Diana Ross and Cindy Birdsong next June.
Don McLean, who wrote “American Pie,” summed it up for most of the guests when he said: “I’m thrilled beyond words.” The late Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich) said: “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime to be here.” Even Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter, exclaimed: “I feel like a little kid — it’s a happening.” Martin Scorsese: “It’s a real honor and a surprise to be invited.” Sophia Loren, now 86 and starring in “The Life Ahead,” a new and poignant Netflix film directed by her youngest son, Eduardo Ponti,
was probably the most elegant and emotional of the guests. She told me she was thrilled to be seated next to President Clinton at dinner.
Mary Tyler Moore exclaimed as she walked into the White House, “I’m so relieved we’ve gotten this far without an explosion.” But even fears of terrorism couldn’t keep her away. “I’m usually asleep by 11 but not tonight.” Sen. John Glenn shared her concerns as well. “You’ve got to be worried about it.”
The Y2K “buzz” centered around the theme of the evening, “honoring the past and imagining the future.” Mary Tyler Moore called “the blow dryer” the most important development of the last century. Sen. John Breaux (D-LA) voted for “the jet engine;” and producer George Stevens Jr. claimed the motion picture as the greatest invention saying: “It hasn’t been improved.” Don Baer proclaimed “roll-on deodorant” the most important invention because “it enables us all to be more social.” John Fogarty chose the Internet. “One day people will truly govern themselves.” Jessye Norman, “the microchip.” Ossie Davis echoed the computer chip, although he’s not on line yet. “It’s being plotted.”
Dressed in historical clothing from the past, Lynda Robb wore a smoking jacket that belonged to her father, LBJ, and carried a fur muffler that was Lady Bird’s. She explained that the jacket was about 40 years old and she’s carried the muff to every inaugural.
And looking into the future: Maya Lin, designer of the Viet Nam Memorial said her wish for the next century is “a cleaner environment.”
La Liz, now a brunette, was fashionably late — about two hours — and arrived after President Clinton’s dinner toast but just in time to take her seat of honor next to him. She appeared on the arm of her personal photographer, Firooz Zahedi, complaining about her back pain. And as for her future, “Marriage, are you nuts?”
Martin Scorese rushed back to his hotel after dinner to put on long underwear. Other guests crammed into The White House restrooms or used the shuttle bus, which transported them to the Lincoln Memorial, as a changing room. No blushing in this crowd.
This was Chelsea Clinton’s first official White House Dinner. She stood in the receiving line and graciously greeted the guests along with her parents. A far cry from a dinner just a couple of years previously where the painfully shy First Daughter trailed behind guests through the receiving line. This time Chelsea chatted with Bono, the U2 star, through dinner, and greeted rapper Will Smith and Olympian Carl Lewis warmly.
In yet one more break with White House tradition, couples were seated together. Traditionally at a White House dinner, they are separated and then meet up after for champagne and dancing or what’s called the “mix and mingle.” Corporate tycoons, million dollar contributors, who don’t often have the opportunity to hobnob with high level politicos and Hollywood celebs, pulled high-tech video cameras out of their pockets during dinner, also a breach in protocol.
Hillary Clinton was the inspiration behind the evening and it truly was her private party. There was talk of her Senate race: Martin Scorsese said: “Of course I’ll vote for her.” But one insider admitted that First Friend, Steven Spielberg, although home in L.A., called some of the shots. He wanted this to be a Hollywood event, not a typical night at the White House — and it was. What a way to welcome the Millennium and a far cry from Donald Trump’s White House.
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