City Paper is not for tourists
Around the District last night, it wasn’t hard to find somewhere to go watch election returns filter in. Local Democrats gathered at Love. National Democrats, for some reason, had a fancy party downtown; second-hand reports made clear it was only the place to be if you were required by your job to be there, and then you still might have wanted to gamble on whichever politician you worked for losing, so you couldn’t be punished for failing to show up. House Republicans held what they insisted wasn’t a party at the Grand Hyatt, lest they be accused of celebrating their electoral good fortunes against the backdrop of the lousy economy that helped bring them about.
And then there was Politico. The not-quite-four-year-old master of the 24-hour news cycle threw its own lavish bash in the Newseum, taking the opportunity to plaster its brand on every available inch in the building; the elevator from the street featured a Politico logo on the button for the floor partygoers were heading to. In the event space, there were massive televisions everywhere (including a lonely one showing corporate cousin TBD TV’s coverage of local returns), mostly with the sound off, and a crush of lobbyists, people who work for companies that advertise with Politico, a handful of reporters, and a sad cluster of Democratic operatives who managed to dodge any of the official wakes their colleagues were hosting.
The vibe was a throwback to the days when media companies actually made money (which Politico executives say it does): There were lamb chops, and sushi, and little cones of raw tuna topped with caviar; duck and chicken dumplings kept arriving on tables for waiters to deposit them in Politico-branded Chinese takeout containers. There were designer cocktails with topical names: “The Donkey,” “The Elephant,” “The Politico,” “The Tea Party” (made with sweet tea vodka, naturally). Staffers for Politico‘s frothy “Click” gossip section wandered around the room with microphones, which at first didn’t make much sense to me—until I wandered into another room and realized there was a closed-circuit TV broadcast going on for the party. (Apparently, it was also streaming on the Web.) On a wall-sized high-definition screen behind one of several well-stocked bars, Politico editors Jim VandeHei and John Harris and Playbook mastermind Mike Allen sat at a desk, analyzing election results (and, in Allen’s case, frantically thumbing through his BlackBerry) in between interviews with party attendees. VandeHei was wearing two watches, one on each arm; they were the kind the paper’s P.R. staff was giving away as favors to departing guests near the elevator, plastered with Politico logos. Occasionally, they cut to their Rosslyn newsroom, where reporters who were still covering the election for the website and today’s paper would take a few minutes to answer questions from their bosses, their faces towering over the bar via satellite.
For a bash thrown by a news organziation that’s branded itself as the only source you need for up-to-the-nanosecond information about national politics, the party was surprisingly unhelpful in actually following the election returns. It was too loud, and too few of the TVs had any volume. And weirdly, no one was reacting to any of the calls any of the muted TV anchors made. Probably because to the lobbyists and defense contractors who made up the bulk of the crowd, little was actually going to change; they might have an easier time getting some requests filled, but mostly, a shift in power just means a shift in which offices you need to visit to get legislative favors.
Only when I was on my way home later, to sit down in front of a laptop and actually look at what had been going on around the country, did it dawn on me how strange it was that Politico even threw a party to watch election returns in the first place. What, exactly, were they celebrating? With the partisan parties, that would have been obvious—even the Democrats managed to find a few silver linings last night, after all. Politico, though, just reveled in the fact that an election was happening, without any judgement one way or the other on the outcome or the policy changes that outcome might mean. Which isn’t a novel way of observing what goes on in official Washington: The permanent establishment in national politics always finds ways to adjust, pretty rapidly, to whatever even-year Novembers bring. What was new last night—what’s new in the way Politico treats government and politics, on election night or otherwise—was the idea that the whole thing ought to be sexy.
As I left, I stuffed a couple of rubber iPhone cases (Politico logo-ed, of course) in my coat pocket to give to friends as joke gifts. The watches VandeHei was wearing were all gone already. And the party was still hopping.
Photo by Mike Madden